KNOXVILLE, Tenn.— Tennessee running back John Kelly has spent spring practice encouraging and coaching his younger teammates while reminding each of them that they could be needed at any time.
Kelly can use his own rise up the depth chart as an example.
Pressed into duty last year when an injury sidelined Jalen Hurd, Kelly gained 101 all-purpose yards in an overtime loss at Texas A&M. After Hurd unexpectedly left the team less than a month later, Kelly split carries with Alvin Kamara and thrived in an expanded role.
Now that Kamara has entered the NFL draft, Kelly is the only remaining Volunteer with more than 14 career carries. He wants to prove Tennessee’s offense can remain potent with a new quarterback under new coordinator Larry Scott.
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) March 29, 2017
“I think our offense is more motivated than ever because I think a lot of us feel like we’ve got something to prove,” Kelly said.
Kelly has proved quite a bit already.
After carrying the ball a total of three times in Tennessee’s first five games last year, Kelly came on strong down the stretch with 515 yards rushing over his final six games. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry and finished with 630 yards rushing, second on the team behind quarterback Joshua Dobbs.
With Dobbs and Kamara headed to the pros, Kelly should get the bulk of the carries in his junior season. One of his primary jobs this spring is making sure the other running backs also are ready to contribute.
“He’s probably more vocal than he’s ever been,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “He’s coaching the younger players. It gets back to details, accountability and toughness. John has done a really good job of accountability not only to himself, but his teammates around him. His voice is well respected.”
Jones said after Tuesday’s practice that Kelly’s status is uncertain for the Orange & White Game that closes spring practice Saturday. Jones said there’s a possibility Kelly could be held out of the game for precautionary reasons.
“We have to get him ready for a long season ahead in preparing this football team for 2017,” Jones said. “We’ll see where he’s at for Saturday and make that determination later in the week.”
Kelly says his leadership traits come naturally.
“When I feel I have to say something, I’m definitely going to say it,” Kelly said. “When I’ve got to show some of the younger guys how things are supposed to be done, or even the older guys, I will go out there and try to do my best to do that. I’m not scared to say anything to anybody.”
That boldness helps explain Kelly’s decision to come to Tennessee in the first place, an unusual move for someone from Detroit.
“I never really was like the guy who wanted to stay home or do this, that or the other,” Kelly said. “I just wanted to do something different. On top of that, the guys here that were in my recruiting class and who were recruiting me, they were like nobody else at no other place. I definitely had a bond with these guys. I knew there was something special here.”
As he develops his leadership skills, Kelly also is working to become a better back.
He already has shown an ability to bounce off potential tacklers and get extra yards. Teammates complimented his tenacity last season by talking about how he liked to “run angry.”
“That’s the reason why I play football,” Kelly said. “It’s one of those sports where you can just pretty much let all your anger out. That’s really how I just translate my whole running style.”
The next step is to improve his big-play ability.
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) March 30, 2017
Only five of Kelly’s 98 carries last season went for 20-plus yards. He had only two rushes of at least 30 yards – a 34-yard burst against South Carolina and a 73-yard touchdown against Football Championship Subdivision program Tennessee Tech.
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie has emphasized to Kelly the importance of taking the right angles, making the proper cuts and eluding the last remaining defender when he gets in the open field.
“Once he gets that to add to his tough running ability,” Gillespie said, “he has a chance to be one of the best backs in the league.”