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Eno Benjamin exclusive: The Arizona Cardinals' 'Washing Machine' coming full circle with Kliff Kingsbury

"I think the first thing that was said on the phone was, 'Are you ready to come back home?' Just seeing that Arizona was next on the clock, it was a huge sigh of relief hearing those words"

Eno Benjamin
Image: Eno Benjamin's Arizona journey will continue in the NFL with the Cardinals

"Back in Pee Wee football they used to call me 'The Washing Machine' because I would always spin." Spanish-language broadcaster Pablo Viruega blessed Derrick Henry with 'El Tractorcito', while Marshawn Lynch defines 'Beast Mode'.

Growing up, Eno Benjamin was 'The Washing Machine'. Ask New York Giants linebacker Josiah Tauaefa and he will tell you why.

Arizona State are flirting with the goalline on a second-and-six at the UTSA seven in Week One of the 2018 college season. Benjamin darts out of the backfield on a sneak route to the right, staring down quarterback Manny Wilkins over his shoulder before making a low catch on the twist.

The path to the endzone is chasmic, but Benjamin jukes back inside and scurries to the one-yard line, where he senses Tauaefa's six-foot-one, 235lb frame and produces a sharp spin left to turn a routine touchdown into an addition to the game tape. What would head coach Herm Edwards think?

"I think he just asked me what I was thinking," jokes Benjamin in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports. "I told him, I think his number was 55, that he was a guy we studied quite a bit who was quite a 'lunger' and he just threw his body.

Eno Benjamin

"Being on the goalline you would think, 'okay he can either ease up or go in and hit you', so I was just thinking ahead already and like, 'okay let's just get one more move', in case he thinks about being reckless and tries to injure me."

Beneath the flair is rationale to Benjamin's long-cultivated gyrations, his spin move salient across not only his college film but evidently throughout his childhood. It is something he developed with the help of a five-time NFL Pro Bowler, who turned one or two ankles himself back in the day.

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"I would say it was instinctive," he said. "I did actually start working on it with LaDainian Tomlinson and working to improve that and trying to make it become part of my game."

His bruising running style and icy footwork remained in Arizona this off-season as Benjamin was selected by the Cardinals in round seven of the 2020 Draft.

A union with Kliff Kingsbury comes some years after the Cardinals head coach recruited the back in high school while working at Texas Tech. Unsuccessful in his efforts to lure Benjamin to the Red Raider programme, Kingsbury did not pass up the second opportunity.

The Cards are up next with the 222nd pick. In came the call.

"I think the first thing that was said on the phone was, 'are you ready to come back home?'," recalled Benjamin. "Just seeing that Arizona was next on the clock, it was a huge sigh of relief hearing those words.

"I think just that relationship there, it's good because you have somebody that wants you to be there.

"It's a guy that went after you when you were a high-school guy and you come back and it kind of feels like you've done what you had to do, you've taken care of your business and the same guy that wanted you in high school is now going to be your head coach."

Eno Benjamin

The 21-year-old had expected to be an early day-three pick, as did analysts. He waited, and he waited, and he waited. At times Benjamin was glued to the television, in periods he listened to music. He reminisced and talked memories with his family. Anything to 'take the edge off'.

His history with Kingsbury in mind, he now looks at the Cardinals as a destination that was always meant to be.

"It was very nerve-wracking, just the whole experience," he said. "From the day I declared for the Draft through the Draft day.

"As far as going where I landed in the Draft I felt like there's always a plan, always God's plan and I felt like I'd rather go to a place where I really fit and where I could be something that pops up long term rather than going somewhere very high in the Draft and it not really panning out, not really being a good fit."

The attraction to Benjamin in high school required little explanation. He finished his career at Wylie East in Texas as a four-star recruit with 7,546 rushing yards and 111 total touchdowns.

He featured as a hybrid quarterback/running back in his senior year in 2016, rushing for 2,604 yards and 32 touchdowns to earn the state's Class 5A Offensive Player of the Year.

His impact was not immediate, though, not at Wylie nor on the football field. The first sport Benjamin and his brother played was soccer, courtesy of their parents' Nigerian descent and the game's popularity in that corner of the world.

"I played soccer with FC Dallas all the way until my junior or sophomore year at high school," he said. "I played in the Dallas Cup and some huge tournaments. I've always loved soccer growing up. I still love soccer to this day."

Benjamin set a new school record against Oregon State in 2018
Image: Benjamin set a new school record against Oregon State in 2018

It was not until a friend convinced Benjamin to give gridiron a try that it became a natural career path.

