From three-star recruit to dark-horse Heisman candidate, UK's Benny Snell Jr. still carries a chip

Joined: 1:50 PM - Sep 04, 2012

3:58 AM - Oct 05, 2018 #1


From three-star recruit to dark-horse Heisman candidate, UK's Benny Snell Jr. still carries a chip

Benny the Vampire Slayer had work to do in the Kentucky locker room.

During his first two years as a Wildcat, the team was not reaching its potential. Consecutive 7-6 seasons were an improvement over the previous six years but still felt disappointing to those on the inside. While eternally middling football results are greeted with a fatalistic shoulder shrug by most fans in the commonwealth, that was not the response from the team’s best player.

Benny Snell Jr. wanted better, and he demanded better.

So the 223-pound running back who loves to take on tacklers took on his peers. Rushing for more than 2,400 yards and 32 touchdowns his first two seasons at Kentucky gave him the credibility, and the emotional Snell has never lacked a loud voice. His message: drive a stake through your bad attitude, or we don’t want you back in 2018.

“In prior years we had those vampires on this team, and they brought the team down a lot,” Snell told Yahoo Sports this week. 

“This year we eliminated all of them. Guys are a lot closer, they’re coming in early to watch extra film, they’re committed.

 They’re working harder. I’m glad I got it across to the team.

“We had guys that suck the life out of teams. Guys that are like, ‘Ugh, we got practice,’ and are dreading it. No, you’ve got to be energized. We want to do things around here, SEC championships. We want to be a powerhouse team. We don’t want to be an underdog team.”

Undefeated through five games for the first time in 11 years and 3-0 in the Southeastern Conference for the first time since 1977, Kentucky is close to staking a rare claim to powerhouse status. The irony is that the guy leading the rise has identified as an underdog for much of his life.

Snell slighted by hometown Ohio State Buckeyes

Benny Snell Jr. went to all the camps that prospects routinely attend while at Westerville Central High School in Ohio — camps where recruiting sites do their evaluations, and coaches do theirs, and reputations as college prospects can be made or broken. He almost always left crestfallen.

“I remember going to those camps and working as hard as I can,” Snell said. “I’m not dropping any balls, I’m first in every drill, I’m not making any mistakes, and they’re still taking a five-star guy, a four-star guy [as camp MVP]. I just felt like the three-star was slapped on me, and I thought, ‘I guess that’s where I am.’ I’m watching the MVPs that were given … and every time I saw it I was heartbroken.”

The real heartbreak came locally. Snell grew up about 20 miles from Columbus and was a born a Buckeye. His family all rooted for Ohio State, and that was the school he dreamed of playing for as kid.

Urban Meyer and his staff had no such reciprocal dream. With an increasingly expansive recruiting reach into the South, Ohio State didn’t have much interest in a central Ohio kid who always clocked a step slow for his position. There were a few school visits early in his high school career, but those tailed off and the communication with Meyer’s staff slowed.

“It bothered me big time,” Snell said. “Growing up watching Ohio State football, having that urge to be the hometown hero, my dream was to play for the Buckeyes. My family, all they watched was the Buckeyes. All I wanted was for them to turn on the Buckeyes and I would be on that screen.

“I loved [former Ohio State coach] Jim Tressel. He was that guy — he was that guy. Now, when Urban Meyer came in, I don’t know. But I feel if Jim was there, things would maybe have been different. But I’m happy the way things turned out.”

With Ohio State winning big every year and its current running back tandem of Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins performing well, it’s impossible to say the Buckeyes have suffered from snubbing Snell. But Kentucky certainly has benefited from signing the No. 58 prospect in Ohio in the Class of 2016.

All politics is local in recruiting, and the decisions by those who hold the upper hand — the powerhouse school or the in-state stud recruit — often foster hurt feelings. The year before Ohio State passed on Snell, the Wildcats were stiff-armed by five-star back Damien Harris of Richmond, Kentucky, who chose Alabama.

It’s worked out fine for Harris — he has two national championship rings and is one of the senior leaders of the current Crimson Tide juggernaut. But his decision to reject an all-out recruiting effort from Kentucky enhanced the Wildcats’ need at running back.

Snell was there for the taking, and UK recruiter extraordinaire Vince Marrow was the right guy to get it done.

Marrow went to high school with Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops in Youngstown, Ohio. When Stoops brought him to Lexington as his lead recruiter in 2012, Marrow quickly established a beachhead in his home state. It was a shift away from Kentucky’s customary recruiting focus in the deep South, and Marrow’s success in Ohio is a vital reason why the Wildcats have progressed the last few years.

In the case of Snell, it was a perfect marriage. An under-the-radar player meets a coach selling an under-the-radar program. Interest was coming from a few Big Ten schools (Iowa, Michigan State, Indiana) and all of the Mid-American Conference, but Marrow made a quick connection that grew from there.

