When looking to find out how spring practice is going for a certain player, sometimes it’s best to ask the other side of the ball first.
So who on offense is giving Kentucky’s defense the most trouble this spring?
“Benny,” replied defensive coordinator Matt House. “He’s setting the tone on their side of the ball in my opinion.”
That would be Benny Snell, Kentucky’s freshman All-American who fans will get to see on Friday night in the Blue-White Spring Game when he runs out with the first-team offense.
Snell has been so potent this spring that junior Chris Westry joked after a scrimmage last week that he’s happy there are several defenders between him and Snell.
“That man runs like somebody hit his mom every time,” Westry smiled. “I’m glad I play corner sometimes.”
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, who also coaches the running backs, was quick to tamp down any talk about Snell being “the man” at the start of spring football despite the fact Snell set six freshman rushing records, including yards (1,091) and touchdowns (13).
“I wouldn’t say he’s ‘the guy,’” Gran said two days into spring practice. “Let’s not use those words. He’s got a lot of work to do. We need to make sure when you are considered that guy there’s a lot of responsibility with that.”
By all accounts, Snell has taken that responsibility seriously and become a vocal leader this spring, even when he’s not on the field.
“You can hear him on the sideline when we had the other guys out there,” Gran said after a recent closed scrimmage.
And you can hear Snell in his position room, chiming in to answer questions, explaining concepts, trying to help the other running backs get better.
“I’ve got a job to do and I’ve got to get it done while I’m making the guys behind me better,” he explained.
Snell didn’t need Gran to motivate him after a breakout season that included a team-high 186 carries despite not touching the ball in UK’s first two games.
What does Snell now know that he didn’t a season ago? He learned when he has questions, he can go to the offensive linemen or quarterback Stephen Johnson.
He learned that he needed to get more intimately connected with the offense, not just his one small place in it.
“Oh, man,” he said. “I learned so much, just recognizing blitzes much faster before they even came. Last year, my freshman year, when blitzes would come, I’d see them at the last second. Or Stephen would have to give me a little hint before the last second. Now I know everything when it comes down to the running back position.”
Gran would probably disagree that Snell knows everything about that position, but he’s getting closer every day.
“He’s trying. He really is. He gets it,” Gran said. “He’s listening. He’s not there yet. But I do love that when he makes a mistake, usually it doesn’t happen again. That’s really good, especially for a young player. He does. He really gets it.”
Snell, who had 29 runs of 10 or more yards last season, watches his film from a season ago and sees things he didn’t see before, a hole or a cutback he should have made.
“I’ve got to be a smarter runner, make better decisions,” he said. “Working on my footwork, my speed a little bit.”
Like his coaches, Snell sees plenty of room for improvement.
That included working to control his emotions — and his mouth — early in the spring.
“At times I have to reason with him,” Coach Mark Stoops said. “He gets frustrated when he gets tackled. He’s gonna get tackled.”
When that happens, Snell has to learn to move on to the next play.
“He’s learning now to run through and don’t worry about it,” Gran said of some early back-and-forth with defensive players. “Don’t turn back and say something. Just quit running your mouth.”
All of his coaches agree that his passion for the game is what makes him so special as a running back.
Snell just has to keep growing into his role.
Coaches never doubt that he’ll keep working to get better. It’s what Snell does.
“He goes 150 miles an hour every play, and you’ve got to love that about that kid,” co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said. “He’s a leader all the time whether he’s on the field or off the field. That’s what you want your running back’s mentality to be — just a workhorse mentality.”
Blue-White Spring Game
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Commonwealth Stadium
TV: SEC Network