Benny Snell Jr. has been a pleasant surprise in the SEC this season.
A three-star recruit from Westerville, Ohio, Snell (pictured) wasn’t expected to do a lot as a true freshman running back for the Wildcats this season.
But the 5-11, 220-pounder somehow has bulldozed his way through SEC defenses to become one of the league’s Top 10 rushers, ranking ahead of more established running backs like Georgia’s Nick Chubb, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Jalen Hurd, who since has left Tennessee.
Snell even has more yardage than Alabama sophomore RB and Richmond, Ky., native Damien Harris, who turned down UK to play for the powerful Crimson Tide in a highly-publicized recruiting battle. Going into this weekend’s action, Snell has gained a total of 775 rushing yards -- which already is the second most ever by a Wildcat freshman in a season -- as compared to Harris’ 750 yards.
Snell’s UK teammate, Stanley Boom Williams, has been spectacular. The junior RB has 898 rushing yards, which are good for No. 4 in the SEC, averaging 7.30 yards. That makes electrifying Williams-Snell duo arguably the most dangerous running backs on the same squad you will find in the conference.
Playing most of the campaign as a backup, Snell made his first career start in last Saturday night’s 27-24 setback to Georgia as he rushed for 114 yards in 21 carries and two TDs against one of SEC’s stingiest rushing defense. He also has become the only player to rush for over 100 yards against UGA so far this fall.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops marveled at Snell’s progress as a college football player.
“It has been remarkable really how steady he has been,” he said. “We have touched on that. He has just been so steady for a freshman. He has shown great maturity. He has handled every situation very well. Any mistakes that he has made he builds on them and gets better. He has a large capacity for a freshman.
“He has great heart, great toughness and maturity for a freshman, that's for sure.”
His remarkable performance this season has made Snell one of the leading candidates for the SEC Freshman of the Year honors (voted by the league coaches). Other top candidates include RB Trayveon Williams of Texas A&M, QB Jalen Hurts of Alabama and QB Jacob Eason of Georgia. Don’t forget rookie defensive standouts like linebacker Leo Lewis of Mississippi State and lineman Jabari Zuniga of Florida.
Hurts, however, would be the favorite for the top freshman award partially because of his team’s No. 1 national ranking. And he is even a strong candidate for SEC’s MVP honors.
Nicknamed “22 Shotz,” Snell -- whose 192 yards against Missouri on Oct. 29 set the school mark for most rushing yards by a rookie in a single game -- credits his teammates for helping him to fight or run his way through brutal SEC battles, which include victories over South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Missouri.
“This group of guys that I’m surrounded by, I love them to death,” he said. “I just try to play hard. I want to get the first down and win the game.”
After battling against a tough Georgia defense, Snell was asked if he gets tired after running the ball so much.
“No, sir. I don’t,” replied the freshman, whose father, Benjamin Snell, once was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 1998.
Well, whether the younger Snell is tired or not after a long day, you can bet that he often thinks about making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with banana.
Why? That’s his favorite meal.
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Former UK connections -- head football coach Hal Mumme and his offensive coordinator Mike Leach (now the head coach at Washington State) during the late 1990s -- are the main subjects of a recently-published book titled, “The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football” (Scribner, $27).
Written by best-selling author S.C. Gwynne, the 293-page hardcover is a compelling story about two once-unknown coaches who revolutionized football by changing from a run-oriented game to an exciting, pass-dominated offense. Mumme and Leach (who is a former lawyer) came up with a radical offense – popularly called “Air Raid” -- which began at a tiny, overlooked school named Iowa Wesleyan.
Mumme, who is now in his third year as head coach at Belhaven University in Mississippi, is pleased with the book.
“I believe Sam Gwynne is truly a great historian and author, and I was honored to work with him on telling our Air Raid story,” Mumme told this columnist. “He got it right and I appreciate ‘The Perfect Pass.’ “
As you may recall, it was Mumme and star QB Tim Couch who guided the pass-happy Wildcats to Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day after the 1998 season.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught