UK Football

What’s wrong with Benny Snell? Here’s why nobody’s asking that anymore.

Kentucky Wildcats running back Benny Snell Jr. (26) scores a touchdown past Vanderbilt Commodores defenders during their game at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. Kentucky beat Vanderbilt 44-21.
Kentucky Wildcats running back Benny Snell Jr. (26) scores a touchdown past Vanderbilt Commodores defenders during their game at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. Kentucky beat Vanderbilt 44-21. aslitz@herald-leader.com

In the first seven games of the season, Benny Snell was averaging a pedestrian 3.8 yards per carry.

The Kentucky running back has doubled that number in his past three games.

Everyone in the football practice facility has theories about why Snell has had nearly as much production in the past three games as he did in the first seven combined.

Some say the offensive line found the right mix after struggling with consistency early.

“Early on we were trying to find that right formula with the offensive line,” Coach Mark Stoops said this week of the group that lost several key cogs from last season and is breaking in a new center. “It takes a little time to come together.”

Some say it’s different play calls and formations.

Some say improved accuracy in the passing game has unclogged the middle of the field for Snell, who became UK’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns after his three scores last weekend.

It’s probably all of the above.

And then there are some intangibles.

Stoops, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and Snell all agree the sophomore is paying much closer attention to the finer details.

The game itself has slowed down for Snell.

But, more importantly, so has he.

“I was moving too fast,” said Snell, who last week became the first UK player to rush for 1,000 or more yards in back-to-back seasons.

“At times, I was getting the ball and going fast,” he explained. “I wasn’t reading the blocks. I wasn’t taking my zone steps like I was so the hole can develop.”

Frustrated by the low production to start this season after setting six rushing records as a freshman, Snell settled in next to his position coach to watch even more game tape than before.

“I’ve been in the film room, been in there with Gran and he got me together,” Snell said. “I was watching the blocks develop, and then at practice he was on me. Then we executed.

“It’s all in a day’s work, but it’s on me to be focused. You can lose focus sometimes when you’re trying to go, go, go all the time.”

Gran said he just offered some side-by-side comparisons for Snell. They discussed what the sophomore could do to get more yards.

“Coach Gran and his experience has really helped Benny, because some of the success the past couple weeks has been going back to some of the details that you just need to coach,” Stoops said.

Many of Gran’s offerings have come to fruition in recent weeks.

“He’s a little bit more patient, and his technique has been phenomenal the last three weeks,” Gran said. “That means from his alignment to his first step to just everything. That’s what he’s been doing.”

Snell, who leads the league and is fourth nationally in rushing touchdowns with 15, has always been a physical, passionate runner, his position coach said.

Now, he’s also becoming a smarter runner.

“He’s done a great job of fixing the little things,” Gran said.

The finer details of what he will see from defenses have been part of the work.

“I’m studying my opponent more,” Snell said. “That’s definitely a big one. I’ve got to be able to know my opponent well. Who’s an aggressive player? Who’s not. Just being in the film room. I was in the film room a lot last year, but I’ve doubled that this year.”

He may need to triple or quadruple that effort for this week’s opponent, seventh-ranked Georgia (9-1, 6-1 SEC).

Because in all of the talk about Snell’s recent success, not much has been said about the teams it’s happened against.

Tennessee, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt have the worst rushing defenses in the conference. They’re among the 20 worst teams nationally at stopping the run.

The Cats (7-3, 4-3) are about to meet one of the nation’s elite rush defenses. The Bulldogs are fifth nationally in containing opponents’ ground game, giving up just 103.8 yards per game and five touchdowns, fewest in the conference.

Only two schools — Wisconsin and Miami (Fla.) — have allowed fewer rushing touchdowns this season.

It’s going to be a test for Snell and UK’s improved ground attack.

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Saturday

Kentucky at Georgia

3:30 p.m. (CBS-27)

Rushing touchdowns

National leaders

22 — Devin Singletary, Florida Atlantic

19 — Nathan Rourke, Ohio

16 — Taquon Marshall, Georgia Tech

15 — Lamar Jackson, Louisville

15 — Kerryon Johnson, Auburn

15 — Bryce Love, Stanford

15 — Rashaad Penny, San Diego State

15 — Benny Snell, Kentucky

15 — Lexington Thomas, UNLV

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