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Fire starter

Cedric Benson has emerged as a locker room leader in Cincinnati. (AP photo)

Posted: 7:20 a.m.

GEORGETOWN, Ky. - A headline is needed over a Cedric Benson story. No hesitation.

"Fire starter," Benson said. "A guy that can get things going."

At the moment, Benson is a smoldering brush fire looking svelte, sleek, and sculpted to be the runaway running back the Bengals haven't had, really, since Corey Dillon's prime.

No one is saying that Benson is going to be Dillon, a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. But they are saying that he can go 80 yards on one pop and that he could go for 1,500 in a season, which no Bengal ever has.

"It's easily doable if he stays healthy; it's easy," said quarterback Carson Palmer after Monday morning's session. "He's the type of guy that always falls forward, always lunges forward. There may not be a big hole but he'll get two or three yards out of it. If there is a big hole he's the type of guy that can go 80 yards and no one's going to catch him from behind. That's something we haven't had in the past. He's exciting to watch."

During the morning's full-pad session, Benson made some nice cuts in the run game to find some room, but maybe more importantly to him is that he also deftly got in the way of some linebackers during the blitz pickup drill.

"One thing I really want to be able to turn around is that I played a lot of first and second downs last year," Benson said. "Now I want to be able to play on third down and be featured in the passing game. I don't want to be singled out as a two-down player. ... It all starts down here."

Then he came out in shorts Monday night and made some more darts in backing up Palmer's observation: "He's shown some burst here and there that are jaw dropping that make you think that he's the No. 4 pick in the draft for a reason and I'm glad we got him."

Roy Williams, the five-time Pro Bowl safety that played against Benson in an NFC game a few years ago, has been trying to gauge him in his sights.

"He has deceiving speed. He hits that hole and you think he's jogging and then he's in another gear," Williams said. "He's a great back. He's got great vision. He has a nice punch. He has lot of (tough) dog in him. He doesn't want to back down."

With every stride Benson, 26, continues to run away from his past with the Bears, where he was right in the middle of the "Great Chicago Fire" in a controversy that pitted him against franchise superstar Brian Urlacher.

The last time Benson came into a camp as the clear No. 1, he recalls it was in Chicago where he injured his shoulder in 2007 on a hit he says Urlacher came gunning for him.

"How could it not be?" said Benson, when asked if he thought the hit was on purpose. "I just don't get it. I was making a cut and he hit me. I don't think necessarily he was trying to hurt me but he was probably trying to get in his licks."

Those days Benson was the polarizing figure in a Bears locker room that sided with running back Thomas Jones over him are now long gone. Jones was portrayed as the popular team leader, Benson the whining first-round pick. Those days are so long gone that Palmer pronounces Benson a leader here.

"He's good for this team. He's taken over a leadership role I don't think he's had in the past," Palmer said. "He may not be used to it, but he's good at it."

Defensive tackle Tank Johnson, a member of that Bears defense that supposedly had no use for Benson, has seen a lot of growth.

"I think he just grew up as a football player," Johnson said. "Thomas Jones was playing well. Thomas Jones was better than Ced. He worked harder than Ced. But back then, he was young. Now he's a veteran. Now Ced is looking good. Guys are young, then they grow up and become good football players.

"Guys don't stay kids forever. You grow up. There are guys if you don't learn what it takes to be successful, they're out of the league. If you do learn, they're the guys that look like Ced right now."

What Benson looks like right now is relaxed and confident, building off his three 100-yard games in the last eight games of the season to close a year he never had a training camp.

Johnson, for one, a guy that saw Benson first step into the league, says he has turned into more of an all-around player.

"He looks like a more complete back now. I think he's more patient and I think his hips are a little more fluid and he has a lot more stamina," Johnson said. "He's as advertised. He's very good. He's a good back. He has patience. He can block. He can catch. He can do all the things a complete back can do. I'm looking forward to watching him."

Johnson also reverses the banner headlines of a few years ago: "He's a good guy. He's a chilled dude. He's not arrogant. He's not big-headed. He's just Ced."

Which means life is good because Beson simply doesn't have the issues here he had in Chicago.

"One thing I did kind of learn is not to pay attention to the B.S," Benson said. "The politics. Just don't pay attention to it. Just let my play speak for itself and if my play doesn't get me to where I need to be, I guess I'll just hang it up."

The burdens fell to him right away as the fourth pick in the draft in 2005 with a month-long holdout and he never got out from underneath it. He says there is not nearly as much politics here as in the back rooms of the team that plays in Rod Blagojevich's state.

" I never tried to make enemies; it was never me making enemies," Benson said. "They were all caught up in that holdout and all that crap. No one is going to hold it against the tackle (Andre Smith). He's not here. I just think it was the egos on that team."

Long gone. When he walks out on the field, the fans give him one of the loudest ovations. The No. 32 Benson jerseys are beginning to pop up. It is a mutual admiration society.

"Everybody loves players that play hard. That's all they really ask from you," Benson said. "If all 50 or 60 guys on the roster did that, every team would be a Super Bowl contender."

"I never hear (Bengals fans) talk bad about anybody," said Benson, asked about the core support for team that has struggled. "That's impressive."

Palmer and Benson know he can catch screen passes and make something big happen out of something little. His 79-yard touchdown run off of one was the longest Bengals play since wide receiver Chad Ochocinco's 82-yarder against the Ravens in 2003.

"(Screens are) cake. To be in multiple third-down situations, they want to see you be able to pick up the reads on all the blitzes. If they throw something funky at you," he said. "You just have to gain the coordinator's' trust. You can set up a third-down play and I'm going to make it. But what about when the ball's not thrown to me? It's not a factor of can he or can't he not block. It's just picking up the scheme."

And maybe starting a few fires.

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