Steelers, rookie running back Benny Snell are ‘perfect marriage’
Seven months later, Eddie Gran still regrets not giving the ball to Benny Snell.
With an SEC game on the line last October, Kentucky faced a third-and-2 in overtime at the Texas A&M 17. Everyone expected the ball would end up in the belly of Snell, the Wildcats’ bruising running back who was en route to a third consecutive 1,000-yard season. Everyone, that is, but Gran, Kentucky’s offensive coordinator.
“Sometimes you try to out trick yourself as a coach,” Gran said. “You have to give it to your best player.”
Gran called a pass play, and the quarterback was sacked. Kentucky missed a field goal and lost on the next possession, 20-14.
“That was my one mistake in three years with Benny,” Gran said. “I fricking ran a power pass instead of handing the ball to Benny. I never did that again, I promise you that.”
That regrettable decision aside, Gran knew the best options in his playbook were ones that involved getting the ball to Snell. Before he joined the Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend as their fourth-round draft pick, Snell was Kentucky’s career rushing leader, a 5-foot-10, 224-pound power back who set or shared 14 school records and was the only SEC runner aside from Herschel Walker to average at least 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns after three seasons.
“He did some things in our league that just don’t happen very often,” Gran said.
As he conducted a phone interview last week, Gran was driving through Columbus on his way to Cincinnati while returning from a recruiting trip. The route was apropos because Snell grew up in the Columbus suburb of Westerville, and Cincinnati was where Gran once hoped Snell would play college football.
Gran was the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati when Snell rushed for 3,903 yards and 55 touchdowns over his junior and senior seasons at Westerville.
Gran has vivid memories of the Cincinnati camp Snell attended in the summer before his senior year. The son of former XFL and NFL Europe running back Benny Snell Sr. and great nephew of Super Bowl III hero Matt Snell, Benny showed he had skills necessary to excel in the family business.
“Benny was the first in line in every drill,” Gran said. “If he didn’t do it right, he went back and did it again. He had the talent. His footwork was incredible, and his change of direction was advanced.”
Snell spurned Cincinnati, along with offers from Iowa, Boston College, Toledo and West Virginia, to play in the Bluegrass State. Gran joined him shortly thereafter when coach Mark Stoops hired him as offensive coordinator/assistant head coach.
It took only two fall scrimmages in 2016 for Gran to realize he needed to get Snell on the field as a freshman.
“He kind of took it over,” Gran said. “We started putting him in with the 1s. What was impressive was he was doing it with the 2s, too. He had a lesser offensive line blocking for him, but he was still doing it.”
Gran eased Snell into the running back rotation that freshman year. In the third game, Snell rushed for 136 yards against New Mexico State. At midseason, he gained 192 yards against Missouri when Gran gave Snell the ball 38 times.
Upperclassman Stanley “Boom” Williams rushed for 1,170 yards that season but was surpassed as the bellcow as the season unfolded.
“When it came down to winning a game and we were in a four-minute drill, the other guy wasn’t in,” Gran said. “It was Benny.”
Such was the case against Georgia later in Snell’s freshman season. Kentucky trailed by a field goal in the fourth quarter. Snell got the ball on nine consecutive snaps and 10 times overall on a tying drive.
Snell finished with 1,091 rushing yards that season. His yardage increased to 1,333 yards as a sophomore and 1,449 as a junior. So did his carries, from 262 to 289, an average of 22 attempts per game as a junior.
“He was a hard-nosed, four-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust player,” Gran said. “All of a sudden, you’d look up and he would have 138 yards rushing, and he didn’t look like he was doing anything.”
Gran said Snell thrived on the heavy workload.
“He wanted to be the best,” Gran said. “He just didn’t want to be the best in the SEC, he wanted to the best in the country. When he got hurt, he never missed a practice. The kid had broken ribs and practiced that week and played in the next game. I tried to sit him out and even have him lose some reps. He said, ‘No, coach, I gotta go.’
“You just don’t get that very often.”
What impressed Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin was the way Snell approached the postseason after his junior year. The trend in college is for star players who intend on entering the NFL Draft to sit out their bowl game in order to prevent injury and gain a jump on their training. Snell not only played in the Citrus Bowl against Penn State, he carried 26 times for 144 yards and two touchdowns and was named offensive MVP in a 27-24 win.
“We really like to acknowledge that and give him credit for putting his team and that win over his own priorities,” Colbert said.
Snell played a significant role in Kentucky’s return to respectability in the SEC. In the four seasons before Snell arrived in Lexington, Kentucky had a 14-34 record. The Wildcats were 7-6, 7-6 and 10-3 in Snell’s three seasons.
Tomlin said Snell was “really a central figure in the culture change” at Kentucky. “We had a great deal of respect not only for talents but his body of work over the course of three years down there,” he said.
Eddie Faulkner, who is entering his first season as Steelers running backs coach, attended Kentucky’s pro day and entered with questions about whether Snell could catch passes out of the backfield. Snell had just 29 career receptions at Kentucky.
“I wanted to get to show the hands that I have and show my agility in the open field,” Snell said.
“He caught every ball,” Faulkner said. “He caught it with his hands. It was natural. He was able to get in and out of his breaks and run the routes we would want him to run.”
With the Steelers, Snell will be incorporated into a backfield that includes third-year veteran James Conner and his backup, Jaylen Samuels, who is entering his second season. Snell’s straight-ahead style and knack for breaking tackles and carrying defenders for extra yardage could provide the ideal complement to Conner and Samuels.
Gran was happy to see Snell end up with the Steelers, who once rode the power running of Jerome Bettis to considerable success.
“They are OK with four yards. They are OK with pounding it, playing old-school power football,” Gran said. “For him to go to the Steelers, you couldn’t have asked for a more perfect marriage.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .