Just three years ago, Todd Kelly Jr. entered the Vol football program as a member of Tennessee’s “legacy class” in the 2014 recruiting class.
Fast forward to 2017, and Kelly is in his final year of his Tennessee career.
“It’s wild how time flies,” Tennessee safety Todd Kelly Jr. said on Thursday afternoon in a media availability as he prepares to enter his senior season. “My mentality this year as an individual is realizing that I’m a senior and holding myself accountable as being a leader. First off for the defensive backfield, then the defense as a whole, and lastly the entire team.”
Kelly, who played high school football here in Knoxville, is ready to lead a defensive backfield that welcomes new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren and graduate transfer Shaq Wiggins. With the loss of All-SEC corner Cam Sutton, Kelly will look to be the glue of a secondary that returns its top three tacklers and eight guys with starting experience.
“Three, four, five, we have a lot of safeties that can play,” Kelly said. “That takes pressure off of us as a whole, but makes us compete. At the end of the day, whoever is on the field, we’re going to support each other.”
Two guys that are expected to help bolster the already deep secondary is Shaq Wiggins, a graduate transfer from Louisville and a player who has SEC experience under his belt from his days at Georgia, and freshman cornerback Cheyenne Labruzza.
According to Kelly, Wiggins hasn’t had a problem adjusting to his new surroundings, saying that he fit in as soon as he got to Knoxville.
“He loves the game of football and his IQ is very high for football intelligence,” Kelly stated. “He’s a guy who loves to play, loves to compete and always wants to get first in everything he does. I think he’ll be a great piece to our defense.”
As for Labruzza, the freshman defensive back from Louisiana is already receiving high praise from Kelly. While the defensive backs room is already crowded, the freshman’s work ethic alone should lead to some early playing time.
“If you were to sit back as a bystander and watch him work, you would think he’s been here for three or four years,” Kelly said of the newcomer. “There’s a level from high school to college that some people take a while to get and he’s already picked that up.
“He’s going to help us in that defensive backfield. I’m definitely going to stand by his side because he looks up to me, but you know, he’s one of my teammates now so I’m going to have to look up to him now. He’s a great player and has a great character. His overall attitude towards football and life in general is amazing.”
Tennessee isn’t receiving the hype this offseason that it received going into last season. But as a veteran, Kelly knows that where Tennessee is picked doesn’t matter because it’s all about what happens each Saturday during the fall.
“It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish and that’s what I truly believe,” Kelly said. “Right now, we’re in the weeds. Nobody is really seeing us so it’s almost like a snake in the grass.
“Our goal is to end up biting somebody at the end of the day and to make them pay.”
Kelly is coming off of the best year of his career. As a junior, the former Webb School of Knoxville standout led the Vols with 71 tackles. In 12 games at safety, Kelly picked off two passes, recorded a sack and forced a fumble. Out of Tennessee’s returning player on its roster, Kelly leads the way with eight career interceptions.
“It’s my last year,” Kelly said, “so I have to make it the best I possibly can.”