It was a bright, clear, calm morning broken by a fierce hit.
It was a freshman-on-freshman collision near the end of fall camp when linebacker Roland Walder popped running back Benny Snell hard.
But Snell got up off the ground faster than his coaches could blink. It brought running backs coach Eddie Gran boundless joy.
“I love him right now, you know what I mean?” said Gran, UK’s offensive coordinator, of Snell. “For a freshman and some of the hits, he’s shown that he can have yards after contact. He’s really far ahead for a true freshman.”
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After the play had ended, Gran ran over to the 5-foot-11, 220-pounder from Westerville, Ohio, and celebrated with him.
“Two weeks ago, Benny would’ve reacted differently,” Gran explained of his rowdy reaction. “Here he got up like a grown man, jogged, did his deal, came back to the huddle. That’s how you’re supposed to act. That’s what I was excited about.”
What Gran didn’t say — and didn’t add until nearly a month later, after Snell had scored a school record-tying four rushing touchdowns and 136 yards against New Mexico State — was that the freshman had shown them similar things in scrimmages all fall.
So when did Gran start to see that Snell was going to be special?
“The first scrimmage,” Gran said. “It was that he was hard to tackle. He knows what to do and that’s very important.”
Snell keeps a low pad level and carries tacklers with him, which Gran called “a lunch pail mentality. Just goes to work and gets the job done.”
Snell’s overall size and the fact that he keeps his legs moving and keeps pushing for extra yards makes him a difficult down.
There was plenty of evidence of that in Saturday’s game against the Aggies. On Snell’s first career carry, coming in as a third-string back on a third-and-one, he broke two tackles and then carried three defenders with him for 18 yards.
On his next carry, he took his first hit at his shoulders and then surged forward for four more yards.
On one of his four touchdown plays, Snell carried four defenders the final three yards for the score.
The running back, who once ran for 241 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries in a high school game, didn’t think it was anything special.
“I just wanted to do my job and that’s to run the ball,” said a nonchalant Snell, who had the most rushing yards in a game by a true freshman at UK since Derek Homer in 1997.
Running the ball was a job he did well his final two seasons at Westerville Central, a place where he had a 35-6 career. In his final two seasons there, Snell ran for 3,903 yards, caught for 555 more and accounted for 57 touchdowns.
“He impressed us right from the start,” Coach Mark Stoops said of Snell. “Much like he did (Saturday), very consistent, physical, disciplined and all the things you’re looking for. He’s very good in pass protections, he’s good with vision and he runs the ball hard. We needed that.”
Snell also showed some prowess in a package that had become Jojo Kemp’s specialty in recent seasons, including hurting South Carolina the last time the Gamecocks were at Commonwealth Stadium.
“That was frustrating,” South Carolina safety D.J. Smith said of going against Kemp in the Wildcat package. “That’s not going to happen again, I don’t think. Hopefully, it don’t.”
With Kemp on the sideline nursing an ankle injury (he’s expected to be back this week), Snell took several direct snaps in the Wildcat package last Saturday, including running one in for a score.
It’s something all of UK’s backs practice on a regular basis, he said, and it’s something he did in high school as well.
Look for some of that from Kentucky on Saturday versus the Gamecocks, likely with Kemp and Snell.
South Carolina was susceptible to it versus East Carolina last weekend. James Summers gashed them with it, Coach Will Muschamp said.
Summers, listed as a wide receiver, finished as the leading rusher for the Pirates with 71 yards on 11 carries.
“We were soft in the run game about the third series, and that drive was about 60 yards of their rushing total,” said Muschamp, whose rushing defense is No. 97 in the nation, giving up an average of 192.7 yards a game but just one rushing touchdown in the first three games.
“We played blocks well up front. We didn’t fit the run well. That was the disappointing thing.”
The Wildcat package was a regular option in Gran and Darin Hinshaw’s playbook at Cincinnati mainly because of its versatility, Gran said: “Just gives you an opportunity to spread people out, and you can do a lot of things with it whether it be the fly sweep, whether it be throw the ball, whether it be sprint out, whether it be anything.”
No matter what the formation, the package, the quarter, Snell said he’s ready.
The freshman has no expectation of more carries because of his huge game Saturday, though.
He said: “Still going to be the same: I just want to get on the field and make plays, so whenever they need me, I’m going to be ready.”
South Carolina at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)