Tennessee’s John Kelly started making an impression on his teammates before he ever got a chance to deliver an impact on the playing field.
Those same teammates have no doubt that Kelly will capably fill the giant hole that Alvin Kamara’s injury and Jalen Hurd’s departure have created in Tennessee’s rushing attack.
“In my opinion, he’s one of the best backs in the SEC,” Tennessee offensive tackle Brett Kendrick said.
That’s a pretty bold statement about someone who has never started a college game. Kelly, who has 73 career carries in two seasons, is expected to make that first start Saturday when Tennessee (5-3) hosts Football Championship Subdivision program Tennessee Tech (3-5).
Kelly was overshadowed much of the season by Tennessee’s running back tandem of Kamara and Hurd. Kamara will miss a second straight game this week with an unspecified injury, and Tennessee coach Butch Jones announced Monday that Hurd had informed the team of his intent to transfer.
That leaves Kelly as Tennessee’s main running back for the time being as the Vols attempt to snap a three-game losing streak .
Jones says Kelly had emerged as a team leader well before this opportunity arose.
“He’s one of those individuals that has kind of been a behind-the-scenes, in-the-locker-room, on-the-sidelines type (of) leader,” Jones said.
Kelly already made quite a statement last week in a 24-21 loss to South Carolina . The sophomore from Detroit rushed for 94 yards on 14 carries that night. His teammates combined to run for 42 yards on 23 carries.
“I know my coaches trust me, no matter what the situation is,” Kelly said after the South Carolina game. “When I’m out there, I’m just out there playing the game that I always play. So it’s really nothing new to those guys.”
Indeed, the Vols say they’ve been impressed with Kelly ever since his arrival on campus. Jones considers Kelly’s rise up the depth chart a testament to the sophomore’s resolve and perseverance.
“He’s kind of the heart and soul of toughness,” Jones said.
Defensive end LaTroy Lewis recalled how he watched practices in the summer of 2015 while recuperating from an injury. Lewis naturally paid attention to Kelly because they both wear No. 4, and he immediately noticed the running back’s tenacity.
“He just ran so hard, whether it was a negative play that he was making (into) a 2-yard gain or he was busting out a 30-yard gain,” Lewis said.
Kelly displayed that same approach against South Carolina.
“He’s a very passionate runner,” quarterback Joshua Dobbs said. “He wants the ball in his hands. He does a great job of getting yards after contact, breaking tackle, just getting the ball north and south and not running east and west. That’s exactly what we need.”
He also plays with the type of verve that motivates his teammates. Kendrick loves talking about how Kelly continually took hits last week and then bounced right back up and got ready for his next carry.
“I’ve never seen anyone run as angry as John Kelly,” Kendrick said.
Kelly also uses the word “angry” to describe his running style and says that was a feature of his game long before he ever got to Knoxville.
“I just feel like I’m just running the way I’ve been running since I was a kid,” Kelly said.