Trey Benson (left) and Dillon Johnson played in the same backfield for Greenville St. Joseph before becoming stars on two of the best teams in college football, on either side of the continent. Credit: Greenville St. Joseph

College football running backs Trey Benson of Florida State and Dillon Johnson of Washington have much in common, including that they are the leading rushers for undefeated teams very much in the national championship race. 

Benson has run for 641 yards and eight touchdowns. Johnson has run for 686 yards and 10 touchdowns. Both average over six yards per carry. Both are big, strong backs with plenty of speed. Both have transferred once during their college careers.

Rick Cleveland

But you haven’t read anything yet. Four years ago, both ran in the same Mississippi high school backfield. That’s right: Benson and Johnson, both redshirt juniors and two of the best college running backs in the land, shared the football for Greenville St. Joseph High School back in 2019. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Greenville St. Joe finished 13-0 and won the MAIS 3A state championship that season.

“We were blessed, that’s for sure,” says St. Joseph coach John Baker said this week. “Both are great football players. Both are great students and people. Education comes first at this school and both were A students. Both were great with the little kids who follow our program. What they are doing right now is no surprise at all for those who saw them here.”

Consider this: The Greenville St. Joe Class of 2020 included 27 seniors. Two of those might be star players in the College Football Playoff.

“That’s what we’re hoping and praying for here in Greenville,” Baker said. “Wouldn’t it be something if two kids from such a small school who have been friends since peewee ball ended up playing against each other in the national championship?”

It would be. And it could happen.

Both play difficult games Saturday. Florida State, 9-0 and ranked No. 4 in the CFP rankings, plays Miami Saturday. Washington, ranked No. 5 in the CFP rankings, plays Utah Saturday. Both games start at 2:30 p.m. Mississippi time, which means there’s going to be a lot of channel flipping in Greenville.

Johnson, who began his college career at Mississippi State, has played his best football lately. Last week, against Southern Cal, he ran 256 yards, nearly a first down per carry and scored four touchdowns in a 52-42 Huskies victory.

Benson, who began his college career at Oregon, last week ran for 97 yards and a touchdown against Pitt. Earlier this season, he ran for 200 yards and two touchdowns against Virginia Tech. Back in September, he carried the ball just nine times against Southern Miss but scored three touchdowns.

Benson was the more lightly recruited of the two. In fact, he wasn’t recruited at all until after he attended a Nike football camp in New Orleans the summer before his senior season of high school.

Said Baker, “Trey went down there and ran several sub-4.4 40s at 215 pounds. The next week, coaches from all over the country were lined up to talk to him.”

Johnson’s recruitment was heavier and much earlier. Then-Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead recruited him much harder than all the others, Baker said, and Johnson chose State where Moorhead promised him he would have plenty chances to run the ball.

When Mike Leach took over, the running game took a backseat at State. Johnson played three seasons for the Bulldogs but never reached the 500-yard mark rushing despite averaging more than five yards per carry. He made the decision to leave last December, before Leach died.

“Dillon said the NIL and the location didn’t matter to him,” Baker said. “He just wanted to run the football.”

Both Johnson and Benson are expected to declare for the NFL Draft after the current season. Indeed, NFL scouts already have been at Greenville St. Joseph doing background checks, Baker said. How’s that for due diligence?

Those scouts got nothing but glowing reports from coaches and faculty at the Catholic school where Johnson and Benson played in the same backfield their senior season.

“We moved Dillon to quarterback that season and ran a lot of read option,” Baker said. “They didn’t know who they were gonna have to tackle.”

Often, the opponents didn’t tackle either one of them. They combined for 54 touchdowns on a team that scored 48 points per game. 

Said Baker: “I could coach for a hundred years and not have two like that at the same time.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.