The Vols will be without their top offensive option on Saturday when they take on the Kentucky Wildcats.
Tennessee announced on Wednesday afternoon that star junior running back John Kelly would be suspended along with freshman linebacker Will Ignont for this Saturday’s game against the Wildcats due to both players being cited for marijuana possession late Tuesday night.
Kelly is Tennessee’s leading rusher and leads the team in catches. His 615 rushing yards are 70.5 percent of the team’s rushing total this season, and his 26 receptions are four more than the team’s second-leading receiver, Brandon Johnson. He also only trails Johnson by 11 yards for the team lead in receiving yards as well.
The Vols won’t be able to replace Kelly’s production on Saturday. But the void he leaves provides one of Tennessee’s youngest and most talented players a chance to shine.
Freshman running back Ty Chandler has shown flashes of his potential this season. He’s ripped off a 30-yard run against South Carolina and scored on a 91-yard kickoff return against Indiana State. He has the ability to make defenders miss with his elusiveness, and he has the skill to be utilized as a pass catching threat out of the backfield.
But as much potential that Chandler has flashed, he’s still barely been used this season.
Chandler has never had more than nine touches in a game this season, and he’s averaging just 4.9 touches per game. The most action he saw this season was in Tennessee’s match-up against Florida when he carried the ball seven times for 30 yards and caught two passes for 31 yards.
Since that game, however, Chandler has only carried the ball 15 times and has only caught five passes in the four games since. He’s gained 67 yards on those 15 carries, however, and he’s picked up 37 yards on his five receptions.
With John Kelly gone for this weekend’s match-up with Kentucky, Chandler needs the ball more. And I mean a lot more.
Sophomore back Carlin Fils-Aime deserves more carries, and freshmen Tim Jordan and Trey Coleman may even see more action. Redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano will likely carry the ball more from the quarterback position to help try and shoulder some of the load that Kelly carried as well.
But Chandler has the highest upside of any of the Vols’ backs, and he’s proven to be the main backup option behind Kelly this year. This could prove to be his breakout game much like the 2016 South Carolina game was for Kelly.
Last year, John Kelly was thrust into the national spotlight in Tennessee’s game against South Carolina as Jalen Hurd was benched part of the way through the game, and Alvin Kamara was held out because of injury. Kelly ended up rushing for 94 yards on 14 carries and caught a pass for 17 yards, and he would go on to start the Vols’ next game against Tennessee Tech, running for a then-career-high 104 yards on just seven carries in that game.
Ty Chandler shouldn’t be expected to put up similar numbers that Kelly did as a sophomore in his expanded role last year. But Chandler should get the bulk of the work left behind by Kelly on Saturday, and he deserves a chance to show what he can do.
Kentucky’s rush defense has been gashed the last two weeks by Missouri and Mississippi State. The Tigers and Bulldogs combined to run for 495 yards and five touchdowns on just 81 carries, giving those two teams an average of 6.1 yards per carry.
If Chandler is going to have a true breakout game as a freshman, this is the perfect opportunity for him to do so. Tennessee’s coaches just have to give him the chance to do it.