KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It’s been a long road back to college football’s top 10 for Tennessee football, and the Vols have yet to truly prove they belong at their lofty 2016 preseason perch, at that.
Knoxville product Todd Kelly Jr. understands the dynamics involved with Tennessee’s football resurrection better than anyone, having bled orange his entire life.
Kelly Jr. was 11 years old, starring in the Pilot youth football league, the last time UT was ranked in the top 10. That was back on Oct. 29 of 2006, after Phillip Fulmer put a 31-24 beating on Steve Spurrier and South Carolina in a battle of hall of fame coaches to earn the No. 8 ranking.
“Growing up, I was a big Tennessee fan,” said Kelly Jr., a projected starting safety who plans to scrimmage Saturday after missing the past few practices as a precautionary measure.
“Just seeing Tennessee go through the losing seasons, the trials and tribulations, it was really rough as a fan.”
Kelly Jr. is one of the Vols’ “legacy” players. His father played defensive end for the Vols from 1989-92 before being selected in the first round of the NFL draft and embarking on a four-year professional football career.
Todd Kelly Sr. made sure to raise his son the Tennessee way.
“If you walked into my bedroom, it’s painted nothing but orange and white, Smokey on my walls, basketballs and footballs,” Kelly Jr. said. “I have a big checkerboard rug right in the middle of the room.”
Kelly Jr., who has 6 career interceptions despite making just 5 starts over the past two seasons, has grown into a team leader. He’s also toeing the company line when it comes to Tennessee’s public approach to the season — taking things “one day and one game at a time.”
But Kelly Jr. did have a message for Vols fans when asked what he felt their outlook should be to the 2016 season.
“I feel like they should be as confident as we are as players,” Kelly Jr. said. “I know they have our back, and we have your back, and as fans I want you to support us as much as you possibly can, and we’re going to give all we can on the field, no matter what.
“We’re going to walk off the field knowing we gave it our all for this state, for this city, and ultimately for the Tennessee Volunteers.”
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s SEC Country and lives in Knoxville.