Obama was still in the White House, a U.S.-launched robot landed on a comet in outer space and the Kentucky Wildcats was stumbling to a 2-10 record under first-year head coach Mark Stoops when some of this year’s senior football Wildcats began to get the serious pitch about coming to Lexington.
They were only juniors and wouldn’t make their official announcements for another year, but Stoops and his staff were putting the hard sell on players wherever they could. As the class of 2014 came together, UK fans found hope.
It would be lauded as the 23rd-ranked collection of high school talent in the country, sure to deliver the Cats from the depths of the SEC East. But it wasn’t until Stoops, Vince Marrow and company signed the class of 2015 that the future was rendered relatively secure. And nobody really could know it at the time.
From that class of ’14, the seven seniors now in their fifth seasons include Mike Edwards and Dorian Baker, two of the top safeties in the country. Also defensive tackles Tymere Dubose and Adrian Middleton as well as offensive guard Bunchy Stallings. Receivers Dorian Baker, David Bouvier and Miles Butler likewise took redshirts at various times.
But thanks to attrition and injuries, that class, the one that was supposed to be the cement of Stoops’ football foundation, ended up needing more support. You might say the class of ’15 brought the ribar – the kind of reinforcement you need when you’re pouring concrete, to make sure it’s stable, that it’s going to hold for a long, long while.
C.J. Conrad, George Asafo-Adjei, Derrick Baity, Jordan Jones – They’ve all made plays since they were thrust into the starting lineup as youngsters. But it was two guys who excited maybe only Stoops and Marrow who have buttressed this year’s team – and one of them was part of the class of ’16.
Senior Josh Allen and junior Benny Snell have been the headline-makers for this Kentucky team that will take on Louisville in the regular season finale Saturday night at Cardinal Stadium. Neither excited recruiting experts; both of them had Stoops on edge until their national letters-of-intent appeared from the fax machine in the UK football office that springs to life, basically, on one day out of the year.
Allen was a relative nobody. He was an all-stater as a junior in Alabama, but moved to New Jersey prior to his senior year and slipped through the recruiting cracks. He was ranked the 46th-best player in the state, 97TH-best at his position in the country and couldn’t crack the top 2,200 overall nationally.
Even still, his NJ high school coach begged Rutgers to offer the skinny, 6-foot-4, 215 lb. defensive end a scholarship. The Scarlet Knights balked and the Kentucky coach did the Stoops-swoop. He landed Allen and the incredible success story began.
Snell’s story was similar. From an insanely-rich football state, he was rated just 38th-best in Ohio as a senior, only the 56th-best runner in the country and overall, 876th by 247 Sports. Stoops and Marrow snatched him out of Westerville and he’s been rushing his way through the UK record book ever since.
It took time, more for one than the other. As a freshman in 2015, Allen played in all 12 games, mostly on special teams, racking up just four tackles – three of them in the blowout win over Charlotte. By the following season he was in the starting lineup for nine of UK’s 13 games. He led the SEC with four forced fumbles and was 12th in sacks.
His junior season was solid; his senior year, spectacular. Allen is up for a bucket of awards, including national defensive player of the year.
Snell’s path had more of an explosive beginning, although champagne bottle corks made more noise than he did, at first.
Amaze your friends with this bit of trivia: What were Benny Snell’s stats after his first two games as a Wildcat? Answer: one half of a tackle.
That’s right. An assisted tackle. In kickoff return coverage against Southern Miss in the season-opening loss. Snell played only on special teams in the first two games, buried on the depth chart behind Boom Williams and Jojo Kemp. But when Kemp went down with an injury prior to the New Mexico State game, Snell got his chance and made the most of it.
It was a sidebar to the headlines made that day by Stephen Johnson, who stepped in at quarterback for Drew Barker and never relinquished the starting job, throwing for 351 yards and three TD passes, all to Conrad, in a 62-42 blowout victory.
All Snell did was rush for 136 yards and a school-record tying four touchdowns (a mark he would reach again this season, against Mississippi State).
Offensive co-coordinators Eddie Gran and Darrin Hinshaw quickly realized two things: 1) They had to scrap the pass-happy portion of the playbook where Barker figured to live. It didn’t suit the skills of Johnson, who was better off as a run-pass option QB; and 2) They had to make sure that kid Snell got a healthy number of touches.
As Williams provided the lightning-quick strike running plays, Snell brought the thunder, powering his way through SEC defenders. That combination carried the Cats to the Tax Slayer Bowl. Williams, a junior, announced his premature departure from school moments after the game was over. That meant one thing – more carries for Snell.
Like Allen, he was even better in 2017. And like Williams, Snell figures to leave a year early for the NFL Draft. The shelf life of a running back is so much shorter than that of a defensive end.
It’s likely Allen will hear his name called on draft night before Snell; NFL teams will not miss on him the way so many Division I teams did four years ago.
Snell can help his stock on Saturday by ripping through the Cardinals the way he did last year, when he racked up 211 yards in a blowout loss. This game figures to end differently; either way, it likely will be the last regular season game for Allen, Snell and 15 other seniors who answered when Kentucky called.
They’ve done what Stoops needed them to do. They’ve laid a solid foundation for UK football.