By PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA (AP) — When it rains, it pours. Already reeling from another second-half meltdown, Georgia Tech received more bad news.
Top running back KirVonte Benson is out for the season.
Coach Paul Johnson announced Tuesday that Benson will undergo surgery next week for a knee injury, depriving the Yellow Jackets of a player who rushed for 1,053 yards last season.
Benson was injured in Saturday’s 49-38 loss at South Florida, an especially bitter defeat after the Yellow Jackets gave up two kickoff returns for touchdowns, had two defensive stalwarts ejected and squandered a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter.
“I feel terrible for him because he’s worked hard,” Johnson said. “But he’ll back. He’s a strong kid.”
The fourth-year junior took over the starting B-back job last season after Dedrick Mills was kicked off the team. Benson finished with five 100-yard games, demonstrating a versatile set of skills that allowed him to break tackles and bounce outside for long gains. He was one of two 1,000-yard rushers in Georgia Tech’s option offense, joining quarterback TaQuon Marshall.
Benson rushed for 75 yards and two touchdowns in a season-opening victory over FCS school Alcorn State. He carried five times for 41 yards before leaving the game against South Florida.
The next man up is redshirt freshman Jordan Mason, who has played well in his first two college games. He has 24 carries 180 yards, averaging 7.5 yards each time he got the ball.
Sophomore Jerry Howard will become the top backup, and it’s possible that freshman Christian Malloy also could receive playing time.
“I said at the start that we had depth there,” Johnson said. “We’re going to find out.”
Benson is a fourth-year player who already took a redshirt year, but he could apply for a medical hardship and receive an extra year of eligibility in 2020. This is his second serious knee injury, on top of one he sustained in high school.
Mason was the third-string B-back going into preseason camp, but his strong play pushed him past Howard on the depth chart. Mason wound up starting the season opener when Benson was held out of the first quarter for a violation of team rules.
Now, the No. 1 job belongs to Mason.
“He’s played well when he’s been in there,” Johnson said. “I think he’ll just get better.”
Georgia Tech (1-1) certainly needs to get better on special teams heading into Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference opener at Pittsburgh (1-1).
Terrence Horn had kickoff returns of 98 and 97 yards for South Florida, allowing the Bulls to stay in the game early when Georgia Tech’s offense was running up and down the field with ease.
Special teams have been a persistent headache during Johnson’s 11-year coaching tenure. He twice has hired special team coordinators, but this season he went back to letting his assistants split up the duties. Lamar Owens, who coaches the A-backs, oversees the special teams.
“It’s frustrating, but ultimately I’m in charge of it,” Johnson said. “We’ve got get it fixed.”
He was especially angry about one of the long returns by South Florida.
“We didn’t execute the way we’re supposed to. The kids didn’t do what they’re supposed to do and what we practiced,” the coach said. “But we also had five freshmen out there. That’s my fault. I should’ve stopped that. I know better than that.”
It won’t happen again, he vowed.
“We’re going to get some better people out there and see if we can do a better job,” said Johnson, adding that anyone who holds a starting spot on special teams will focus mainly on that role, even if it means giving up playing time at their regular position.
Georgia Tech blew three second-half leads last season, a trend that continued at South Florida. The Yellow Jackets had two crucial turnovers in the fourth quarter, but the offense — which piled up a staggering 602 yards, including 419 on the ground — wasn’t the problem.
The defense, under first-year coordinator Nate Woody, couldn’t come up with any stops once the Bulls got rolling.
“It’s pretty simple. If we quit scoring, we haven’t been able to hold on,” Johnson said. “We turned the ball over a couple of times, but you’ve got to get a stop. Hey, call it what it is. At some point, you’ve got to stop somebody in the second half.”