STILLWATER — Xavier Benson is among Oklahoma State’s most impactful players.
He is a returning starter at linebacker, an anchor for an OSU defense adjusting to new coordinator Bryan Nardo. We saw that in the Cowboys’ season-opening victory over Central Arkansas last Saturday when Benson made four tackles, including one for lost yardage, broke up a pass and had OSU’s only quarterback hurry.
“He’s made the most improvement of anybody on our team from the bowl game until now,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said of his defensive anchor in preseason. “He’s really comfortable with himself. He’s comfortable with our environment. He has a great relationship with Coach Nardo. I’m very pleased with him. I’m very happy for him.”
We know how Xavier Benson plays his game. We’ve known since the linebacker joined the Cowboys from Tyler (Texas) Junior College before the 2022 season.
Now let’s find out what Xavier Benson thinks about his game, or at least two of the biggest issues surrounding his game — name, image, likeness and the transfer portal.
From my conversation with Benson at OSU’s Media Day Aug. 5:
Guerin: There’s a sense that NIL is extremely important to college football players. How important is it to you?
Benson: “I feel like it’s important in the sense of kind of making college kids become pros. The more work you put in, the more you put out. They see that on the business side of it, and the professional side of it, even in college. I feel like it gives us a boost. I feel like because of the attention on the program… when you go to the next level, it’s just like nothing to you.”
Guerin: Anything about NIL that has caught you off guard?
Benson: “Not really. I know how young men are. When you don’t have good leaders around men on the team, heads can get all boggled.
“I refuse, and a lot of older guys on this team refuse, to let any of that happen. We teach them. It’s not just, ‘No.’ We’ll be like, ‘This is ‘no.’ Here’s why.’ And they understand it because they realize ‘Oh wow, this is coming from so-and-so so it means something.’
“There’s a mutual respect and understanding that we’re trying to offer guidance to everybody. Because we know everybody’s situation is different. Everybody is keeping each other straight so it’s really nice.”
Guerin: Bottom line, you believe NIL is a good thing?
Benson: “Yeah, I think it’s a good thing.”
Guerin: Should it have been in place years ago?
Benson: “Nah, I wouldn’t say years ago. If it would have been done years ago people wouldn’t have been ready and a lot of turmoil would have happened. That’s why this is a perfect time. A lot of people that were fighting for NIL finally succeeded. It happened for a reason.
“I just feel bad for the guys that didn’t get to experience it. Shout out to the guys in the past. That’s why we go so hard because the guys in the past didn’t get to experience this.”
Guerin: How about the notion that NIL can easily become a friction source on a team?
Benson: “Not at all. We’re here for one goal. Everything else is just a bonus.”
Guerin: It is a business, though, isn’t it?
Benson: “You hate to say politics go into it and business goes into it but it does. College football is a big business…
“But I feel like it gives more people a sense of self. Because it’s like, ‘Wow, I can provide not just for me…’ A lot of guys have a lot of personal stuff going on. So they’re like, ‘I can help by just being me. So let me be the best version of me possible.’ That’s a positive thing.”
Guerin: What are you doing with your NIL earnings?
Benson: “I want to talk to my church and help out with a lot of stuff for them. I’m helping my mom and my dad with some personal finances because my mom wants to get rid of her second job.
“It’s being able to be in that position. You’re like, ‘Wow.’”
Guerin: That’s got to make you feel pretty good, huh?
Benson: “It feels great being able to serve who I want to serve. I don’t want much so I don’t need much. So with what I do have, why can’t I make other people better?”
Guerin: Is the church you’re talking about back home (Benson is from Texarkana, Texas)?
Benson: “No it’s here. Life Church.”
Guerin: Do you worry about NIL trickling into high school football and players that young hopping from one school to the other as a result?
Benson: “They’re in the wrong culture if they think like that. They have the wrong thought process.”
Guerin: About the college transfer portal… Do you keep up with guys who leave OSU?
Benson: “I keep up with them because at the end of the day I see past football. Me being a Christian, I see people as people. If I want to see you, which I hope I do, in heaven, I know I gotta keep up with you your whole life.
“It means a lot to be like, ‘Hey are you OK? Is anything going on with you? Are you having fun over there? Do you feel better in your head space? Are you in a better spot?
“At the end of the day you don’t want to see your people suffer. You want the best decisions for them. I hate it sometimes because it might be away from you. But later in life you’ll meet up and have that connection and rekindle and hang out and set up plans. It’s always love. It’s always love.”
Guerin: Who are former teammates you keep in touch with that way?
Benson: “I talked to Stephon Johnson not too long ago. I talked to Bryson Green not too long ago. I talked to Spence (Spencer Sanders) not too long ago. It’s just checking up on your people. I talked to Mason Cobb not too long ago.
“I talk to all my guys. It’s not like we didn’t form a relationship”
Guerin: Does anything change when a teammate goes to a rival like Trace Ford went to OU?”
Benson: “No. I saw Trace literally last week. People gotta do what they gotta do.”
Guerin: So if the perception is “out of sight, out of mind” when it comes to the portal, the reality is different?
Benson: “I hate that that’s the perception but I guess it’s the world we live in. But if you’re family, you’re family. That’s how I feel. If I care about you, you’re part of my people. I want to care about my people. I’m not just going to leave you behind.”