KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee sophomore John Kelly has a unique opportunity to slip from the shadows of relative anonymity in the SEC and into the spotlight this November.
The 5-foot-9, 212-pound talent from Detroit will take over the starting tailback position for the Vols (5-3) in their homecoming game against Tennessee Tech (3-5) at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Jalen Hurd’s sudden departure from the team coupled with Alvin Kamara’s knee injury has opened the door for Kelly, who has outperformed both of those players in his limited work, anyway.
“He always runs behind his pads, (and) the mark of a great running back is they are always falling forward, and his feet never stop,” said UT coach Butch Jones, noting that Kelly has yet to lose a yard on any of his 33 caries this season. “I think he also has a great sense and feel for the inside and outside zone plays.”
Kelly had 13 carries for 89 yards and a touchdown in Tennessee’s 45-38 double-overtime loss at Texas A&M on Oct. 8, and he followed that up with 14 carries for 94 yards in the 24-21 loss at South Carolina last Saturday.
Kelly said after the loss to the Gamecocks that he’s going to make sure his teammates stay up and ready to improve.
That type of leadership doesn’t surprise Jones.
“He’s been a behind the scenes in the locker room type of leader,” Jones said. “I told him, five weeks ago, very few people knew who you were, and now all the sudden you may be the most-talked-about Tennessee Vol at this time.
“He’s kind of the heart and soul; he’s made his mark on special teams.”
Jones said that Kamara, who hasn’t played since the Oct. 15 loss to Alabama, is “questionable” to return for the Nov. 12 game against Kentucky.
Tennessee players sound confident that Kelly can get it done.
“I have all the confidence in the world in J.K.; in my opinion he’s one of the best backs in the SEC,” Vols offensive tackle Brett Kendrick said. “He’s a great running back. He’s really gonna get a chance this week to prove himself, and the offensive line will do everything it can to get him in the end zone.
“I’ve never seen anyone run as angry as John Kelly. He’s gets up off the ground and wants the ball again. … It’s always encouraging as an offensive lineman to see a back break a big run like that and want the ball again.”
Linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., who returned to the starting lineup against South Carolina after being out with an ankle sprain since the Sept. 10 Virginia Tech game, said he spends more time with Kelly than anyone.
“He’s a very violent runner, he runs with a lot of aggression, and that’s a credit to his body build,” Kirkland said. “He’s a challenging runner to bring down. He’ll be a great asset to our offense.”
Coaches praised Kelly’s work ethic this fall, as he grinded through the summer heat full-go, while Hurd and Kamara often wore green no-contact jerseys.
“I’ve had confidence in John Kelly for a long time,” UT offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. “We’ve seen what he can do and you saw what he did against Texas A&M and South Carolina.”
Here’s a look at how the Vols’ tailbacks compare this season: