Despite backing up both Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara for over half of the 2016 season and only totaling 14 yards on three carries through the first five weeks of the season, John Kelly put together a solid season last year. Kelly finished with 630 rushing yards and five touchdowns on just 98 carries for the Vols in 2016.
Now both Hurd and Kamara are off the roster. That means it’s time for Kelly to take the reigns and head up Tennessee’s rushing attack this year with little experienced help to back him up.
Kelly is essentially the Vols’ only experienced running back on the roster heading into this season. Carlin Fils-Aime totaled just 14 carries for 58 yards and two scores in his freshman year last season, and the rest of Tennessee’s depth will be made up by freshmen and walk-ons.
Kelly will have to carry the load on the ground for the Vols this year. And ESPN is predicting a big year for the junior running back because of that.
Edward Aschoff of ESPN compiled a list of eight SEC running backs who could run for at least 1,000 yards in the 2017 season, and Kelly was one of the backs to make the cut.
Aschoff listed Kelly seventh of the eight running backs mentioned, stating that Kelly is “the lone proven back in Tennessee’s backfield, and he could really make a name for himself this year, as the offense relies on him more this fall.”
The Vols have only had 18 1,000-yard rushers in school history. The last player to do it was Jalen Hurd when he ran for 1,288 yards in 2015. As a side note, only one Vol in school history has ever had more than one 1,000-yard season in a career, and that was Johnnie Jones in both 1983 and 1984.
In his career, Kelly is averaging 5.8 yards per carry on just 138 career carries through two seasons. Kelly has proven to be a tough, hard-nosed runner who is difficult to take down, especially behind the line. In his 22 career games with the Vols, Kelly has only totaled 27 negative rushing yards (yards lost by being tackled behind the line of scrimmage). For comparison, Jalen Hurd totaled 126 negative rushing yards in his 33 career games at Tennessee and Alvin Kamara had 32 negative yards in 24 games.
The Vols will need Kelly to have a strong season in 2017 if the offense is to be effective. And if Kelly’s past with Tennessee is any indication, he’s in store for a solid future as well.