Last year, John Kelly was the young gun at running back with more question marks than answers. But then attrition happened at his position, and Kelly was thrust into a much bigger role than anticipated.
Now Kelly is the veteran of the running back group, and he’s using his experience from last season to guide his approach to this year.
“I realize that I’m the oldest guy back there so every time I’m doing something, I know that there are a lot of younger guys watching me,” Kelly said after practice on Tuesday. “I’m the one that’s going to be out there playing next to them so I have to make sure they are ready to go out there and are prepared to take advantage of their opportunities the same way that I did. I really just want the best for everybody that’s in the backfield with me.
“I’m going to prepare everybody like they’re going to be a starter because you never know in this league.”
And as for how those young running backs are coming along, Kelly has been impressed with what he’s seen so far from the more inexperienced players in the running back room. Especially freshman running back Ty Chandler.
“It’s going a lot better than I expected,” Kelly stated. “The younger guys are out there ready to go. Everybody is taking a lot of good coaching, I feel like we have something special here. (Ty Chandler) is going to be good, that’s what I can say. He’s a work in progress, just learning the offense, and he’s learning how everything is supposed to be done the Tennessee way. He’s going to be a good one.”
Chandler, Tim Jordan, and Trey Coleman are the freshmen that joined the running back corps this fall. They will be expected to provide depth for Kelly and sophomore Carlin Fils-Aime. And Kelly saw firsthand last season how important it is for a team to have several players ready to go at the position.
“It’s very important,” Kelly said about having several backs behind him. “This is the big league. You never know with the injuries what could happen. You just want to make sure the next man is ready. It’s next man up, that’s the mentality for the whole running back room.”
But Kelly hopes the team doesn’t have to rely on the younger players as much. Kelly said he knows he needs to step up this season because of all the play-makers that left the roster after last year, and he knows the team is counting on him.
“I got a lot to prove, not only for myself but for my team because I feel like there’s a lot of unknown talent on this team,” Kelly said. “So I’m going to do my best in whatever I can to help us win ball games.”
Kelly’s fellow running backs aren’t the only players who have taken note of his leadership, however. Sophomore wide receiver Marquez Callaway has as well.
“John Kelly is one of the shortest, funnest, most spirited guys I’ve known since I got here,” Callaway said with a chuckle after practice. “He’s always excited, always happy and he always wants us to be our best. Not just on the field, but in the weight room, in classes too.”
With little proven experience behind him at running back and few proven play-makers among the pass catchers, John Kelly will be relied upon to be not only a difference-maker as a player, but a leader for the young players as well.
But Kelly knows the expectations, and he’s said he’s ready to lead. Now he and the coaches just have to make sure the younger backs are ready to go should the time come.