KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — John Kelly has just a single career start, but Tennessee’s gregarious sophomore tailback continues to assume a large leadership role for the Vols.
The Michigan native is 212 pounds of energy, running around to give teammates some love before practice and then causally doing backflips and goal-post dunks while leaving the field two hours later.
“I definitely go around to every position group, especially the D-line because coach (Steve) Stripling is my guy,” said Kelly, who is always smiling while talking to reporters.
“I’ll be over there running around with those guys. I go talk some junk to the DBs. I just try to make sure everybody on the team, every position group has their head right and is focused for practice.”
Kelly is the Energizer Bunny, a fan favorite and the future of Tennessee’s backfield. Earlier this fall, teammates lauded Kelly’s violent, “angry” running style, while quarterback Josh Dobbs praised the sophomore’s endless enthusiasm and Northern “swag.”
“The players love John Kelly,” offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said.
“What he brought in the Texas A&M game really showed a lot. I’ve said all along, John Kelly is ready, but how do you rotate three running backs? That’s hard.”
After Alvin Kamara’s midseason knee injury and Jalen Hurd’s abrupt transfer, Kelly ran with his opportunity this fall.
In a growing role, he registered 560 yards and 4 touchdowns. He had a pair of games over the century mark, averaging a team-high 6.75 yards per carry on the year.
“If anything, I could have definitely proved myself more this year,” Kelly said. “But I’m always going to be a confident player. I’m always going to be confident in my abilities. The stats are cool, but I was confident regardless.”
With Kamara likely headed to the NFL, Kelly will enter next season as Tennessee’s headliner at tailback. Dynamic freshman Ty Chandler and rising sophomore Carlin Fils-aime will round out the rotation, but for now, Kelly is only focused on making sure the current running backs room is prepared for Nebraska and the Music City Bowl.
“Alvin is always going to tell me the same thing. We’re just going to keep pushing each other,” he said.
“It’s really just making sure I get these young guys’ heads in the right place because with these bowl games you never know what is going to happen. A lot of people be having breakout games in bowls, so I’m just making sure the young guys are still ready to get thrown in there. We’re just going to keep pushing each other.”