John Clay

Building a bully: How Kentucky became one of SEC’s most physical teams

UK’s Benny Snell on beating Florida: ‘It was what I dreamed about’

After rushing for 175 yards I. 27 carries, Kentucky running back Benny Snell talks about the feeling of beating Florida 27-16 on Sept. 8, 2018.
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After rushing for 175 yards I. 27 carries, Kentucky running back Benny Snell talks about the feeling of beating Florida 27-16 on Sept. 8, 2018.

You might want to be sitting down for this invaluable piece of football knowledge about to be laid on you.

In the SEC, bigger is better.

Who says so?

Nick Saban says so.

Former NFL general manager and Alabama radio analyst Phil Savage dropped that secret in his book “Fourth and Goal Every Day” with co-writer Ray Glier, about Crimson Tide football. Savage wrote: “So the first point to make about the philosophy in the Alabama football complex when it comes to recruiting is this: Big people beat up little people.”

Knowing that is one thing. Identifying, recruiting and developing those big people into players who can play physical football at a high level is another thing entirely. And it’s a thing that Kentucky might actually be on the verge of accomplishing.

“We were the more physical team,” said UK coach Mark Stoops after his team’s streak-snapping 27-16 win at Florida on Saturday night.

Kentucky running backs Benny Snell and A.J. Rose share a moment at midfield after UK snapped at 31-game losing streak against Florida.

But don’t just take Stoops’ word for it.

“I think our physicality is going to be something this team — and we’ve talked about it constantly — they have to continue to work on,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said afterward. “And it starts in practice.”

“You have to be physical to win consistently in this league,” Stoops said Monday. “I thought (Saturday) was a great example of that.

Others are noticing as well.

“Florida is going to be okay,” wrote long-time SEC analyst Tony Barnhart for TMG College Sports. “They just got lined up and whooped by Kentucky the other night. Right now Kentucky looks like the second best team in the East. Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Kentucky are the most physical football teams in the SEC.”

So how does that happen? How does a Kentucky get mentioned with traditional conference powers Georgia, Alabama, Auburn and LSU when it comes to physical play in the nation’s toughest league?

Kentucky linebacker Kash Daniel on why this UK team was able to beat Florida. The Cats beat the Gators 27-16 on Sept. 8, 2018.

How do you build a bully?

“I think it’s just a constant process since I’ve gotten here,” said Stoops, who has preached physicality since he arrived in 2013. “Coach (Corey) Edmond and Mark Hill, our strength guys, do a wonderful job. And it’s just about having that mentality. It takes time. And it takes recruitment and development.

“I’ve said that from day one. You recruit big, athletic-looking guys and you develop them into SEC offensive and defensive linemen. You’re starting to see that.”

It was noted in the preseason that the 2018 edition appeared to be a bigger, stronger version of Cats. “We look more like an SEC football team,” observed athletics director Mitch Barnhart at UK’s media day.

You want not just big guys, but big, athletic guys. In his book on Alabama, Savage says Saban values flexibility as much as size. “Indeed,” he writes, “a member of Alabama’s player personnel staff told me, ‘If a player can’t bend, Coach doesn’t want him.’”

For Kentucky, we’re not just talking on the line of scrimmage, either. Look at starting quarterback Terry Wilson, the junior college transfer who stands 6-foot-3, weighs a sturdy 205 pounds and, as he proved at The Swamp, can move. Against the Gators, Wilson rushed for 105 yards on 10 carries. His longest run was 31 yards. He scored on a 24-yard touchdown run.

“He makes this offense so much more deadly,” Benny Snell, UK’s star running back, said afterward. “You can’t predict what he’s going to do.”

Of course, Snell had quite a night in Gainesville himself, rushing for 175 yards, his 14th career 100-yard rushing game at UK. And surely his bulldozer-type style sets a physical tone for his team.

“He’s a dynamic back,” Stoops said. “He gets very, very tough physical yards.”

Still, to use another old football cliché — because it’s true — you win up front, in the trenches. Kentucky controlled the line of scrimmage Saturday, gaining 303 yards on the ground while holding Florida to 128 as the Cats not only snapped a streak but made a statement. Muscle matters, as does mentality. Football remains a physical game.

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