It wasn’t Benny Snell’s Senior Day on Saturday at Kroger Field, but it just as well have been.
As a junior, he didn’t stand with his senior teammates in the pre-game ceremony before Kentucky’s 34-23 win over Middle Tennessee, surrounded by his family, soaking in the crowd’s appreciation, listening to a meaningful rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home.”
The family part will come later, after the season finale at Louisville, or after the team’s bowl game, or sometime in between. Once 2018 is officially done, Kentucky’s star running back will have a decision to make about 2019. If he hasn’t made that decision already.
“I’m not going to steal his thunder,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said.
So on an afternoon when Snell rushed for 116 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries, was this his last game at Kroger Field?
“I don’t know,” Snell said afterward. “I enjoyed it, every bit. It was a good team effort win, but I don’t know.”
After all, college football is a three-and-done proposition when it comes to the NFL Draft, and the 5-foot-11, 223-pound bulldozer of a back from Westerville, Ohio, is near the end of a third consecutive year in which he’s rushed for more than 1,000 yards.
“The ‘Snell Yeah’ team, we think about it, talk about it,” he said, referencing his family. “It’s a conversation that I have a lot, but I like living in the moment. I like living where I’m at right now.”
Josh Allen and Mike Edwards had the same decision to make a year ago. Both were projected as possible NFL Draft picks. Both decided instead to return for their senior seasons. And for both, it worked out. As a heady safety, Edwards surely has improved his draft stock. As an outside linebacker and edge rusher, Allen executed a mammoth leap that could land him among the top-10 players chosen next July.
Allen and Edwards are on the defensive side of the ball, however. Snell is not just on offense, but he is the workhorse of the offense. Such is the life of the running back. Carry after carry; hit after hit. You can put only so many miles on those tires.
“I think that position and what he’s done is totally different for some other guys,” Stoops said. “And I’ll let Benny make that announcement at the appropriate time and what he decides to do. But that position is clearly different and what what he’s done and the upside, he stands something to lose by coming back where other guys, they all gained by coming back.”
True, leaving didn’t work out for Snell’s former teammate, Boom Williams. After rushing for more than 1,000 yards in 2016, the breakaway back decided to head to the NFL Draft after his junior season. Alas, he went undrafted, was cut first by Cincinnati and then Denver. This year, he failed to catch on in the Canadian Football League.
Williams was a smaller, shiftier back, however. At 5-9, 196 pounds he was considered a liability in pass protection and not quite big enough for special teams. He was fast, yes, but in the NFL there’s always somebody faster.
Not that Snell is a lock, by any means. In his latest draft ratings, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. did not have the UK star among his 10 backs. There are questions about the junior’s speed and elusiveness.
Still, what Snell lacks in afterburners, he makes up for in size and forward lean. He can turn a 2-yard run into a 5-yard gain. And he keeps coming and coming and coming.
“He’s been productive for three straight years,” Stoops said Saturday, “and he’s meant a lot to us.”
The coach then turned and asked UK’s sports information director, Tony Neely, what the number was for Snell to become the school’s all-time leading rusher.
“It’s 207,” Neely said.
“Well, we better get going,” replied Stoops.
Then the coach and his star will sit down to talk about the future.
Said Stoops, “I don’t think it’ll be a long conversation.”