“I’m thinking I’m a Big Ten back,” Snell said. “He got me thinking about the SEC.”

Marrow would tease Snell in a way that stoked his always-lit competitive fire, asking, “You sure you’re ready for this? You’ve got to be a big dog to run in the SEC.”

Snell’s response: “What are you saying? I am the big dog. I’m ready for whatever.”

Yet Kentucky’s coaches didn’t think he was ready right away. Snell began his freshman season as a special-teams demon, starting on kickoff coverage, kickoff return, punt coverage and punt return, but he was buried on the running back depth chart.

Snell didn’t see a snap on offense in the first two games, against Southern Mississippi and Florida. The Wildcats lost them both.

The third game, against New Mexico State, Snell got his first college handoffs — 17 of them, for 136 yards and four touchdowns. Kentucky won easily. He’s been a surprise star ever since.

Heading into a game at Texas A&M on Saturday, Snell is seventh nationally in rushing yards (639), tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns (eight) and first in carries (115). He is the key to a pad-thumping Kentucky offense that leads the SEC in rushing and is second in time of possession. Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher thinks so highly of Snell that he compared him this week to another running back who once was deemed a step slow: NFL all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith.

“Emmitt had all the big plays and all that, but Emmitt made yards on everything he did,” Fisher said. “… It’s just constantly moving the chains. He’s strong and powerful and all of a sudden, he breaks out. He’s very patient. He finds space in places where there shouldn’t be.”

Fitting. Because there wasn’t supposed to be space for Benny Snell at the top of college football.

How Snell feels about Heisman talk

The word is out at the Waffle House.

Benny Snell likes to grab breakfast at the Waffle House near his Lexington house — a bowl of sausage, eggs, bacon and onions, with a shot of ketchup — and he usually gets it to go. Nobody ever paid special attention to him until he started showing up on TV this season as the face of the surprising Wildcats. Now, the Waffle House staff makes a fuss when he comes in.

He’s kind of a big deal. Working his way up school and conference record lists, and Heisman Trophy polls as well. Heart, as always, on his sleeve, Snell says it’s about time he’s considered a Heisman candidate.

“Here it comes,” he said. “Here it comes late. The numbers have been there. The winning games, now it’s coming. It’s a blessing.”

While the national admiration is growing, an interesting dynamic is at work locally. At a blueblood basketball power, a football player is probably the biggest sports star on campus.

For all its success, the impermanence of Kentucky basketball makes it difficult to latch on deeply to the best players — they’re gone six months after the season starts, off to the NBA, and a new flotilla of five-star talent comes in. There also are so many of them in a given year that it’s difficult (in non-Anthony Davis seasons) to truly stand out as the leading man. And there is this: Nobody is reviving Kentucky basketball; it is permanently prominent.

Kentucky football? That’s a different deal. The careers last longer. And the high times are rarer, so the players who lead those teams stand out — Tim Couch in the 1990s, Andre Woodson in the 2000s.

But both of those guys were in-state quarterbacks. Favorite sons. Now here comes a three-star running back from Ohio to steal the hearts of the commonwealth.

Still, the success and the mounting acclaim, the attention on campus, the Waffle House love — he loves it and wants it, but doesn’t fully trust it. It’s counter-intuitive to his inner three-star.

Snell wants to keep hold of the disrespect of his teenage years. He needs to carry it with him, to keep it handy in case of motivational emergency. He wouldn’t be the same player without it.

“I play aggressive,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I play mad, but I do want to say mad at the same time. Before I go into a game, there’s always in the back of my mind that there was those doubters. There were those haters that spoke up on me, spoke up on this team, and they just put us under the bus.

“That’s why I’m very aggressive when I run. I’m on a mission. I’ve got some people to prove wrong.” ... 54226.html
Alabama: Heart of the South

Joined: 1:50 PM - Sep 04, 2012

7:29 AM - Oct 05, 2018 #2

If Kentucky would happen to win the East , or God forbid , shock the country by winning the SEC …. Snell would get the Heisman … 
Alabama: Heart of the South

Joined: 4:59 PM - Oct 03, 2013

7:46 AM - Oct 05, 2018 #3

If Kentucky gets a Heisman before Tennessee just shoot me.  
Being a Vol fan is great except for a few Saturdays in the fall.

Joined: 1:50 PM - Sep 04, 2012

8:12 AM - Oct 05, 2018 #4

DocVOLiday wrote: If Kentucky gets a Heisman before Tennessee just shoot me.  
lol ….

Alabama: Heart of the South

Joined: 11:23 AM - Sep 04, 2012

6:52 AM - Oct 07, 2018 #5

Etienne needs to be in convo in Snell is...what he is doing is just unreal

16.7 yards per carry yesterday and over 9 a carry on the season with 11 TDs. He’s been a man on a mission. If you’re not watching him you’re missing out.