The Pony Express returns with a trio of star running backs

The Pony Express is back, and for TCU, the Mustangs backfield resembled the four-horsemen of the Apocalypse. You’d know them better as Ulysses Bently IV, Tre Siggers, Tyler Lavine and Tanner Mordecai. The foursome accounted for 350 rushing yards on 52 attempts in the 42-34 victory in Fort Worth over the Horned Frogs to claim the 100th edition of the Battle for the Iron Skillet

It was a dominating performance, one that caused TCU head coach Gary Patterson to tell SMU head coach Sonny Dykes that the Mustangs “kicked our ass” after the game. The running back trio of Bentley, Siggers and Lavine knew early in the week that the rushing attack was the key to victory over their rivals in purple. 

Bentley ran for 153 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. Siggers added 110 yards on 18 carries. Lavine, the bruiser, ran the ball eight times for 52 yards. Even Mordecai, the starting quarterback, recorded 37 yards on four attempts. As a team, SMU averaged 6.7 yards a run in the win.

“We knew from the beginning of the week that we needed to run the ball. We took that to heart and worked out butts off. We knew we had to run the ball to win the game,” Lavine said. “They couldn’t stop us, so we just kept going. I think people have been preparing for the pass game, so that opened some stuff up for us. And the offensive line dominated, and that made everything possible.” 

The three-headed rushing attack is a perfect complement to a budding passing attack led by Mordecai, an Oklahoma transfer. Two of the three running backs also transferred into the program. Bentley was the only one to commit directly out of high school. The former three-star recruit out of C.E. King High School in Houston made waves by choosing a home in Dallas. He says some family connections within Dallas made the transition easier. 

Bentley is now the star of the backfield thanks to his electric speed and big-play ability. He took a redshirt year in 2019 before bursting onto the American Athletic Conference scene as a freshman in 2020. He started six of SMU’s 10 games, racking up a conference-high 913 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, which set a freshman record for rushing touchdowns as a freshman. His 913 rushing yards were 200 more than any other player in the AAC.

The year before Bentley arrived on campus, SMU finished 5-7 in 2018. The Mustangs went 10-3 in 2019 and 7-3 in a pandemic-shortened 2020. SMU is now at 4-0 in 2021 after the victory over TCU. Bentley attributes the success to a culture change. 

“The culture really has changed. As a team, we came together and talked to each other about what our goals should be,” Bentley said. “We’re in a championship mindset and that is our mode every day.”

SMU running backs coach Ra’Shaad Samples attributes the rushing success to competition. Bentley and Lavine were a two-man show in 2020. Siggers joined in the offseason after a four-year career at North Texas. 

“Competition brings the best out of us and knowing someone is over your shoulder to drive you. We work out better when you have a partner to push you rather than going at it alone. It is the same concept with this game,” Samples said. “The competition in that room is good competition. It creates a great atmosphere and culture, and that is what we talk about all the time.” 

Now with three guys to rotate, Samples sees the differences between his running backs as the group’s greatest strength. Bentley is the sports car. Siggers is the sedan. Lavine is a bulldozer. 

“They’re totally different guys. Tyler is the rebel. He’s your rambunctious warrior. He can do everything. He blocks and can also run the ball as a big, physical guy. Tre is versatile. He can catch the ball out the backfield, block and run the ball well. He also has enough speed to line up at wide receiver and do some things,” Samples said. “And Ulysses is lightening in a bottle. He is fast and great on the edge. He’s elusive and can play great in space. How different they are helps them complement each other.”

A long journey to Dallas 

Lavine became a household name in Texas high school football circles when he started as a sophomore for Cedar Park in a Class 5A Division I state championship game. He’d help lead those Timberwolves to a state title as a junior in 2015. In his three-year prep career, Lavine ran for 2,157 yards and 32 touchdowns on 313 carries. The 5-11, 220-pound bowling ball expected college scouts to call with offers. That never happened. 

