John Kelly is entering his junior season at Tennessee, and he figures to earn the most significant playing time of his career this fall. Kelly has showed flashes of brilliances in limited action in his first two years. And with the departures of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, 2017 is going to be Kelly’s time to shine.
Kelly joined the Vols as a member of the 2015 recruiting class out of Oak Park, Mich., ranked as a three-star prospect - #537 overall - by the 247Sports Composite Rankings. He had several other Power 5 offers, including Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Minnesota.
In his freshman season, Kelly had a hard time getting carries over Hurd and Kamara. He carried the ball 40 times for 165 yards and one touchdown, which came in Tennessee’s 45-6 Outback Bowl win over Northwestern. He did, however, make an impact on special teams, recovering a critical fumble at the end of the first half in Tennessee’s comeback win over Georgia.
In 2016, Hurd’s departure made room for Kelly to make his presence felt in the backfield. Alongside Kamara, Kelly rushed 98 times for 630 yards and five touchdowns. Kelly’s 6.4 yards per carry - though he did not officially have the 10 carries per game to qualify - would have ranked 20th in the country, ahead of backs like Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook and D’Onta Foreman.
Kelly’s speed is more than acceptable, but the attributes which set him apart are his strength and tenacity. He just runs hard. Kelly may not have the elusiveness we saw from Kamara, but he is more than capable of simply running through a defender rather than around one. Several of Kelly’s rushes from last season clearly show a back who is more than capable of carrying the load in 2017.
With a new quarterback and offensive coordinator, it will be imperative for Kelly to get as many touches as he can handle. And if his past performance is any indicator, that should work out pretty well for Tennessee.