KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee football is on the brink, the latest setback a drug citation and suspension for the program’s star player, tailback John Kelly.
Kelly, a team leader who has accounted for 43 percent of the Vols’ yards from scrimmage this season, was pulled over for a headlight out on his car and cited for misdemeanor drug possession and failure to provide proof of insurance.
It’s a bad look all the way around for Tennessee football, which has worked hard to clean up its image after former coaches Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley soiled it with NCAA violations and a lack of discipline.
Coach Butch Jones, his job security already tenuous with Tennessee 3-4 overall and 0-4 in SEC games, announced he’ll suspend Kelly for the Vols’ game at Kentucky at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. Third-team freshman linebacker Will Ignont was in the car with Kelly and will also be suspended.
Jones made it clear on his coaches show Wednesday night he has no intention of losing team discipline for the sake of on-field success.
“We have very high standards and expectations associated with the University of Tennessee,” Jones said on Vol Calls. “We represent something that is bigger than ourselves. We’ll never compromise our standards. It’s very, very unfortunate. We hope that these individuals will learn from it, but we’re never going to compromise our standards here at Tennessee.”
Kelly has 125 carries for 615 yards this season, roughly 60 percent of the carries and 71 percent of the Vols’ rushing yardage. That’s in addition to his team-high 26 pass receptions.
Freshman Ty Chandler, sophomore Carlin Fils-aime and freshman Tim Jordan are expected to divide the carries.
Chandler has 27 carries for 118 yards and 7 catches for 68 yards, Fils-aime has 11 carries for 74 yards and Jordan has 7 carries for 36 yards and 3 catches for 16 yards.
Kelly, a junior from Detroit, had just called a players meeting on Monday night to encourage the offensive line and his fellow running backs to step up their performances in support of redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.
Guarantano was sacked 7 times in his first start against South Carolina two weeks ago, and Alabama sacked him 4 times in its 45-7 victory over the Vols last Saturday.
Tennessee has won 31 of the past 32 meetings against Kentucky, including the past five by double digits.
The Wildcats are a 5 1/2-point favorite to beat the Vols this weekend. This is a very different Tennessee team from the one that beat Kentucky last season, 49-36.
With Kelly sidelined, Tennessee will have only 4 percent of its rushing yardage from last season represented on the field. Furthermore, just 22 percent of the receiving yardage is back.
The Vols had already suffered season-ending injuries to several key players, including their leading returning receiver (junior Jauan Jennings, wrist), leading returning tackler (senior safety Todd Kelly Jr.) and leader of the defense (junior middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr.).
Jones was already likely facing a must-win situation at Kentucky to save his job, with the offense going 14 straight quarters without an offensive touchdown and the team losing four straight SEC games.