Is John Kelly One of the Top Returning Running Backs in the SEC?

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    Photo Credit: Anne Newman/RTI

    The SEC returns a bevy of talented running backs from the 2016 season to this upcoming season. Tennessee’s John Kelly is one of them. But Kelly, unlike LSU’s Derrius Guice, Georgia’s Nick Chubb, or Auburn’s Kamryn Pettway, isn’t being talked about as one of the top returning backs in the conference.

    But could the Vols’ junior running back actually be one of the best returning backs in the SEC? The stats seem to imply so.

    According to a graphic tweeted out from Pro Football Focus’s college football Twitter account, only Bo Scarbrough and Joshua Jacobs of Alabama had more yards after contact per attempt in 2016 among returning running backs this season than Kelly.

    Not only that, but Kelly finished last season with an impressive 6.4 yard per carry average on his 98 rushing attempts last season. That placed him eighth among all running backs in the SEC last season, and he ranks sixth in the SEC in that category among running backs returning in 2017.

    Kelly isn’t one of the eight returning running backs who rushed for 1,000 yards last season. And that’s largely because Kelly didn’t see much playing time at all until the Vols’ road game against Texas A&M, which was nearly halfway through the season. Kelly totaled just three carries for 17 yards and one score in Tennessee’s first five games. His other 95 carries for 613 yards and four touchdowns came in the last eight games of the Vols’ season.

    Granted, some of Kelly’s stats should be taken with a grain of salt. Aside from Alabama (1st) and Vanderbilt (6th), the other four SEC teams Kelly faced were in the bottom half of the SEC in run defense. And Kelly’s only 100-yard performances came against Tennessee Tech, an FCS school, and Missouri, the worst run defense in the SEC East.

    Not only that, but Kelly won’t have Alvin Kamara and Josh Dobbs to help carry the load this season and provide other weapons for teams to watch out for. But Kelly has proven he has the tools and endurance to shoulder the bulk of the load like he did in a handful of games last season. And he won’t be without help, especially with the line that’s blocking for him.

    The Vols’ offensive line returns the most starts in the SEC. Tennessee returns 111 career starts among their offensive linemen, the second-most in the FBS. That’s an offensive line that returns most of the same linemen that’s helped the Vols rush for 5,576 yards and 63 touchdowns on 1,134 carries the last two seasons combined.

    Kelly’s stats may have largely come against some weaker run defenses. But he still earned those numbers and still put up impressive displays as a sophomore last season when many didn’t even believe he would need to be counted on. Now with a couple of young, talented backs to support him and an experienced line to block for him, Kelly should be due for a solid junior season.

    John Kelly may not be getting the attention of several other returning running backs in the SEC this season. But Vol fans are excited to see what he can do as the undoubted starter for Tennessee, and the stats show that Kelly may just be one of the top returning backs in the conference.

    Nathanael Rutherford
    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.