Let me take you back to February 23, 2015, a simpler time, when all Kentucky fans were focused on was basketball. John Calipari and his platoons were heading down the home stretch of an undefeated regular season, which wholly consumed the Big Blue Nation. So, when news broke that morning that Benny Snell, a three-star running back from Ohio, committed to Kentucky, everyone was happy, but the news was but a blip on the UK sports radar.
Let me fast forward to today, a much different time for the UK fanbase. Basketball is revving up, but it’s suddenly playing second fiddle to, of all things, football. Somehow, Mark Stoops and his team turned an 0-2 start to a 5-3 record, an unbelievable 180 that took fans from questioning his future to dreaming of bowl games and — gasp! — a shot at the SEC East title. One of the primary reasons for that dramatic turnaround? None other than Benny Snell, who is quickly approaching folk hero status in the Bluegrass. In just six games, Benny has broken or tied three school records, leads the team in rushing attempts (118) and touchdowns (8), and still has four games to go. It’s hard to tell what Benny’s accumulating more of these day, accolades or nicknames.
How did a three-star recruit who didn’t even get a carry in Kentucky’s first two games save the Wildcats’ season? It all started with Vince Marrow and a familiar sell.
Back to February 23, 2015, when Benny chose Kentucky over Iowa, Cincinnati, Boston College, Toledo, West Virginia, and others. Then considered the 74th best running back in the 2016 class by 247 Sports Composite, Benny was recruited primarily by Vince “Mr. Ohio” Marrow and cited a familiar pitch when asked why he chose Kentucky.
“All of my favorite running backs I watch on TV seem to come from the SEC,” Snell told the Columbus Dispatch. “To play in that league against those teams is really appealing. And the thing is, Kentucky is just down the road from home.”
Play in the best conference in college football while still being close to home; Vince Marrow might as well put that on a XXL t-shirt and wear it around. At the time of Benny’s commitment, I wrote, “His offer sheet may not seem impressive, but if we’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s to trust Mark Stoops and Vince Marrow with kids from Ohio.”
In July 2015, Benny and several of his fellow 2016 commitments came to Lexington for UK’s Friday Night Lights camp. Even then, Benny felt a close bond with Kentucky’s 2016 class.
“Man, I am so happy,” he told the Herald-Leader. “Every time I’m there, I’ve just got the biggest smile on my face when I talk to Drake and Landon and Tate. When I’ve got guys like that – it just makes me so happy.”
Benny had a huge senior season, putting up 1,826 yards, 264 yards receiving, and 29 touchdowns for Westerville Central. He had 241 yards on 20 carries for three touchdowns in a single game and was named OCC Cardinal Division Player of the Year and AP All-Central District Offensive Player of the Year. Other schools started to take notice, including Ohio State, Penn State, and Nebraska, but Benny remained firm in his commitment to Kentucky.
“I kind of give them the cold shoulder, but they still try and I let them talk,” Snell told the Herald-Leader. “I know Kentucky is where I want to be.”
Fast forward to fall camp, when, a week or so in, Eddie Gran told reporters that Snell was moving up the rotation and would compete for carries. At the time, we thought that meant he may move ahead of Mikel Horton and Sihiem King.
“He’s done a really good job of understanding what’s going on in the offense, and he’s shown that he can be physical,” Gran said.
Snell didn’t play vs. Southern Miss, and at Florida, didn’t get a carry, but did return two kickoffs for 48 yards. Snell’s play was overshadowed by an otherwise depressing outing in Gainesville, but Benny’s real breakout happened vs. New Mexico State, where he carried the ball 17 times for 137 yards and four touchdowns, tying JoJo Kemp’s record for the most rushing touchdowns in a single game. Benny showcased what makes him special, bouncing off defenders or, when he can’t elude them, simply dragging the pack along with him.
“I was finally glad I got my opportunity, so I just made the most of it. It was amazing. Amazing,” Snell said afterwards. “As soon as I got my chance, you know I just tried to go as hard as I could.”
Snell followed up with another impressive performance vs. South Carolina, tallying 16 carries for 77 yards, one touchdown, and a 32-yard return. Almost all of his yards came on Kentucky’s crucial touchdown drive at the start of the fourth quarter, when Snell carried the ball on nine of the eleven plays and ran it in out of the Wildcat formation for the score.
“I wanted them to keep feeding me,” Benny said. “There’s no doubt at all. Every time I look for the signal, I want them to give me the ball. It don’t matter if we run it five times straight and the defense knows we’re running the ball, I’m going to get every yard I can regardless.”
Alabama’s defense stifled Kentucky in Tuscaloosa, but Benny burst back into the headlines vs. Vanderbilt, once again taking over the game in the second half. Benny accounted for eight of Kentucky’s 12 plays on the crucial final drive, setting Austin MacGinnis up for the 23-yard field goal to put the Cats up 20-13. Against Mississippi State, he carried the ball 19 times for 129 yards and one touchdown, his power and resiliency the perfect compliment to Boom Williams’ speed and elusiveness. Kentucky’s one-two punch of Boom and Benny grew even stronger vs. Missouri, with the two combining for 374 yards, the most by Kentucky since 1953. Benny had 192 yards and two touchdowns on 38 carries, the most by a Kentucky player since Derick Logan in 1996.
Benny’s been such a star that Eddie Gran continues to find ways to use him, namely the Wildcat formation, which Kentucky used over and over again to great effect vs. Missouri. His performances vs. Mississippi State and Missouri were enough to earn him back-to-bak SEC Freshmen of the Week honors, a normal occurrence for Kentucky basketball, but a rarity in football. You can’t pinpoint a single reason for Kentucky’s turnaround this season, but you can’t deny that Benny’s been a big, big part of it.
“Snell is a really good player,” Georgia’s Kirby Smart said yesterday. “Talking to the teams who have played him, they talk about how physical he is, how good a downhill runner he is.”
All of this from a a kid who was ranked behind 73 other running backs in his recruiting class. Funny enough, according to Ben Roberts, who’s got the most carries in that recruiting class as of today? Benny Snell. Among freshmen, his eight touchdowns this season are second only to Georgia Tech’s Dedrick Mills, who has nine; his 661 yards rushing are second only to Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams, who has 776.
Just imagine what he could have done if he had gotten the ball in the first two games.