Resurgent Benny Snell Jr. gives Kentucky momentum on offense
With 472 yards and nine touchdowns in Kentucky's last three games, Benny Snell Jr. is on as good a roll as any running back in the country.
He battered his way into the UK record book on Saturday at Vanderbilt, becoming the first player in program history to rush for 1,000 yards in back to back seasons and setting a new school record of 28 career rushing touchdowns.
It's a little hard to believe that less than a month ago fans and media alike were pondering if a "sophomore slump" had afflicted the Westerville, Ohio, native.
"Me finding me," Snell said after Tuesday's practice at the Joe Craft Football Training Center. "Me reading my blocks, finding the little holes. Me making cuts that I probably wouldn't have made last year. Just being smarter, taking less hits."
Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran concurred. The coach and player sat down in the film room and discussed the direction they were going after Snell was held to a season-low 18 yards on seven carries in a 45-7 loss at Mississippi State.
It marked Snell's third game under 100 yards in a four-game span and frustration was starting to show.
"We talked about it, how we could get it better," Gran said. "He takes coaching very well. Benny wants to be great, and that's the kind of guy that you want to coach. He's definitely responded."
"The great ones want that coaching, they want the medicine," added UK head coach Mark Stoops.
Suddenly, Snell is No. 2 in the SEC in rushing yards, only 22 behind league leader Kerryon Johnson of Auburn.
The keys, per Gran: "He's been a little bit more patient and his technique has been phenomenal the last three weeks... He's always physical and runs with great passion. But what he's done is a great job of fixing the little things."
Snell called himself a "student of the game," noting that he watches the best backs in the NFL in order to improve his running. He cited the Pittsburgh Steelers' Le'veon Bell, the Kansas City Chiefs' Kareem Hunt and the Dallas Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott as running styles from Iwhich he likes to borrow.
Snell is now in a position to possibly challenge UK's all-time rushing record held by Sonny Collins with 3,835 yards from 1972-75. He is currently in ninth place on the school's all-time list with 2,104 yards and is one of only 19 players in SEC history to surpass 2,000 yards prior to his junior season.
Gran said he was unaware that Snell was on the cusp of breaking records in UK's 44-21 win over Vanderbilt, but he loved what came from his star runner when the game was over.
"I heard him in one of his interviews talking about the offensive line and tight ends and receivers," Gran said. "I thought that was pretty cool."
It was not lost on the players opening the holes for Snell, either.
"I think I had one catch on Saturday and I don't think anyone else in the tight end group had any, but you would have thought on the bus ride home that we had three touchdowns between all of us," C.J. Conrad said. "All of us just really really focus on our running game being strong."
A team effort, Stoops noted.
"It does feel good that the offensive line is getting that continuity, and most importantly, I think playing very physical," the UK boss said. "The run game’s success, as I’ve talked about here throughout the year, it has a lot to do with them, but it also has to do with the tight ends, and it also has to do with the discipline of the running backs."
The Cats are ready for another strong challenge this week at Georgia. The Bulldogs may be the best rushing defense they have faced this season, ranking No. 2 in the SEC at 103.8 yards per game.
"They're definitely going to be physical," Snell said. "They play their gaps scheme very well, and they swarm to the ball. It's an athletic defense but it ain't nothing that we haven't seen before. We're going to go out and try to attack."
Kentucky won't be intimidated, Conrad added. "If you look at the personnel, this is the same exact group that we went against last year, and we had success against them. I think that helps the confidence of this group."