It’s easy to be overlooked when you’re a college football running back playing for an upstart program, surrounded in close proximity by higher-profile ballcarriers such as Clemson’s Travis Etienne, Appalachian State’s Darrynton Evans and North Carolina’s stable of young runners.
That’s why Saturday’s East-West Shrine Bowl was such an important opportunity for Charlotte’s Benny LeMay.
Twice a 1,000-yard rusher who helped the 49ers earn their first FBS bowl bid this season, LeMay finally got a chance to shine before a national television audience and scouts from every NFL team at the prestigious postseason all-star game.
And he took full advantage of it by earning Offensive MVP honors.
The 5-foot-9, 215-pound Matthews native ran for 86 yards on 15 carries while scoring two touchdowns in leading the East to a 31-27 victory at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.
“The offensive line did a great job,” LeMay said after the game. “It’s really nice to come out here and have a good game.”
LeMay was one of three 49ers to play in the game for graduating college players with professional football aspirations, joining offensive guard Clark Cameron and defensive end Alex Highsmith. His first touchdown came on a 10-yard run in the first quarter. He then scored the decisive points for his team by running into the end zone from nine yards out with 1:52 remaining.
“When I got the (East-West Shrine) invite, I was excited because I love to compete and I love to be around great players as well,” LeMay said in a YouTube interview before the game. “There’s a lot of great players here. I just want to show I can compete at the top level and I can really do some good things.”
Highsmith also contributed to the win by recording three tackles and a quarterback hurry.
North Carolina safety Myles Dorn also had a strong showing for the East with four tackles — the second most on his team — with a tackle for a loss and a special teams stop.
NC State defensive end James Smith-Williams, who drew rave reviews for his athleticism during the week of practice that preceded the game, was credited with one tackle. He nearly had a sack but was called for a facemask penalty on the play.
The East-West Shrine Bowl wasn’t the only senior showcase game played Saturday.
On the opposite coast, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, players from State, Duke, Wake Forest and Appalachian State took part in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
Wolfpack defensive end Deonte Holden had the best performance of those with North Carolina ties by collecting a sack and a tackle for a loss for the winning National team.
Other contributors for the National squad, which beat the American team 30-20, were Duke defensive tackle Trevon McSwain, who had a tackle and a pass breakup — off his helmet, no less — App State offensive tackle Victor Johnson, and the Wake duo of wide receiver Kendall Hinton and cornerback Amari Henderson, neither of which recorded any statistics.
Mountaineers linebacker Jordan Fehr, who led his Sun Belt Conference championship team with 109 tackles in 2019, finished with two stops for the American team, while Duke linebacker Koby Quansah had one tackle. Wide receiver Scotty Washington, like his Deacons teammate Hinton, played but didn’t have any catches.
The college football all-star season continues this week with the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, and the Hula Bowl in Honolulu.
Among those participating in the Senior Bowl are State defensive tackle Larrell Murchison, UNC offensive tackle Charlie Heck and defensive end Jason Strowbridge, and Wake Forest cornerback Essang Bassey and offensive tackle Justin Herron.
Interestingly, all those players have been assigned to the North team — meaning that game organizers either flunked geography or are taking the North in North Carolina literally.
App State linebacker Akeem Davis-Gunther will play for the South.
The Senior Bowl kicks off at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and will be televised by the NFL Network.
As for the Hula Bowl, which is starting back up after a 12-year absence, Duke punter Austin Parker is the only player with state connections to have been announced as a participant.
The Hula Bowl will be played at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday with television coverage on CBS Sports Network.