Tennessee, now without transferring running back Jalen Hurd, and without the injured Alvin Kamara for at least this week against Tennessee Tech, will have several newer faces at the position on Saturday.
“Right now that rotation will be three-deep,” Butch Jones said during his Wednesday press conference, naming sophomore running back John Kelly and freshmen Carlin Fils-Aime and Jeremy Lewis as the three backs in line to get work.
And while the freshmen certainly could play, the workload is expected to fall primarily to Kelly, a sophomore out of Michigan, who put up a career-high 14 carries for 94 yards at South Carolina on Saturday.
“He’s a physical, downhill, north-and-south type of running back, has very good feet,” Jones said of Kelly. “He’s proven to have very good durability in our football program, but he’s handled it like you’d expect John Kelly to – kind of business as usual. Very energized – he’s one of those individuals that leads our football team.”
Kelly was somewhat of an afterthought coming into the 2016 season with Hurd and Kamara in front of him in the backfield. But as has been the case for UT at several positions this year, injuries and adversity have provided lesser-known players with opportunities.
“I was speaking to him yesterday and I said, you know it’s amazing on perseverance and resolve,” Jones said. “Five weeks ago, very little people knew who you were, very little carries, and now all of a sudden, you might be the most talked about Tennessee Vol at this particular time….I know our players are really excited for him to have an extended opportunity.”
Injury updates: Jones said that safety Micah Abernathy is day-to-day as he battles a hamstring, and should be on the practice field Wednesday afternoon.
Kamara and cornerback Cam Sutton are both “ahead of schedule,” per Jones. Kamara is officially listed as questionable for UT’s next SEC game against Kentucky, while Jones said that Sutton is back to running and working his way into position drills, though the timetable for his return remains uncertain.
Safety/kick returner Evan Berry also had to get stitches after taking a cleat to the face at South Carolina. He’ll be fine to play against Tennessee Tech, and Jones, when asked about his one play on offense on Saturday, said that Berry’s role with the offense will continue to evolve throughout the season.
More touching?: Jones sounds like he might have an interesting solution to help UT play with a little more energy and emotion – touching each other more. He cited a Wall Street Journal article that examined a study of the NBA that found that teams that touched each other more – high fives, chest bumps, etc., had more wins.
“That’s direct correlation to team chemistry,” Jones said. “It’s direct correlation to excitement and energy and passion and that’s what our program is built off.”