He speaks with an energy that begs listeners to believe. Passion oozes out of each word. Sometimes, he slips into third person, insisting that Benny Snell Jr. is indeed one of the best running backs in the country.
When you play football at Kentucky, it helps to speak a little louder.
Four games into the season, Snell leads the Southeastern Conference with 540 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, mirroring what he said this summer: He’s the best back in a powerhouse league. Kentucky is 4-0 and nationally ranked for the first time since 2007, and its junior running back has moved onto some Heisman Trophy watch lists. Snell is thankful. But he also has a question: Why did it take everyone so long?
“Now,” he said, stretching out the word for emphasis, “they’re trying to say the Benny Snell Heisman thing. … It should have been happening. It should have been a thing. It should have been getting thrown around.”
In a surprising 28-7 rout of then-No. 14 Mississippi State last weekend, Snell scored four touchdowns to become the Wildcats' career leader in that category. After the victory, he looked into a television camera and promised Kentucky — a team that hasn’t finished a football season with 10 wins since 1977 — would continue to prove everyone wrong.
It’s not the first statement this season by Kentucky — or by Snell. The Wildcats first announced themselves on Sept. 8, when Snell rushed for 175 yards in a 27-16 win over then-No. 25 Florida, snapping the Gators’ 31-game win streak in the series. Afterward, Snell tweeted a Photoshopped image of himself with a gator. Two weeks later, after beating Mississippi State, Snell tweeted a similar image, this time of him in action cradling a bulldog as if it was a ball. Both came in response to smack talk before each game.
The bravado extends beyond football. Snell likes to record music as Benny Tha Bandit. (He has posted a few raps on SoundCloud but said he has improved since then: “When the new Benny comes out, your mind will be blown, I promise you.”) He wants to be a businessman and thinks maybe he can later capitalize off the phrase, “Snell Yeah.”
The confidence is contagious, and Snell’s position coach, Eddie Gran, doesn’t mind Snell’s public belief in himself.
“You're looking for those guys that affect other people,” said Gran, Kentucky’s offensive coordinator and running backs coach. “And Benny Snell affects other people.”
Snell is committed to helping make Kentucky football more than just the second sport at a basketball school.
He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons in Lexington, and his team finished both seasons 7-6. Last year, though, the Wildcats lost three games on the final play, showing more improvement than the record indicates.
This season, Coach Mark Stoops’s sixth at Kentucky, Snell senses the promise of an even stronger team. The team’s younger running backs call him with questions. Snell credits the offensive linemen for carving holes in defenses. He helps his teammates on defense understand the way a ballcarrier might move, and they return the favor, giving him their insights.
Still, the No. 17 Wildcats opened as slight underdogs for Saturday’s home game against unranked South Carolina. Snell doesn’t mind. That’s what has defined the road to 4-0. Those are the situations where he and the team thrive.
“I'm making sure I'm telling all the guys nothing's changed,” Snell said. “We're still predicted to lose this game. Nobody sees us winning this game. We're still the underdogs.”
Snell was a three-star recruit out of high school in Westerville, Ohio, passed over by top college programs. Some coaches told his high school coach, John Magistro, that Snell was too slow. He attended camps at Ohio State, about 20 miles from where he grew up, but the Buckeyes never showed much interest.
“I’ll forever always have that chip on my shoulder,” Snell said, reflecting on his recruiting process. “I've forever got that strive inside of me.”
Magistro has coached a few athletes who have gone on to play in the NFL, but he said none practiced like Snell, who enters into a state of “unbelievable focus.” The coach jokes, “If that was his mom over here, he might even think about running his mom over.”
During postgame interviews, Magistro notices how his former player sways side to side and keeps moving, as if that energy from four quarters of play hasn’t worn off yet.
Snell had offers from programs such as Iowa and Boston College, but he knew on the drive home from visiting Kentucky that’s where he wanted to play. In the years since the decision, the campus and community have embraced Snell as he has piled on yardage and accomplishments.
At Kentucky’s game against Mississippi last season, fans around Magistro in the stands discovered that he was Snell’s high school coach. Anytime Snell made a play, Magistro was offered high-fives. Magistro calls Lexington “Benny Snell town.”
After the Mississippi State game, a reporter tweeted a video of Snell leaving the field smiling as fans surrounding him chanted, “Heis-man! Heis-man!” Two days later, Kentucky unveiled a website, SnellYeah.com, to promote the running back for postseason awards.
In a short video on the site called “I Play for Kentucky,” Snell says, “I’ve been overlooked longer than I can remember.” Despite amassing nearly 3,000 rushing yards in less than three seasons in arguably the nation’s top conference, he is only just starting to generate national buzz.
“I don’t think everybody quite understands who Benny Snell is,” Snell’s father said. “I think they will. A few more weeks.”
The spotlight — one that will intensify if Snell and Kentucky continue to succeed — doesn’t faze Snell. His mother, April, asks if he’s nervous before games, and her son says he’s not. He feels ready and trusts his ability. After facing South Carolina, Snell and the Wildcats will travel to face Texas A&M in a stadium that holds more than 100,000 fans.
“He’s going to have stars in his eyes,” Snell’s mother said. “He loves that.”