Wylie East's coach Joe Lepsis was among the first to identify his talent and, after some persistent lobbying from running backs coach Matt Tietjen, finally granted him an opportunity at varsity level as a freshman.

"I would say he (Lepsis) had a huge role in everything I did," said Benjamin. "He was one of those guys that whenever anything was going on I could talk to.

"He has done a lot for me. Even just pulling me up, I remember those conversations when he pulled me up to varsity and he knew I was ready so he kind of gave me my first chance. He saw the confidence and he saw the player in me before I did."

The phrase 'product of your environment' is put to Benjamin. It is one he wholeheartedly agrees with.

As a child he grew up in Dallas before moving to Wylie, a 'nice rural area turned into a suburb area now'. Though it has developed over the years, Benjamin remembers it for the land and the countryside and people moving in from other cities.

"I would say just everything that has happened to me in my life, it all starts back there [in Wylie]," he adds. "The things that I've seen and the people I've been around. I've learned lessons.

"The things that I've seen that I had no business in. I would say coming out of it and seeing all that makes me who I am today."

He pays tribute to his parents for exposing him to the 'right things' and introducing him to the structural discipline that has helped shape him into a hard-working and grounded man.

Benjamin's full first name, Enotobong, is Nigerian for 'God's Gift', but in contrast to its omni-potent connotations there is no sense of entitlement to somebody who would annoy his family by not informing them of his awards or nominations at high school.

A humble, head-down approach bode well at college as he went from Wylie talisman to freshman understudy, honing his craft behind-the-scenes at Arizona State.

"I had to be patient and wait my turn until my time opened up," he said. "That was one of the reasons I decided to come to Arizona State. I didn't want to get thrown into the fire right away.

"I wanted to make sure I learned as much from the veteran guys I could until I had my opportunity to showcase that so that was kind of something that paid off for me.

"It does suck a little bit to be at the top and then start from the bottom and work your way up, but I would say now I'm used to it and it's the same position I'm in now so I'm looking forward to just working hard and working my way up one day."

Eno Benjamin

If year one was quiet, year two was anything but. Benjamin steamrollered and slalomed his way to 1,642 rushing yards as a sophomore, breaking a 46-year-old school record.

His helmet-crashing, tackle-breaking, make-you-miss running as a durable three-down back saw him tie fifth in the nation in rushing yards and set an Arizona State record with nine 100-yard rushing games in a season.

"I think my freshman year was just about getting my feet wet, showing little flashes," he said. "Then my second year was the year I was supposed to take off and hit the ground full running."

One of Benjamin's standout moments came against Oregon State when he broke the school record, set by Ben Malone in 1973, for most rushing yards in a game with 312 for three touchdowns in a 52-24 win.

Much like in high school, he was coy in shouting about his own individual efforts.

"It was really good but at the end of the day that was honestly the offensive line's game," he insisted. "I just ran and the stats showed. It was the offensive line and it was good to know you left your mark at a university that you cherish so much."

Benjamin celebrates with the Territorial Cup following last season's win over the Arizona Wildcats
Image: Benjamin celebrates with the Territorial Cup following last season's win over the Arizona Wildcats

At five-foot-nine, 207-pounds, his stature is modest compared to the power he runs with, Sun Devils coach Edwards having previously compared him to NFL Hall of Famer Curtis Martin.

As much was clear in one play against California last season, with Benjamin swatting two tackle attempts with ease on his way to one of three touchdowns.

I would say [it comes from] Texas football," he said. "I've never been the biggest, fastest or strongest but one thing you can control is the heart you play with.

"I was always determined that 'you being bigger than me wasn't going to stop me from running through you', so that's kind of the way I approached everything in my life. My determination is a huge asset of mine."

Playing behind a less experienced offensive line, Benjamin's production was limited to 1,083 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in 2019. One of the reasons being to protect his health more.

"My sophomore year I had 300 touches and so Herm's thing this past off-season was to try to get me the ball more in space by throwing to me," he said.

"He was very comfortable in me catching and I was very comfortable with myself catching. Those were little things we did to try take hits off my body."

It ultimately displayed Benjamin's ability to contribute as a receiving back in the open field, which may become part of his role with the Cardinals.

Benjamin had to be patient as he waited to step up to varsity, and patient throughout his freshman year at ASU. Both experiences have equipped him for the patience required as he learns from Kenyan Drake, Chase Edmonds and D.J. Foster.

Between his heavy workload in college and the increasingly-common multi-back approach seen in the NFL, the 21-year-old looks a nice fit in Kingsbury's offense.

For the Arizona 'Washing Machine', 2020 welcomes the next cycle.

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