KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Todd Kelly Jr.’s, spring camp took a very positive turn in a very strange place.
It didn’t occur on the field, in the film room or in a coach’s office. It occurred during spring break when the Tennessee safety and quarterback Josh Dobbs were walking down the boardwalk in Venice Beach, Calif. That’s when Kelly saw a piece of jewelry that would change his approach to football. It was a necklace of a wolf that Kelly was immediately drawn to.
“Wolf mentality,” Kelly said after the Orange and White Game on Saturday. “I went to Venice Beach and got this necklace. I try to play like a wolf, kind of sly, but at the same time, it’s all about having that mentality. You have to have confidence. You can’t second guess yourself. You have to be confident. That’s why I wear this. I wear it on the field too.”
Kelly was initially steadfast in not spending any money with the various vendors at Venice Beach. Then, he gave in.
“I told myself I wasn’t going to buy anything but I kind of felt bad for the guy,” Kelly said.
And the wolf was born.
“The necklace made me decide,” Kelly said. “I did research on it. Wolf mentality. Lone wolf.”
Despite being the most experienced and most accomplished safety on Tennessee’s roster, Kelly has faced some strong competition this spring. Sophomores Rashaan Gaulden and Micah Abernathy garnered most of the coaches’ praise when safeties came up. Kelly was conspicuously absent. That didn’t sit well. Kelly was determined to prove himself a worthy starter and a leader among the younger players.
“It was very important,” Kelly said. “I knew I was going to be a veteran guy back there. I’m going to be a junior this season and just to make sure that I solidify I’m the guy that when you need somebody to turn to, I’ll be there. I feel like I’ve definitely solidified that.”
No one should have been surprised when Kelly reeled in an interception on Saturday. It came off a pass that should have been caught by tight end Jason Croom, but instead bounced off of his shoulder pads and ended up in Kelly’s grasp.
Kelly led the Vols with three interceptions last season despite limited playing time. He has had six interceptions in his two seasons at Tennessee. Kelly just seems to have a knack for being at the right place at the right time.
“It’s all about awareness in football and being instinctive on the football side,” he said. “I feel like watching film and knowing where the ball is going to go and centering yourself wherever it is going to go, where to be on the field and where not to be, I think that’s the main thing.”
Defensive backs coach Willie Martinez has impressed upon Kelly that his preparation is the key to his good fortune.
“Sometimes the ball goes your way,” Kelly said. “Coach Martinez says the football gods reward you when you put the time in.”
It may have taken awhile for Kelly to take to first-year Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s style. Now, it seems a natural fit.
“Coach Shoop is a lot more aggressive,” Kelly said when asked to compare him to former defensive coordinator John Jancek. “He likes to get after the quarterback and make sure the ball comes out quick. But he also knows when to back off and allow us to make plays in pass coverage. He does a great job of working with the safeties. He primarily works with us during practice.”
Kelly’s competitive drive hasn’t prevented him from enjoying Gaulden’s improvement. Kelly said he’s not surprised Gaulden has performed so well after moving from nickelback to safety before spring camp.
“You can put Rashaan anywhere and he’s going to make plays,” Kelly said of his roommate. “I call him the Energizer Bunny. … Anywhere you put him, if you tell him what to do, he’s going to do it. I try to do as much as I can to help him out. Once he gets the grasp of it, he’s going to be a great safety.”
Kelly said Tennessee fans can expect to see a lot of improvement on the backend of the Vols’ defense even though they lost two starting safeties from last season. Kelly is one of the initial players that helped build the Vols to this point. His commitment and recruiting for the Vols was an integral part of Tennessee’s improvement. Now, he said it’s important to know how to deal with expectations.
“I tell the young guys, don’t look forward what’s to come,” Kelly said. “Don’t talk about Atlanta. … Focus on right now.”