Snell makes Kentucky history with last great show


Kentucky Wildcats running back Benny Snell Jr. (26) points up to the crowd during the game. University of Kentucky football defeated Penn State University 27-24 in the VRBO Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium on Tuesday, January 1, 2019 in Orlando, Florida. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

ORLANDO, Fla. – On a rainy September afternoon in Lexington, Kentucky, the Kentucky Wildcats were hosting the New Mexico State Aggies, a team using a high-powered offense to keep up with more talented opponents. The Cats didn’t have a reputation for being a good football team on this Saturday in 2016, and third-string running back Benny Snell Jr. didn’t have a reputation for being a good football player.

Snell had no touches the team’s first two games of the season and was able to run for the first time against the Aggies.

He took the ball 136 yards and into the end zone four times that day.

From then on, Snell was RB1. He and Boom Williams shared even snaps, but as time went on, the three-star recruit from Ohio took over the role of a workhorse and a dominator at the line of scrimmage. Before that rainy Saturday, not many expected to be watching the all-time leading rusher in Kentucky football history.

Fast forward three full seasons, each one better than the last. Snell was the talk of the SEC and was known as the feared power running back with the spinner mouthpiece. He’d bowled over Florida linebackers to break “the streak”, sprinted all over Mississippi State to prove his naysayers wrong, and had rewritten the books in Kentucky lore.

However, one of the goals he keeps track of stood in his way. The all-time school rushing record, held by Sonny Collins, has stood since 1975. Snell has said on multiple occasions that he always keeps his goals in front of him, crossing them off as they fall in front of him. During the final game of his junior season, and career at Kentucky, the record finally fell.

In the VRBO Citrus Bowl against Penn State, Snell was only five yards away from the record after pushing for 102 yards already in the game. On first down from the Penn State 12-yard line, the Cats called up an inside run to try to get Snell the record. Even the crowd was chanting Snell’s name. They had been keeping track.

“Yeah. Matter of fact, we had two plays called. We were going to run it to him two plays in a row. We had thought about some other things. We were, like, nah. Benny two in a row here, so it only took one,” UK head coach Mark Stoops said.

Snell outran two edge rushers collapsing on the pocket and dove into the gap that was created just inside the left tackle. Tight end C.J. Conrad set a lead block to allow Snell to shift right to avoid a would-be tackler. He was untouched and home free by the time he hit the Penn State six-yard line. He collapsed to his knees in the end zone. It was his. He had it.

“Man, I (was) so excited. I (was) in the moment. I don’t even have words for, like, how I was feeling. I was speechless. I know that when we ran out there, you know, I knew I was like five or four yards away, and I looked at [offensive coordinator] Gran and he gave me that look, like yeah. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s get it,’” Snell said after the game.

Conrad, who set the block that allowed Snell to get into the end zone, had to spoil the fun and “break it up, because I didn’t want to get a penalty, so I apologized to him on the sideline,” the recent UK graduate said.

The Wildcats went on to win 27-24, earning their first bowl victory in almost exactly a decade (their last postseason win was on Jan. 2, not 1, in 2009). Snell was named the bowl’s MVP for his 144-yard, two-touchdown performance.

The game for the Cats was his last, and he knocked down four-year back Sonny Collins’ record in only three seasons with the Cats. If he played another year at his average rushing rate, rather than going into the NFL Draft, he’d hypothetically finish four years of college with 5,164 rushing yards and 64 touchdowns. That would tie him at 16th all-time in NCAA rushing yards, and seventh in all-time rushing touchdowns. He’ll finish with “only” 3,873 yards and 48 touchdowns over his Kentucky career, good for school records in both categories.

Asked about Snell’s final touchdown, UK linebacker Kash Daniel said he just thought “Mama, there goes that man. I mean, everybody in this locker room that puts on this uniform has extreme confidence that whenever Benny Snell has the ball in his hands, he can make something happen. So, it may take a try or two, but he’s going to break one eventually, and he’s going to run you over and you’re not going to like it very much.”

Snell, along with potent edge rusher Josh Allen and many other seniors, are walking away from Kentucky a champion. From a rainy September afternoon to a sunny January one, Snell has put the Cats on his shoulders and turned on the “jets” for Kentucky’s program development.