As fall camp slowly approaches we find ourselves just a month out from the toe meeting the leather as we’re set for another exciting fall in the Bluegrass State. Now it’s time to get the ins and out of the roster for your Wildcats and next up we shift to the backfield to check out the running backs. (Make sure you read up on how UK’s quarterback position is shaping up).
Eddie Gran enters year three as the primary play-caller but he also serves as the team’s running backs coach. Gran has filled this same role at Auburn, Florida State, and Tennessee as he’s developed and coach some really high level backs. However, the one he currently has in Lexington may be his best yet.
Benny Snell arrived on campus in the summer of 2016 and immediately made an impact in fall camp. Snell entered the season with rave reviews from the coaching staff and with the loss of Drew Barker to a back injury, the offense went through an identity change. UK became a ground and pound offense that excelled in owning time of possession and grinding out first downs. In this style, Snell became a star as a true freshman as he needed only nine games to reach 1,00o yards. He would follow this outstanding debut up with a really impressive sophomore campaign as he ran for 1,333 yards (third in the SEC) and 19 touchdowns (tied for fifth in the FBS). He enters his true junior season as one of the best tailbacks in the country and has a very solid chance to become the first UK running back since Rodger Bird in 1965 to receive All-American honors.
In just two years, Snell has broken the school record for rushing touchdowns with 32 and he has a chance to set a mark that may not ever be broken with another big year. Heading into 2018, the Westerville, Ohio native needs 1,412 yards to become the program’s all-time leading rusher and 1,571 yards to break into the SEC’s top 10 all-time leading rushers. For those wondering at home, Snell needs 2,836 yards (achievable if he returns for his senior year) to top Herschel Walker as the SEC’s all-time leader. He will need 26 touchdowns to top Tim Tebow as the career rushing touchdowns leader in the SEC.
Decision time won’t be until December but it’s important to recognize that Snell is not only a UK great but an SEC great. He’s in position to break records that have stood for multiple decades and he’s the heart and soul of the Kentucky offense. The power back won’t break off flashy big runs you’ve seen from backs like Leonard Fournette and Todd Gurley but he’s going to break tackles, run people over, and will be able to salt a game away in the four minute offense. Enjoy him while he’s still in blue and white as he chases records this fall.
The Running Back Room
Both locally and nationally Snell gets all of the headlines and rightfully so. He is a superstar but after having a deadly one-two punch in 2016, UK struggled when Snell went to the bench in 2017. Outside of finding a quarterback, the next primary goal for the UK offensive staff is to find a dependable second option to play once Snell is out of the lineup.
Sihiem King returns for his senior season and the scat back (5-foot-9, 172 pounds) is UK’s best pass catching option. He should receive plenty of action on third downs. King was Snell’s primary backup last season as he rushed for 364 yards and two touchdowns on a 4.6 yards per carry average. A.J. Rose played sparingly as redshirt freshman last fall as he recorded only 15 carries. The former high school quarterback out of Cleveland was a prized member of the 2016 recruiting class and he was the star of the spring game as he posted 134 rushing yards and three scores. Rose showed some burst and big play ability that will be much needed.
On the recruiting trail, Kentucky brought in two three-star prospects from the south who both possess a similar running style to Snell. Christopher Rodriguez, Jr. rushed for 1,669 yards as a high school senior in Georgia and averaged over seven yards per carry. Kavosiey Smoke is a bowling ball (5-foot-9, 219 pounds) who has the potential to provide breakaway runs for the offense. The Alabama native ran for over 1,000 yards as both a junior and senior.
Kentucky enters the season with a workhorse back that you can go ahead and pencil in for over 250 carries. Snell will get his touches but the biggest key for the offensive staff outside of finding a quarterback will be to find a legit secondary piece in the backfield.
In the Music City Bowl after Snell was ejected, the ground game disappeared for UK and it was very clear the coaching staff was not comfortable when going to someone else. For the season, Rose only received carries in four games while King never reached 70 yards rushing in a single outing.
In 2016, Kentucky’s offense made a huge leap as they averaged over 30 points per game by leaning on a two-headed monster at tailback as both Snell and Boom Williams ran for over 1,00o yards. Kentucky doesn’t need another 1,000 yard rusher to emerge but having one player that you can depend on giving you 50 yards per game off the bench would be vital. Get that, combined with Snell and the potential rushing ability of Terry Wilson, and UK could have one of the best ground attacks in all of college football.