LATROBE, Pa. -- "Ahh, man, I wasn't expecting any questions.'
That was Benny Snell, neon-orange hoodie pulled up, strolling out of the locker room at Saint Vincent College after an early practice. At Steelers training camp, that's how this works: Media gathers outside and waits for players to make their way into and out of the locker room for a chance to talk. If you want to interview a player, you simply walk up and ask them for a minute.
They rarely say "no."
But Snell clearly didn't want to talk. Head down, moving forward, hesitating when I asked for a second of his time — the signs were clear. Even though Snell did eventually give in and move to the side for the interview, I let him off the hook.
"It's cool, man. If you don't want to talk now, I'll catch you after practice."
"Yeah, get me after practice."
My peers loved that one.
"You just got rookie-moved by the rookie," offered one reporter. "You know there's a 99 percent chance you're not getting him after practice, right?"
Maybe he was right. But here's a live look at my reaction:
Thing is, I've talked to Snell multiple times throughout OTAs and minicamp. If he didn't want to talk, there probably was a good reason for it. Plus, I'm not in the business of forcing professional athletes to speak with me. It's just not the way I want to operate. I'm going to treat them like human beings first and football players second.
Turns out, that works. Because after practice:
That's Snell fielding questions with his signature smile, talking about the love he's feeling from Steelers fans in Latrobe, Pa., and beyond.
"It's huge. It's huge," Snell said of the fan support. "I've never had such a family fan base environment. They want to see the practices. They want to interact with us. They're cheering us on every step of the way, so that's huge."
So far, Snell's given them plenty to cheer — including some unexpected wrinkles in his game.
In three years at Kentucky, Snell put up 3,873 yards on the ground alongside 48 rushing touchdowns, averaging 5.3 yards per touch. Through the air, he mustered just 29 catches for 216 yards and no scores. So, it seemed pretty clear what "Benny Snell Football," as he puts it, is all about: Running the ball and smashing through defenders.
But don't tell that to Snell. When asked how his game is coming along at the NFL level, he's quick to point out his overall skill set.
"I've been able to show my agility, show my power-running and team run, one-on-one vs. the linebackers catching the ball and just competing with the defense, so I think I've been doing a good job," Snell was telling me. "I gotta keep going out day-by-day just to get better."
Turns out, Snell is more than just a bruiser. Sure, he does that — and he loves that — but he's shown hands and versatility many didn't expect early in camp. While Snell admitted the pace of the NFL game was "really fast" when we spoke earlier this offseason at the Rooney Complex, now, two-plus months later, Snell feels things falling into place.
"I feel it just getting better day by day. I'm catching on to the speed of the game, the pace of the game," Snell said. "A lot of my thought process with the plays is picking up. It's getting a little bit faster, so I feel like it's getting on the right track."
Along with that pace comes another element: Physicality.
The key for rookie running backs to make an impression has less to do about what they can make happen when they touch the ball and more about how they can keep defenders away from the team's most prized player: Its quarterback. Running backs have to pass-block in today's NFL, and they have to do it well.
Here, Snell has been put to the test early and often throughout drills and in live situations.
He's lost some:
Hands down favorite part of camp... Backs on Backers. Rookie on Rookie, Devin Bush vs. Benny Snell. Bush with the win. pic.twitter.com/94Kizv8PxD
— Alan Branch (@AlanJeffery10) August 3, 2019
But he's won some, too:
Snell wins this time pic.twitter.com/V6PX72FIe9
— Alan Branch (@AlanJeffery10) August 3, 2019
He knows the name of the game is improving every day, every rep, and he's brought that attitude to the field from Day 1. He'll need it to log time in a crowded Steelers backfield featuring starter James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. Both Conner and Samuels have shown they can excel in regular-season action. While Snell certainly looks forward to his chance to do the same, he's not feeling any pressure or difficulties in biding his time and taking his reps as they come.
"It's not tough at all, to be honest," Snell said. "I know my time will come whenever they need me and whenever the time is. And I'll just make sure I'm ready...
"I feel like I'm 80 percent there. I feel like I got a pretty good grasp on the formations and the plays and everything that I need to know. But it's about knowing it like the back of my hand. I haven't got there yet. So it's really about mastering the things I should know, then I'll be good to go."
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