KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — One of the biggest concerns – on paper – for the Tennessee Volunteers entering the 2017 season is the running back unit.
But should it be a concern?
Last year at this time, the unit was loaded with familiar names in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, with John Kelly sitting on the third string.
Now following Hurd and Kamara’s early departures, Run CMG is headlined by Kelly – and rightfully so.
chief of staff 😤🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/YydaCjo5HH
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) July 31, 2017
Kelly rushed for 630 yards and scored five touchdowns on 98 carries last season, which he began as Tennessee’s No. 3 running back. In his career, Kelly has totaled 795 yards on the ground and has six touchdowns on 138 carries.
The junior running back is relishing the role of leading the unit and understands that, with anything he might do, others are watching to learn elements from him.
“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. “I feel like it is just as much my job as it is (running backs) Coach (Robert) Gillespie’s job to get them ready.
“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.”
Behind him is sophomore Carlin fils-Aime and a trio of freshman running backs: Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan and Trey Coleman.
Physicality and toughness are traits that Kelly wants to see from the other running backs.
“That’s all I’ve told them from the day we got here,” he said. “We’re going to be physical and we’re going to be tough.
“They’ve all been pretty physical every opportunity we have to be physical. They’ve all been pretty impressive.”
Adapting to that physical nature, and being mentally and physically tough to understand that it will make them better in the long run, is something Kelly said he needs to see from the entire unit for the Vols to prepare for a grueling season in which a plethora of running backs may play.
“This is big league,” Kelly said. “You never know with the injuries that can happen. You just want to make sure that the next man is ready and the next man (is) up. That’s the mentality of the whole running back group.”
Kelly’s experience of understanding how to work up a depth chart is not only a teaching tool, but helps him see how younger guys are doing within the early days of their college career.
And he notices good things already from the newcomers.
“It’s going good,” Kelly said. “It’s going a lot better than I expected.
“The younger guys are out there ready to go. That’s definitely something that I can say. Everybody is taking a lot of good coaching, so we have something special here.”
The most heavily thought of newcomer from the recruiting trail is Chandler, a 247Sports 4-star recruit from Nashville (Montgomery Bell Academy).
“He’s going to be good,” Kelly said. “He’s a work in progress, definitely, he’s just learning the offense and he’s learning how everything’s supposed to be done the Tennessee way.”