Benny Snell Jr.'s initial plan to ease into college life and big-time SEC football has quickly evolved into the sophomore assuming responsibilities as Kentucky's main running back.
Last fall's breakout season helped accelerate his timetable as he and Stanley "Boom" Williams gave the Wildcats their first pair of 1,000-yard backs — and first bowl appearance — since 2010. With Williams in the NFL draft, Snell has spent this spring getting mentally and physically ready for the demands of being the primary ball carrier.
"I've been trying to make people miss as much as I can," said Snell, whose 1,091 yards and team-high 13 touchdowns broke several Kentucky freshman records. "No matter what the down and distance is, I'm always going to run downhill trying to get those easy yards. But I'm trying to make people miss, get quicker on my feet and be a smarter runner."
The 5-foot-11, 223-pound Westerville, Ohio native showed his explosiveness over last season's final 10 regular season games, debuting with four rushing TDs and 136 yards against New Mexico State. Snell and Williams (1,170 yards, 7 TDs) went on to form the "Boom and Benny" tandem that ranked fifth and eighth respectively among Southeastern Conference rushers.
Snell learned enough about first-year offensive coordinator Eddie Gran's scheme to be ready when called upon in games, but acknowledged that he mostly relied on instinct. He realized how much he didn't know when called upon in team meetings and not having an answer. So he spent the offseason studying more video and talking with coaches and teammates to get a better understanding of everything.
"I just had to get closer with the offense," Snell said. "When I'd have a question, when I'm curious I'd go to the line coach (John Schlarman) or I'd go talk to (quarterback) Stephen Johnson and start to learn more about the positions everywhere else to make me a better player."
It remains an ongoing process, but Kentucky coaches have been encouraged by Snell's performance and initiative during spring drills. As the back tries to hone his style, he's also helping fellow backs such as redshirt freshman Asim "A.J." Rose get comfortable in a ground game that has a tough act to follow.
"He gets it, he's trying, he's listening," Gran said of Snell's learning curve. "He's not there yet, but I love that when he makes a mistake it usually doesn't happen again. And that's really good, especially for a young player."
Snell's goals this spring have been improving his blocking skills and recognizing blitz packages better. That's a big deal considering the mobile Johnson struggled with ball protection under constant pressure last season.
Snell might also have to catch more passes after totaling just two receptions for 39 yards. Because he, Williams and Johnson gave defenses multiple worries with their feet, receiving was less of a priority.
But as the featured back next fall, Snell's job description must expand to take heat off his QB. Kentucky coaches are confident in his ability to run past and over defenders. In fact, knowing that he'll be a target seems to be making him run harder, and it's only practice.
"Benny's a mean 'beep', if you know what I'm saying," tight ends coach Vince Marrow said. "He's a competitive dude and you need that in this league. ... We have to pull him back sometimes because that passion overtakes what he needs to do on an assignment.
"But the line loves him because it's like having a pit bull back there."