The date was Nov. 30, 2019, and it was the last time Eno Benjamin had suited up for a football game before the running back got a chance to play Friday night.
Back then, Benjamin was the star at Arizona State, and that day he dominated – 168 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 34 carries – in a victory "against the team down South" he said with a smile.
His long-awaited follow-up was not nearly as important, a preseason game for the Cardinals against the Cowboys. His performance wasn't the same, 50 yards rushing and a touchdown on five carries. But for a player who had spent his rookie season inactive in each of the 16 regular-season games, and one that because of the pandemic didn't even have preseason games, Benjamin had a big smile under his mask once the Cards had captured a 19-16 win.
Last season, "I kind of took it more as a redshirt year," Benjamin said. "Mentally I'm just coming back more prepared. Physically as well."
Chase Edmonds and James Conner will be the top two running backs. Benjamin is battling Jonathan Ward – who suffered an ankle injury against the Cowboys – for the No. 3 back on the depth chart.
Ward was undrafted in 2020. Benjamin was a seventh-round pick. Without a preseason, it was Ward who ended up higher on the depth chart because of his ability on special teams.
"We've always known what he can do when the ball is in his hands," coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "He's a dynamic runner, has great vision, great feet, exceptional for the position. Last year was unfortunate for him that he didn't get those preseason reps but he's done a really nice job in camp. (He is) much more focused, much more dialed in and is playing at a high level."
Benjamin compared his rookie year to arriving at ASU behind accomplished running backs Demario Richard and Kallen Ballage, a necessary transition that would naturally lend itself to the comparison to redshirting a season – very much a college thing.
He doesn't know where he'll land on the depth chart this year, but his nice 6-yard touchdown run and a 38-yard cutback run in which he showed tremendous vision Saturday gives examples of why he can climb.
Finding a way on special teams is a must. He looked solid on kickoff returns -- 28-yard average on three runbacks -- a duty which he did as a freshman at ASU. But it was some of his five other snaps on both punt return and kickoff coverage that may ultimately decide his fate. He tried to learn behind expert special teamer Trent Sherfield last year, and is now getting special teams advice from injured linebacker Dennis Gardeck.
Benjamin certainly has the backing of the many crossover ASU and Cardinals fans, who are desperate to see the former Sun Devil star on the field in games that count. Benjamin, though, said he hasn't noticed any of that chatter – "Outside of football, I don't like to talk about football that much," he said.
It didn't make it any less exciting to play the game again Saturday, however, as he tries to make game appearances a regular thing beyond the preseason.
"I just know I'm going to go out there and do everything to the best of my ability," Benjamin said. "How ever it's going to shake out, it'll shake out."
Images from the 2021 preseason opener between the Cardinals and Cowboys at State Farm Stadium.