HOUSTON – Studying his playbook on his iPad at his locker, greeting new teammates, and reviewing multiple restaurant recommendations via text messages from J.J. Watt and DeAndre Hopkins, Eno Benjamin is learning on the fly during his first few days with the Texans.
Claimed off waivers from the Arizona Cardinals after receiving no carries in his final game against the Los Angeles Rams after being replaced by healthy starter James Conner in recent weeks, the Texas native is embracing his fresh start.
“It’s just a new start,” said Benjamin, who grew up in Wylie. “It’s the first time I’ve ever done such a thing. It feels like my move from Texas to Arizona going to college. I’m just kind of going through it and doing whatever I have to do to be ready.
“Definitely coming closer to home is kind of a dream come true. Honestly, family is a big thing for me. My family can drive down. It makes it a little easier.”
Benjamin has practiced for the past two days. With his speed, pass-catching ability, and size, Benjamin could provide a capable change of pace behind starter Dameon Pierce, an NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate who has been shouldering a heavy workload.
Could Benjamin play Sunday against the Washington Commanders? Possibly, but usually, the Texans have new players get acclimated to the playbook and surroundings before having them play in a game.
“I feel like I’m ready,” Benjamin said. “If my number is called, I’ll do it to the best of my ability. I feel like I’m a guy who can run it inside and outside, run past you and through you as well.”
Benjamin likes what he’s seen from the Texans’ run-centric offense that offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has built around Pierce’s physical style.
“I love the run game,” Benjamin said. “I love the run schemes that they have, just the offense and how they play off each other. I love under-center. I think the game for the running back is best played under center. There’s a lot to that that I love about that.”
Benjamin (5-foot-9, 207 pounds) was recruited by Texans coach Lovie Smith out of high school when Smith was coaching at Illinois. Benjamin, committed at the time to Iowa, wound up signing with Arizona State and was later drafted in the seventh round by the Cardinals.
“They used to come out to Texas for a lot of camps and we would hang out,” Benjamin said of Smith. “Great guy. Just at the time, I was committed to Iowa. I was looking at the Big Ten. At the time, it was more Iowa than Illinois. It was really intriguing.”
Benjamin started when Cardinals starter James Conner was injured. He rushed for 92 yards in a win over the New Orleans Saints and averaged 4.3 yards per run for the season.
“I’m excited for him,” quarterback Davis Mills said. “He’s another really talented player to add to that running back room. I heard he’s a really good pass-catcher out of the backfield as well, so just excited for another way to attack defenses and switch up the looks.”
Benjamin has rushed for 299 yards on 70 carries and scored two touchdowns this season, starting three games when Conner was injured. He has rushed for 417 career yards and three touchdowns, catching 30 passes for 226 yards.
“I think he’s dynamic,” Hamilton said. “He’s an explosive playmaker.”
Hamilton made it clear that the Texans aren’t going to follow a 1A, 1B approach with Pierce and Benjamin. Pierce will remain the primary runner and Benjamin will compete with Rex Burkhead and Dare Ogunbowale for a role.
“We’re more so about our feature guy, and we have confidence in the two guys that are backing Dameon up to pick up where they need to,” said Hamilton, adding that it’s still being determined if Benjamin will be the main backup.
The Texans use their other backs sparingly behind Pierce, who has rushed for 772 yards to rank fifth in the NFL. Burkhead has rushed for 83 yards on 24 carries. Ogunbowale has one run for eight yards and seven catches for 67 yards.
“We’re going to have a starting tailback, and we’re going to have a backup,” Smith said. “If the backup has to play, we don’t want a big drop-off as much as anything. Then our third running back is going to be a guy that’s going to hopefully be able to maybe his emphasis is on third down and special teams. That’s how the running back position has been like for me in my entire career.”
When his role was reduced after Conner returned, appearing in one snap against the Los Angeles Rams, Benjamin reportedly became upset with the coaching staff.
Benjamin didn’t shed much light on his departure. He’s moved on, and so have the Cardinals.
“I actually haven’t spoken to anybody over there as far as the situation,” Benjamin said. “I feel like that’s as much as I’ll say about that.”
Benjamin has some familiarity with the Texans’ roster, including already knowing Ogunbowale, linebacker Buddy Johnson, tight end Brevin Jordan and Burkhead, whom he called a Plano legend.
How about Watt’s restaurant list?
Watt highlighted Kata Robata, his favorite restaurant in Houston and a top sushi choice, along with B&B Butchers, El Tiempo, Breakfast Klub and Killen’s Barbecue
“There’s a lot I’m looking forward to trying out,” Benjamin said. “I’m definitely excited to try it all out. It’s all moving fast. I’m trying to get settled in.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to KPRC 2 and click2houston.com