KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee senior safety Todd Kelly Jr. says he has benefitted as much as anyone from new strength and conditioning coach Rock Gullickson.
“The explosiveness,” said Kelly, who has dropped 10 pounds since last season, down to 200. “Coach Rock has done a tremendous job of implementing power clean and squat, the Olympic lifts, and transferring that over to the field is huge for me.”
That step-and-a-half Kelly has gained could be the difference between a pick six or a tipped pass — and ultimately it could determine whether he gets drafted off the No. 24-ranked Vols.
One NFL scout said it looked like “Todd Kelly Jr. was running in quicksand” at the end of the season, when he was playing heavy and on a bad ankle.
Like many others on the team, Kelly recognizes 2017 as a make-or-break season, in his case, one that will determine his legacy.
It was Kelly who helped Jones convince several in-state prospects, like Derek Barnett and Josh Malone, to stay in-state and help turn around the Tennessee program.
The Vols have recorded back-to-back Top 25 season and won three straight bowl game for the first time in 20 years.
But the seniors have yet to win the SEC East Division or beat Alabama.
For that matter, Tennessee hasn’t beat Florida at The Swamp since 2003, and Kelly and his teammates would love to be the ones associated with any of those marquee accomplishments.
Kelly has put in the work, no doubt.
“This year has been the most improved year in the time I’ve been here,” Kelly Jr. said. “In terms of how the weight room transitions to the football field.
“It’s only been four practices, but I’ve seen some people take some hits, and some people give some hits out, and people exploding out of breaks and block destruction.”
Kelly’s ability to become more physical — something else NFL scouts are looking for at the safety position — will be tested immediately in the Sept. 4 opener against Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets are known for their precision running the triple option, a play that puts pressure on the secondary to come up in run support.
Kelly Jr. was the best open-field tackler on the team last season, leading the Vols with 71 stops, including 49 solos.
Tennessee players are bought into Gulllickson and Coach Butch Jones this season, according to Kelly.
“Coach Jones set up a program for us, our schedule is NFL based, so we base if off the best of the best,” Kelly said. “Coach Jones knows what he’s doing. I think we’re making sure we take care of our bodies more than we have in the past.
“I think that’s something we need to take into consideration, because as everyone knows, it’s not a secret, we had a lot of injuries on our team last year, and who knows what it was, but we’re trying to do things to help ourselves in that area.”