Benny Snell adores his mother.
“She is the love of my life,” Kentucky’s running back says of his mom, April. “My mom has been with me every step of the way.”
So keep that in mind when Snell’s high school coach describes “the zone” in which he’s seen the running back get as a player with the ball in his hands and the end zone on his brain.
“When he’s intense the way he is, I’m sure he’d run over his own mother,” former Westerville Central Coach John Magistro said this week.
“I mean that in a nice way because I know his mom and have great love for his mom, but it’s just a zone he gets into.”
Magistro has been a high school coach for more than three decades. He’s coached several NFL players. He’s not comparing Snell in any way to any of those guys — although he might if you asked him to — except in Snell’s ability to get in that place.
“Some can get into that zone, that intensity, but it wears off after the second quarter or the third quarter,” Magistro said. “For Benny it never does.”
If Snell doesn’t get 3 or 4 yards on every carry, “it disturbs him to his core,” the coach continued.
Magistro has seen it since Snell was a kid at Westerville Central, where he had 3,903 rushing yards, 537 receiving yards and 57 touchdowns in his final two seasons.
Magistro has seen it in the years since when the junior has amassed 2,424 yards and 32 touchdowns in leading Kentucky’s ground game while becoming a first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection with his sights set on breaking the Cats’ all-time rushing record.
His former head coach’s favorite story about the running back, who once had 241 yards and three touchdowns in a game, is from a random practice.
Snell was going up against a scout team defender, who “had a wrestler’s mentality” and neither of the players was going to back down in a drill. The defender was probably 150 pounds in a sweat-soaked jersey, but he kept mixing it up with Snell, who was just plowing him down.
Coaches started to worry that someone would get hurt.
Magistro said to Snell: “Geez, Louise, are you going to keep running over him like that?’”
The head coach told Snell to ease up a little. Snell still shook his head and said “no.” It was probably even a “no, sir.”
In a straightforward and earnest way, Snell replied: “Coach, that is the way I practice.”
Magistro went back to the concerned coaches on the other side of the ball and said they needed a different plan or a different drill.
Stopping Benny Snell from being Benny Snell was like trying to stop a bullet train on its way down a mountain.
“Whatever I put my mind to, I’m going to do it,” Snell said this week, “and that’s how it is.”
‘A good pride’
There are players with more talent, more top-end speed and quicker first steps than Snell. Magistro knows all that. He had many coaches tell him as much during Snell’s recruiting process.
“Everybody else thought he was a pinch too slow or a pinch too this or a pinch too that,” Magistro said. “They found little things here and there.”
Snell’s dream was to be a “hometown hero” and play for Ohio State, but that didn’t happen.
“I found myself at camps being the best one and still guys were getting the running back MVPs and all that, but I was the best one,” Snell said confidently at SEC Media Days in July.
“I knew I was. So from then all the way until now, getting a low ranking as a running back, me not being productive, me being at Kentucky, I’ll forever keep this chip on my shoulder and keep running hard.”
The junior thinks about the slights, the knocks, the doubters before every practice and then every game. That extra 2 yards with linebackers attached to him at the hip? That’s for one of those schools that didn’t offer.
“It’s something I think about all the time, but when I’m about to go out before a game, I think about, ‘OK, deep breath, now it’s time to go,’” he said.
Lots of players have faced rejection from dream schools. That’s not a new thing.
Few are able to channel that frustration the way Snell does.
“It gives him an edge,” Magistro said. “He has that in the back of his mind every time he goes out on the field. … It’s truly amazing how he can set his mind to do things.”
Cats running backs coach Eddie Gran calls it “a good pride” that drives Snell.
“He’s got pride that he wants to be great,” Gran said. “I think that in this game that’s how you’ve got to play the game. He’s just got that old-school mentality. He’s going to give you everything he’s got with every single play.”
Monday through Friday, too
Fans see it in the constantly churning legs of Snell, in his ability to push a pile of players twice his size forward, in his ability to find a hole after a snap in the wildcat formation.
But teammates and coaches see what sets Snell apart during the parts of football that others don’t see.
“He’s been inspiring to play in front of this last couple years,” said tight end C.J. Conrad, who has facilitated more than his fair share of big Snell runs. “It seriously has been amazing. Our whole offensive line has a ton of respect for him because what you see on Saturdays is what you get Monday through Friday.”
If you flip on tape of Snell, whether it’s in the biggest game of the year or a random practice in the spring, “he’s just full speed all the time,” Gran said.
Added Stoops: “It’s like that every day. Whether it’s in the weight room, the training session in the summer, every practice, every scrimmage, he goes hard.”
That’s his gear, his mode, Snell said, echoing the same things he told Magistro on his high school practice field a few years ago.
“If you go your hardest at practice, then the game is much more easy,” he said. “When the big runs and things come, this is just a normal thing to me.”
So when he breaks through the line on a basic run play on a basic Wednesday in July, he makes sure to go 10 more yards. When he catches the ball in the middle of the field and doesn’t see a defender around him, the play isn’t over until he’s gotten another first down.
“He’s by far the best practice player I’ve ever been around,” Magistro said, “and that says a lot because I’ve had some really good guys who have NFL careers.”
It’s likely Snell will have one of those, too, pretty soon. Then he can do something special for his mom, his motivation.
“She’s helped me in every way,” Benny said. “I know I need to go hard in my life so I can repay her.”
Just hope she doesn’t ever accidentally stand in his way.
Scouting the running backs
▪ The main man: There hasn’t been any question the past two seasons. It’s junior Benny Snell, the first UK player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. The junior, who was a preseason First Team All-SEC selection, needs 1,412 more yards to break the Cats’ all-time rushing record. He already owns multiple UK rushing records in just two years.
▪ The supporting cast: It probably will continue to be the Snell show this season, but promising backups senior Sihiem King (572 yards and four touchdowns on 101 career carries) and sophomore A.J. Rose (37 yards on 15 carries last season) both have coaches singing their praises this preseason as ready to take a big jump and contribute bigger numbers. Rose, who had a strong spring game, could have a breakout year. True freshmen Chris Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke also could get some looks after impressing in preseason camp. “They’ve got really good vision and they bring a lot of power,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said recently of the freshmen. “They’ve got really good hands. I was pleased with those guys.”
▪ Outlook: With questions at quarterback while the Cats break in an inexperienced newcomer, look for the running backs to carry a big part of the offensive load this season. Anchored by an offensive line that has 59 starts among them, UK should be able to make a big push in the ground game. Coaches have spent part of the summer looking for creative ways to get their running backs, including star Snell, the ball even more.