When last season began, little was expected of John Kelly. The then-sophomore running back had just 40 career rushing attempts and was squarely the third string running back behind both Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara.
Then Hurd got hurt and then eventually left the program, and Kamara dealt with injuries as well. Kelly was thrust into a much bigger role than expected, and he flourished with his increased responsibilities. Kelly ran for 630 yards on just 98 attempts last season, scoring five touchdowns as well.
Now just a year after Kelly was considered little more than a reserve, he’s being asked to be a leader for a young Vols offense. And Kelly says he’s prepared for his new role.
“I embrace the whole teacher role now and try to show all the younger guys how things are supposed to be done,” Kelly said after the Vols’ practice on Tuesday afternoon. “I know what (Coach Gillespie), Coach Jones, and Coach Scott expect from us. So I’m just trying hold all these guys to a higher standard and also improve my game as well. Because I know I’m going to be taking a lot more reps than I have in past years.”
The role may be one that Kelly is welcoming, but it’s uncharted territory for the rising junior running back.
“I’ve never had so many younger guys underneath me,” Kelly said about Tennessee’s young stable of running backs behind him on the depth chart. “It’s a lot more fun to have these younger guys underneath me to help me embrace this role.”
Although Kelly has little experience with this many younger, inexperienced players learning from him, he foresaw what this season would bring and tried to prepare before spring practices began. Kelly sought advice from some of his more experienced teammates, including his former position mate, Alvin Kamara. Kelly said Kamara told him to “stay focused and stay the course” this season in order to be an effective teacher and running back himself.
Kelly didn’t just ask for advice from those who played before him; he’s also using his experiences from last season to guide his actions this year.
“The experience (of last season) definitely helped me, especially with the reps” Kelly stated. “But I’m learning every day. I’m constantly learning something new every single day. I know I have to have these young guys ready to go because you never know who’s going to be thrown out there because you never know when I may go down. I’m making sure I’m handling my business so when they see me, they know it’s time for them to work.
“I don’t think I’m too quiet. I want these guys to be hear what I’m saying and to feel me as well. I talk a lot of junk from time to time, but I also back it up. It’s a lot of tough love. We have some young, strong guys, but I definitely make sure they’re on top of it.”
But it’s not all just about teaching other running backs how to become better players. Kelly has also focused on himself and improving on the lessons he learned last year for his new, expanded role this year.
“I’ve been working a lot with Coach Gillespie and watching extra film to see what I can improve on from my runs last year,” Kelly said. “Even watching the runs Alvin had last year has definitely helped me improve my game this year.
“Coach (Rock Gullickson) has been a tremendous support for all of us with the offseason weight lifting program. I’m definitely trying to mold my body into a starting SEC running back.”
John Kelly will be the undeniable starting running back for the Vols this year. But they need him to be more than that as well; Tennessee needs Kelly to be a leader and a teacher too. And Kelly has thus far embraced that role.