Lavine was then contacted by Army. He enrolled in its prep academy and began life at West Point. The shift from high school star in Cedar Park, Texas to prospective soldier and football player was stark. Lavine always took the game seriously. He fell in love with it as a kid playing with his older brother. He finally understood what the love of the game meant for him when it became the highlight of his day while at West Point. 

“I know some people think, ‘Oh, dang, we have to wake up and go to practice,’ but there it was the highlight of the day,” he said.  

Fate intervened prior to his second year at West Point. Lavine was given two weeks to go back home prior to the start of basic training for his second year at West Point. During the first week back for basic training, Lavine broke his foot in the same way he did as a senior at Cedar Park. He was given a physical and noted on the form that he’d experienced chest pains previously in his life. That form may have saved Lavine’s life. The doctors added a heart exam to his physical and found that Lavine suffered from a heart condition known as Wolff-Parkison-White. 

“Sometimes, I’d be at the gym and my heart would be pounding out of my chest and I couldn’t breathe,” he said. “I’m lucky that I found it because they said I was lucky that I didn’t drop dead somewhere. I thought it was pre workout or something. I’m thankful they found it.”

So, Lavine was sent home for successful heart and foot surgery. His heart condition required an ablation to burn off the extra piece of tissue causing the problems. Lavine said that the surgery went well, and he was back to his old self within a week. With a renewed since of purpose, Lavine was at a crossroad. He decided waiting a whole year to get back to West Point was too long. He wanted to play football. So, he walked-on at SMU in the spring of 2019. 

“I didn’t know anybody. And as a walk-on, I put my head down and went to work,” he said. “I knew I had to grind and show the coaches that I loved the weight room. That first semester was about building trust. I didn’t do much talking.” 

The coaches noticed. Lavine played in all 13 of SMU’s games in 2019, mostly on special teams. His role increased as a sophomore in 2020, and he was placed on scholarship. Playing in nine games, Lavine was second on the team with 61 carries for 310 yards and five touchdowns. He added eight catches for 93 yards and was named to the AAC All-Academic Team for the second consecutive year. 

Siggers rounds out the room 

Siggers didn’t need much time to make SMU is home. After all, the North Texas transfer spent his prep days at DeSoto and Duncanville. He began his high school career as a linebacker at DeSoto before moving to Duncanville for his junior and senior season. He became a solid running back with the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Like Lavine, Siggers found recruiting to be a difficult experience. 

“Recruiting was weird because some coaches will tell you how much they like you, but they never offer you” Siggers said. “They get your hopes up. I feel like everybody should go through it because it will humble you.”

Siggers wound up an hour north, depending on traffic, in Denton playing for the Mean Green. He took a redshirt in 2017 before playing in eight games as mostly a special teams player in 2018. His role increased in 2019 when he started in seven of the eight games he played in to lead UNT in rushing with 853 yards and six touchdowns on 152 carries.  He started two of eight games he participated in during 2020, finishing the year with 458 yards and a touchdown on 85 carries. 

“I have good memories from North Texas. I wanted something new, though, and I felt like I did everything I could there during my four years,” he said. “SMU was the obvious fit because I love Dallas. The food is better here. It is a new school, but I’m back around my family.”

That includes home-cooked meals by his mom, including his favorite, fried fish. Siggers was all smiles when asked about his new journey and the success experienced at SMU. North Texas was 4-6 in 2020 and have started 1-3 in 2021. The Mustangs are on an opposite trajectory and Siggers is proud to play his role. He enjoys being part of a group of talented running backs rather than being tasked with carrying the load for a program. 

“It wasn’t that hard integrating myself into a new locker room. Those guys are great guys, so they made it easy on me. They took me in right away,” he said. “Uylsses is fast. He’s going to make you miss. Lavine is a dog. He is going to do the dirty work and run you over. You can’t go in there half-stepping at all.”

 

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