Benny Snell is no longer a fixture at the UK football practice facility, but he was still a topic of conversation there Tuesday morning.
That’s unlikely to change anytime soon. And that’s what happens when the departure of a record-breaking player leaves a massive hole to fill.
Snell departed UK for a shot at the NFL after becoming the program’s all-time leading rusher in his final game as a Wildcat — the team’s victory over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. This past season, Snell accounted for 76.5 percent of the carries among UK’s running backs. The season before that, he had 73.6 percent of the share out of Kentucky’s backfield.
Needless to say, the Wildcats’ run game will look a lot different in 2019.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
“He left his legacy here,” said AJ Rose, the early favorite to be UK’s leading rusher this season. “He’s probably the best running back to come through here. I learned a lot from him. So I’m just trying to add to my game what I got from his.”
Rose, who ran 71 times for 442 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore this past season, came to UK with Snell in 2016 and has spent the past few years in his shadow. He praised his former teammate Tuesday — the Cats’ second day of spring practice — but also said he was looking forward to a campaign with more opportunities to show what he can do.
“It feels good to come in as the starter,” Rose said. “You don’t have to worry about getting in or playing.”
It certainly sounds like the backfield reps will be there for Rose’s taking, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be getting the ball at the same rate that Snell has over the past couple of seasons.
The Cats have a couple of talented running backs who played sparingly as freshmen last season in order to preserve a year of eligibility — Chris Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke — and they’ve already made a positive impression.
UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said Rodriguez is “a little bit like Benny” as the hard-nosed, yards-after-contact runner that the Cats will certainly be looking for this season. Gran described Smoke as a “slasher” who can gain yards in multiple ways.
“Those three are going to be competing like crazy,” he said. “I love the room. Benny left it in great shape. They know what it takes to be a great running back and the physicality you have to have in this league. And so that’s what I’m looking for from those guys.
“We’ll see how we compete. … It could be a running back by committee. I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes. I’m not afraid of AJ being in there — whoever that guy is, whoever wins that spot — being that guy who has the most reps.”
Highly touted freshman Travis Tisdale — a 5-foot-9 back from Georgia — will join the Cats in the summer with the rest of UK’s incoming recruits who did not enroll early. “He’s a 10.6 100-meter guy. Not as big, but he’s still — for a little guy, in terms of his stature — he’s still 185 pounds, so he’s got some thickness to him,” Gran said. “But he can run. So that gives you a change-up there, too.”
Terry Wilson — the Wildcats’ quarterback — is actually UK’s top returning rusher from last season with 547 yards, and he’s looking forward to Rose and others stepping up to take over the reins in the backfield.
This group of UK running backs might also add a new wrinkle to the Cats’ offense, even if they don’t ultimately match the overall rushing production from the previous era. Snell, for all his greatness, wasn’t much of a threat in the pass game. He caught a total of 28 balls for 205 yards over the past three seasons.
“This spring, we’re emphasizing on getting our running backs out for check-downs and stuff like that,” Wilson said. “When things aren’t open down the field, I can just dump the ball down for a check down. We’re pushing that a lot this spring. … They can catch.”
Rose, who had eight receptions for 82 yards and one touchdown in his limited role last season, confirmed that everyone in UK’s running backs room can indeed catch the ball, and they all want to make that a bigger part of the offense this season.
The next few weeks — leading up to the spring game on April 12 — will be the time to hone those skills … and maybe add a little separation at the position.
“It’s a big, competitive nature in that room,” Wilson said. “Just knowing who we had last year and who has to step up — they’re all doing good. They’re all working hard. So we’ll just find out what happens. They’re all competing, and it’ll just be fun to see.”