GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It’s natural for a linebacker to have studied up on the next opponent’s top running back. But in this case, Florida’s David Reese has been keeping close tabs on Tennessee’s John Kelly since well before the Gators’ focus shifted to the Vols.
They were youth football teammates in the Detroit Police Athletic League. Reese was the quarterback and Kelly the featured rusher on a roster that would produce 14 Division I college football players in all.
Reese, now the Gators’ starting middle linebacker, has remained close with Kelly, who has rushed for 208 yards and 4 touchdowns through two games this fall for the Vols. He said Wednesday that they hadn’t spoken yet this week, but the opportunity to go against his longtime friend is special to him.
“Not leading up to this game, I haven’t talked to him, but I talk to him often,” Reese said. “Every time we go home, we go back and speak to our little league team. We had several guys on that team that play Division I football, so it was good. Michigan kids, we’re always close together and we always look out for each other because we’ve been playing with each other since we were little.”
Reese, who was thrust into a starting role in the second half of his freshman season last fall, delivered a game-high 11 tackles and a tackle for loss in Florida’s season-opening loss to Michigan two weeks ago.
Kelly, meanwhile, played the starring role in Tennessee’s overtime win over Georgia Tech in Week 1, rumbling for 128 yards and 4 touchdowns while also catching 5 passes for 35 yards. He then went for 80 yards on 18 carries with 5 catches for 60 yards last week against Indiana State.
Reese knows better than anyone what the 5-foot-9 junior running back is capable of on the field.
“He’s a physical back,” Reese said. “He was behind two great backs before at Tennessee, but he’s a great back, too. He runs hard.”
That was actually the first impression Kelly made on that Detroit youth football team.
David Reese Sr., the linebacker’s father, coached the team and recalled that Kelly moved into the area from Minnesota when he was 12 years old. The team had mostly settled on its roster when the young running back showed up looking for an opportunity.
“We had already given out equipment and we weren’t really taking any more players. So John came out, and I was about to send him away almost, and then the coaches said, ‘Man, let’s just check him out, see what he can do.’ And the rest is history,” Reese Sr. said this week.
The coaches told Kelly he had to earn his spot on the team, and sure enough, they saw him leading every sprint in practice. What impressed them most, though, is he never stopped pushing, even after making the roster.
“We thought he was just working hard because he knew he was potentially not going to be added to the team because he came to us late. Our little league program, as you can see from the kids [playing in college now], we always get so many kids. The coaches are very selective who they let on the teams,” Reese Sr. said. “So when John came out, he was leading all the sprints because we had a conversation with him before his first practice.
“But I’m happy to say, he never changed. That work ethic, his intensity as far as leading and being an ultimate competitor, it never changed. And I think that’s where him and David clicked. … They always knew they were going to do great things.”
After spending four seasons as youth teammates, Reese and Kelly went to opposing high schools. And they’ll get to play against each other again Saturday on an even bigger stage.
Neither player was a factor in Tennessee’s 38-28 win over Florida last season. Reese hadn’t yet taken over at linebacker for injured star Jarrad Davis, and Kelly hadn’t yet found his opportunity after veteran running back Jalen Hurd left the team. He’d go on to lead the Vols with 630 rushing yards (6.0 per carry) once he took over in the backfield.
This time around, both should have a pronounced impact on this significant SEC showdown.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity,” Reese said. “We went head-to-head his last high school game and my junior year. So it’s a great experience to play with someone who is doing something positive, too, and being on the field. I just look forward to playing hard and getting the win.”
Meanwhile, six of the coaches from their youth teams are expected to be in The Swamp on Saturday to watch their former standouts perform on the big stage.
David Reese Sr. said it’s going to be “like a family affair.”
“They’re just so proud of our young men right now, how they are on and off the field and being leaders in their program. And they feel like they’re really gaining respect for the state of Michigan as far as being able to be dominant players in the SEC,” he said. “All the coaches from little league to high school are proud to see players from our state being so productive in SEC football, because we do respect SEC football in this area. … I’m just proud of them all. I can’t wait to see them.”