Benny Snell’s not shy when asked the question: Which Kentucky running back has the best pair of hands?
“You’re looking at him,” smiled Snell, who showed he had a pretty good set of feet last season, setting six UK freshman records on his way to running for 1,091 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Snell didn’t have much of a chance to show off that particular skill set, catching just two passes for 39 yards. But look for the sophomore and the Cats’ other running backs to have many more opportunities to show they’re pretty good with their hands, too.
It’s all a part of building on the package for the Kentucky offense, which was limited by personnel and inexperience for much of last season.
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The playbook has expanded, Snell said.
“There’s a lot more pages, a lot of changes that’s been going on playbook wise,” he said. “We’re catching the ball a lot. Coach (Eddie) Gran got a lot of tricks up his sleeve. It’s a fun, a fun offense.”
A season ago while working in a new quarterback who had only been on campus for a few months, UK’s coaches had to limit what they could do. Junior college transfer Stephen Johnson struggled with many of the intermediate passes needed to hit running backs for big plays in the middle of the field.
Johnson is hitting those passes “better, on stride, not behind them,” said Gran, the Cats’ offensive coordinator.
Instead of just encouraging Johnson and Drew Barker to throw the ball out of bounds or hold onto the ball while they take a sack, Kentucky’s coaches believe their quarterbacks are more comfortable going to their checkdowns.
That includes finding the running back in the center of the field.
“We’re going to try to get one or two (yards)” on those plays,” Snell said of dump passes to running backs. “All it takes is one to break one tackle and we can take it the distance. That’s one thing we definitely can do.”
Even in a brief appearance in the Blue-White Spring Game in April, the playbook was starting to reveal itself, with Snell catching more passes (three) than he did all of last season (two).
Running backs Sihiem King and A.J. Rose each caught one of those checkdown passes for a first down in the exhibition, too.
Last season, UK running backs caught just 15 passes for 114 yards. Most of them went the direction of the now departed Boom Williams, who had eight grabs for 56 yards and a touchdown.
Of the Cats’ returning backs, Snell and King combined for just five catches for 53 yards.
Those numbers should increase significantly this season.
“All of them can catch,” Gran said. “Benny, he’s pretty good at it. He’s got soft hands, but so does Sihiem and so does A.J. and so does Bryant Koback. They all have good hands, which is good out of the backfield.”
It clearly was a part of the playbook for Gran and co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw when they ran the offense at Cincinnati for three seasons.
In each of those seasons, Bearcats running backs doubled what UK’s backs produced through the air last season.
Several of Kentucky’s running backs showed that ability in high school, including King, who caught 94 passes for 796 yards and four touchdowns at Colquitt County in Georgia.
In Snell’s final two seasons at Westerville Central in Ohio, the running back netted 555 yards on catches.
The Kentucky sophomore is eager to show off that skill again this season.
“I will be catching the ball way more,” Snell said early in camp. “Coach Gran has been working that in and I’m very thankful for that. I wanted to get more receiving yards than I had last year. I want to better my game overall.”
Scouting the Cats
This is the seventh of nine stories looking at the 2017 Kentucky football team, position by position.
Scouting the running backs
The main man: As a true freshman, Benny Snell was among the most prolific in the Southeastern Conference and set six records for UK newcomers, including most rushing touchdowns in a game (four), most rushing yards by a freshman (1,091) and most freshman rushing touchdowns (13).
The supporting cast: Proven veterans Boom Williams and Jojo Kemp are gone, so UK is relying on Snell to become a premier back alongside redshirt freshman A.J. Rose and little-used junior Sihiem King. The Cats also have true freshman Bryant Koback, but he is being brought along slowly after suffering a broken leg a year ago.
Outlook: Snell and Williams were the only teammates to rush for 1,000 yards in the SEC last season. So much of their success came thanks to the other being a complementary back. So it’s hard to predict Snell’s success, especially now that defenses know what to expect from him. King has been good in flashes, but UK has never had to rely on him to be a go-to running back. And while Rose has drawn high praise from coaches and teammates this preseason, he still has yet to play a college snap. Kentucky needs a lot of things to go perfectly this season for the run game to continue its success from last year (third in league and No. 20 nationally at 234.2 yards per game). It also will be interesting to see how much the wildcat package is utilized for each running back and versatile four-star freshman wide receiver Lynn Bowden.