KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A couple weeks ago, John Kelly was a little-used tailback with a fascinating backstory.
Now, the Michigan native is a household name around Rocky Top, becoming Tennessee’s top tailback after Jalen Hurd’s sudden departure and Alvin Kamara’s knee injury. Kamara is questionable to return Saturday against Kentucky, but there’s no doubt it’s the John Kelly show in the backfield now for the Vols.
Kelly made his first-career start Saturday against Tennessee Tech, rushing for 115 yards and a score on just 7 carries.
“This whole time I’ve just been preparing like I was the starter since I’ve been here on campus,” Kelly told the SEC Network recently.
“The opportunity came and I’m just trying to take advantage of it.”
He certainly has.
Kelly, who plays with an infectious enthusiasm, has jumpstarted Tennessee’s sluggish ground game, tallying 198 yards in the last two games. He has 313 yards and 3 scores on the season, averaging more than 7.8 yards a pop.
Flashing both his speed and power, Kelly ripped off a 73-yard touchdown against the Golden Eagles — the longest run by a Tennessee tailback in 10 years.
“I feel like everybody in this league is fast,” Kelly said.
“I’m just trying to run to daylight just as fast as I possibly can. I can’t look back because I don’t think no one is going to be able to catch me.”
Since being pressed into a more prominent role, the 5-foot-9, 215-pound sophomore has boosted locker room morale, taking on a vocal leadership role despite his relative inexperience. Teammates rave about his energy, character and selfless attitude.
“He’s just an exciting runner,” left tackle Brett Kendrick said.
“He’s fun to watch. He runs so hard. As an offensive lineman, that’s all you can ask for. He gives us a lot of praise and thanks us. It’s kind of locker room stuff.”
Senior quarterback Josh Dobbs echoed similar sentiments, saying, “He’s just an energetic guy on and off the field. Guys enjoy being around him. They vibe off his energy. He’s a little different.
“He’s a Northerner. He brings a little swag to a team in the South with kids from Atlanta, Florida and Alabama. He sticks out in his own way and that’s a good thing. We really like how he plays on the field, but also how he carries himself off the field.”
During Kelly’s interview with SEC Network’s Laura Rutledge, he also dished on his nerves before his first career start, his love for skateboarding and running “angry.”