John Kelly is approaching a pivotal junior season after a breakout campaign in 2016. He’s the lone upperclassmen in Tennessee’s running back group. But he’ll have help, albeit from some young and inexperienced backs.
The returns on Tennessee’s trio of freshmen running backs during fall camp have been solid. Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan and Trey Coleman may all see the field in 2017.
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie has been pleasantly surprised with their maturity.
“They are the smartest group of freshmen I’ve ever been around,” Gillespie said after practice on Tuesday. “They come from really good programs.”
But he also gave credit where credit is due.
“The biggest thing that has helped is John Kelly,” Gillespie stated. “He took those guys under his wing and met with them this summer when we couldn’t meet with them as coaches. It kind of surprised me coming off of vacation how smart those guys were.”
Kelly hasn’t been the feature back for long. But he was Tennessee’s leading rusher in 2016 despite only starting one game. In conference play, Kelly rushed for 430 yards on just 73 carries. In his lone start, Kelly ran for 104 yards, including a 73 yard touchdown run against Tennessee Tech.
Kelly admits that this year is a lot different, but he loves the challenge. And he’s confident in his young reinforcements.
“It’s been a new experience for me, being one of the older guys,” Kelly said after Tuesday’s practice. “But I definitely think it’s been a good one. I’m pretty confident with (the three freshmen) right now as far as being able to get in the game. Knowing they’ll be able to manage the ball and ball security. As far as knowledge, they’ve got a lot to learn. But they’re just like sponges, taking in everything me and Coach Gillespie are telling them.
“If I need to take a breather, I know I can count on those young guys to come in and manage and do a good job.”
Last year, Kelly was that reinforcement. Against Texas A&M, Kelly was the backup who made a name for himself, gaining 89 yards on 13 carries behind Alvin Kamara’s record-breaking performance in that game.
Gillespie sees an opportunity for any of his three newcomers to fill that role this upcoming season. Sophomore Carlin Fils-Aime will also see plenty of time behind Kelly.
“They understand the pressure they’re under to come in and play immediately. Those guys have really surprised me this summer on how much I can put on their plate,” Gillespie said.
Gillespie is the only offensive position coach left from last year’s coaching staff. That continuity has been crucial for Butch Jones. Gillespie’s culture is clear and specific.
Plus, it’s working.
“This is going on year five. I’ve had a chance to recruit a whole class. The culture of the room is set,” Gillespie added. “Everything happens for a reason, and I’m definitely excited that we were in a position where John had so many reps at the end of the year, and it led to him becoming a leader to these three freshmen.
“It’s one thing for me to say what to do, and show them on a white board. But it’s another thing when John can show them how to execute it.”
Gillespie may be in charge now, but once he’s finished coaching, Kelly wants his job.
“Eventually I think I’ll be a pretty decent running back coach,” Kelly stated. “I just try to do a good job mentoring those guys. Even growing up, I always liked working with kids and helping people get better. I like the whole process.”
The Vols have a group of upperclassmen who are willing to lead. They’re committed to building upon last year’s success, while making up for the disappointment of how things ended in 2016.
Given Tennessee’s coaching staff with four new position coaches, Kelly’s ability to mentor young players is invaluable. And he’s proving to be just the coach Tennessee’s young running backs need.