Being the backup. Yes, it’s an issue most rookies have to deal with. But for Benny Snell, a bigger obstacle than most. In college, everyone is big man on campus. The star player, the guy everyone counts on, the dude recognized everywhere he goes. Just like it was in high school.
In the NFL? You’re just the rookie trying to find his lane.
Sure, it applies to every member of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2019. Devin Bush, granted to a lesser degree, is going to have to deal with it. Ditto Diontae Johnson, Justin Layne, you get the idea. But that hurdle of finding your role, accepting being a backup, and trying to get mentally ready for the few chances you do get will be especially tough for Snell.
Remember the situation he walked into in college. Kentucky was a forgettable SEC program when he arrived in 2016. They hadn’t been to a bowl game in years and hadn’t won one since Randall Cobb played there…as a freshman. Snell, not alone, but certainly a catalyst for the program’s turnaround. He left it as a school able to compete with powerhouses, beat Florida for the first time in more than 30 years, and won 10 games in 2018 capped by a bowl win over Penn State. Snell set the school record for rushing yards and touchdowns. He dominated and when the game was on the line, like we wrote about shortly after the draft, Snell was getting the rock. And he embraced the pressure of that moment.
This year? With the game on the line, Snell’s not getting the ball. It’ll be Ben Roethlisberger connecting with JuJu Smith-Schuster. James Conner diving up the middle. Vance McDonald trucking an entire defense on his way into the end zone. And let’s be honest, that’s an adjustment for anyone. Snell is going to go from averaging 25 carries a game to maybe 2-3, all dependent on the situation. For the first time in his career, high school or college, he’ll have to get comfortable with the bench.
That’s not going to be easy. It shouldn’t. The great ones hate biding their time and sitting on the sideline. But an adjustment nonetheless. When it comes to running backs, it’s especially common. Check out this nugget of information from Jim Wyatt, a beat reporter who covers the Tennessee Titans. He was asked to evaluate the performance of rookie back Alex Barnes.
“Hey Darin. He’s in the mix, but can’t lie – it’s hard for him to get noticed — and get reps – with Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis. And while David Fluellen has been working at fullback, back Jeremy McNichols has been pretty active, too. Barnes will need to show up when he gets chances in camp.”
Granted, they’re slightly different situations. Snell was a 4th round pick with a clearer path to playing time than a UDFA like Barnes. But it’s the same principle. Fewer reps to go around, making it harder to get noticed, and sometimes, players begin to press. Feel like they have to make the big play on every rep, wow the coaches, instead of being detailed, smart, and executing the play.
I’m not saying that’s going to happen but it’s an obstacle a guy like Snell will certainly have to overcome. Dealing with that adjustment is all about mental toughness. Being patient to wait for the opportunity. Look at James Conner. His rookie year had to have sucked. He barely played, probably didn’t have the level of success he wanted even when he did and got hurt. Undeterred, he got in great shape for year two, and took advantage of Le’Veon Bell sitting out. Snell would be wise to have a long, honest conversation with him – and Jaylen Samuels, who waited to see the field his rookie year – to learn about how to handle being in that role.
Not only will it help him get through his rookie year but it’ll serve as a springboard to a productive rest of his career. Learning how to handle the game mentally is, as the saying goes, 90% of the battle.