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Jamie Vaught: Kentucky sophomore Benny Snell Jr. joins impressive list of Wildcat running backs

Over the years, Kentucky has had a good handful of All-SEC or All-American football standouts who are among the school’s career rushing leaders.

Remember the glamorous Wildcat stars like Sonny Collins, Moe Williams, Rafael Little, Mark Higgs, Derrick Ramsey, George Adams, to name several? I have seen them all and they are among UK’s career leaders in rushing yardage with Collins, who played for coach Fran Curci during the early 1970s, leading the pack with 3,835 yards.

And you can add UK sophomore running back Benny Snell Jr. to that impressive list. A recent first-team All-SEC choice by the Associated Press, Snell is now No. 8 on UK’s list of career rushing leaders with 2,409 yards, just behind his former teammate, Stanley “Boom” Williams, who has 2,511 career yards.

Sophomore Benny Snell, Jr. is now No. 8 on UK’s list of career rushing leaders

After rushing for 1,318 yards in 12 games this season, the 5-11, 223-pounder from Westerville, Ohio, became the fifth player in SEC history to reach 2,400 career rushing yards prior to their junior season. His 1,318-yard season performance is also the third most in a single year in UK history. In addition, Snell is the fourth player in league history to have 31 career rushing touchdowns before their junior season.

So, it really has been an entertaining season to watch Snell bulldozing his way for extra yards against always-tough SEC battles. And the Big Blue Nation needs to enjoy him while it can since the physical running back could leave for the 2019 NFL draft after his junior season at Kentucky.

Before coming to UK, Snell was a three-star prospect who chose the Wildcats over Iowa, Cincinnati, Boston College, Toledo and West Virginia.

Snell recently tweeted that he didn’t like his three-star rating coming out of high school. So he was motivated to prove that many observers were wrong and put in additional work. For Snell, it certainly paid off as he captured Freshman All-American honors last season and became one of SEC’s top rushers this fall. In the same tweet, he also advised the prep prospects heading for college to ignore the star rankings.

Still, he has surprised some skeptics in becoming a reliable star that early in his collegiate career.

In Kentucky’s regular season-ending 44-17 loss to Lamar Jackson-led U of L last month, Snell ran for a career-high 211 yards on 29 carries, becoming the sixth different player in UK history with 200 or more rushing yards in a game. (Moe Williams had three games of more than 200 rushing yards in 1995.)

Snell said he didn’t let the emotional Wildcats’ disappointing performance affect his game.

“Yes sir, you can see on my plays,” he said. “No matter what the score is, I’m going hard.

“Like I said before, I will play 110 percent no matter what. If we’re losing by 100 or I’m hurt, whatever the case may be, I‘m still going to run hard and do whatever I can for my team.”

UK senior quarterback Stephen Johnson praised Snell’s remarkable performance moments after the blowout loss.

“Benny is an incredible back. I mean, he’s just phenomenal,” said Johnson, whose 7-5 Cats face Northwestern in the Music City Bowl later this month. “The way he runs, he’s so passionate with all of it. He did nine straight run plays forward, so obviously he’s getting hit every play. He’s pretty tired, so we have to commend him for that.”

Snell also had good games against Tennessee (180 rushing yards) and Ole Miss (176 yards). He also managed to gain 94 yards in 22 carries against College Football Playoff-bound Georgia, which has the nation’s fourth-toughest defense.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops liked Snell’s toughness against Georgia.

“I saw a lot of tough yards. I really did,” said Stoops. “You have to admire how hard he was running the football. He ran the ball and has been running the ball like those yards are personal to him. I appreciate that about Benny. He’s been getting some tough yards and he’ll be the first one to tell you that obviously he’s getting some good o-line play and tight end play and so on but he is also running exceptionally hard.”

Snell, who comes from a family of college athletes, is currently No. 2 on the 2017 SEC rushing list, averaging 109.8 yards per contest, behind leader Kerryon Johnson of Auburn whose average is 120 yards. As for total yards this season, Johnson only has two more yards than Snell’s (1,320 to 1,318).

Stoops last week was asked on what it means for the UK program for Snell to get All-SEC honors at the running back position.

“It’s a great credit to Benny, like you said, to be All-SEC at running back,” said Stoops. “You are in with some very talented people. I think it’s a credit to our offensive players, our offensive coaches who put him in a position to be successful, and for individually – I touched on it the last time we were in here (press conference) – he just has a great desire to play well. You really just can’t say enough about him, the desire and the passion he plays with.

“He’s a tough guy to tackle. I think our offensive line has done a very good job at times and we scheme things up at times, but I say you’ll have to credit him, his individual effort, his passion and his desire. He’s been very durable, that’s why that he’s in the position that he’s in.”

Before he leaves Kentucky, it is possible that Snell – if he remains healthy – could set a historic milestone in becoming school’s all-time leading rusher by the end of the 2018 campaign. Currently, he is 1,427 yards away from breaking Collins’ all-time mark of 3.835 yards with one more game remaining this season.

Needless to say, as I pointed out earlier, we need to enjoy Snell’s incredible, record-breaking performances for now as the hard-working Wildcat star may be going to the pros after next year.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.

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