KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There might not be a more popular player in the Tennessee locker room than Tennessee tailback John Kelly, who motivates teammates by running angry and running hard.
Kelly asserted himself as a leader following Monday’s practice with an impromptu speech to the Vols’ offensive linemen and running backs.
Tennessee (3-4, 0-4 SEC) plays at Kentucky (5-2, 2-2) at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday in Lexington. The Wildcats are a 5 1/2-point favorite over the Vols.
“One thing that definitely has to improve is just the way that everyone works as an offense, as a whole,” Kelly said, likely referencing Tennessee’s 14 quarter streak without scoring an offensive touchdown.
In particular, Kelly told his teammates they needed to do a better job of protecting redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who was sacked four times at Alabama and knocked down on several other occasions.
“We as a whole on offense have to take away from the hits he’s taking, (and) that’s something I addressed after practice today with the offensive line and the running backs, was we can’t allow that to happen anymore,” Kelly said. “We have to do a better job of making sure we protect him, and when he’s down, we have to make sure we’re rushing to go get him up.”
Kelly said he just felt the need to deliver the talk.
“It wasn’t anything (planned), I just felt like it was something that needed to be said so I just called the guys up after the coaches broke and everybody left,” Kelly said. “I called the O-Line and running backs up and told them basically what needed to be done from here on out.”
Kelly has been held below 60 yards rushing each of the past three games, averaging just 3.75 yards per carry in losses to Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama.
The Tide and the Bulldogs are No. 1 and No. 2 in the SEC in rush defense, and Kentucky is No. 3 in the league against the run in conference games.
“It has been the same thing for the last couple of weeks, we have to make sure we have to execute,” Kelly said. “It has been coming down to execution.
“I don’t want to put it on the O-Line for dropping down or for them being the difference — we have to roll with who we’ve got, and we have to make sure they are all prepared as if they were starting.”
Tennessee has started five different offensive line combinations through the first seven games, and senior Jashon Robertson was knocked out of last Saturday’s loss to Alabama.
Senior tight end Jakob Johnson, arguably the best open-field blocker on the team, has also been missing from the offensive attack.
Kelly is third in the SEC with 118.8 all-purpose yards per game in league games, and he’s tied for eighth in the SEC with a 76.5-yard rushing average in league games.
Tennessee RB John Kelly talks Kentucky
Posted by Tennessee Volunteers Insiders on Monday, October 23, 2017