Rewind to a little less than a year ago for the Vols. Jalen Hurd was about to quit the team mid-season, and Alvin Kamara was dealing with an injury. Tennessee desperately needed someone to step up and shoulder the load at running back when the Vols traveled to South Carolina.
John Kelly entered that role that night, and he’s been one of the best running backs in the SEC since.
Kelly was Tennessee’s primary running back against South Carolina last year, and he burst onto the scene with his best performance to date in that game, carrying the ball 14 times for 94 yards and adding a 17-yard reception as well. Kelly did perform well as a backup in Tennessee’s match-up with Texas A&M, but Kamara stole the spotlight in that game, setting the school record for most all-purpose yards in a single game.
But the South Carolina game in 2016 was about John Kelly emerging, even if that game will always leave a sour taste in every Vol fan’s mouth.
Since that game against South Carolina last year, Kelly has been on a tear. He’s run for at least 80 yards in seven of the 10 games he’s played since, including five 100-yard games. Kelly has totaled 918 rushing yards and 241 receiving yards in those 10 games since his breakout performance against South Carolina last year.
Kelly is now the Vols’ workhorse at running back. He’s become the most consistent player on Tennessee’s offense, and the Vols have counted on him more than any other player so far in the Butch Jones era (with the exception of Josh Dobbs). Kelly has 71.8 percent of Tennessee’s rushing yards and leads the team with 22 catches for 229 yards.
In fact, the next closest running back in the SEC in terms of receiving yards is Jordan Wilkins of Ole Miss with 133 receiving yards. That’s just how much Kelly has been relied upon as “do everything” back for Tennessee.
Heading into this season, Vol fans felt as though Kelly was underrated and underappreciated by the national media. They saw what he did against South Carolina last season and down the stretch; they knew what he was capable of.
Now almost a year later, the national media now know who John Kelly is too. He’s emerged as one of the best running backs in the SEC, and he’s on pace to leave his name in Tennessee’s record books as well.
It’s been a good year for John Kelly. But he’ll be the first to tell you that there’s still plenty more to do, and he’ll want to leave his mark on the Gamecocks again this weekend like he did last year.