There are plenty of Tennessee players to root for this season. One stands out the most.

Todd Kelly Jr. has endured much more heartache than he ever imagined when he signed with the Vols. The former standout from Webb School in Knoxville expected to help turn around the Vols when he signed with UT in 2014. Kelly Jr. and his signing class expected to contend for championships at UT. They never expected to be a part of a team that would go winless in the SEC last season, finish 4-8 and be considered one of the worst teams in UT’s storied history. That was never part of the plan.

Kelly Jr. had plenty of college options. His sister was attending Alabama. That and Bama’s recent run was more than enough reason to head to Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide were certainly interested, along with Georgia and Clemson. Had Kelly Jr. chosen those schools, he would be planning for another run at a national championship this season. Instead, he and his Vols will need some good fortune to be much more than 6-6 and bowl eligible. That would be an accomplishment given the Vols’ roster.

Kelly Jr. passed on other, more successful schools to follow in his father’s footsteps and play for his hometown college. Kelly Jr.’s father, Todd Kelly, was a standout for the Vols before having a successful career in the NFL. Kelly Jr. seemed set to follow that path. Things haven’t quite worked out that way.

Kelly Jr. seemed to be headed in the right direction. He played in 13 games as a freshman and managed to start three. Kelly Jr. led all SEC freshman in 2014 with 3 interceptions. That was the most by a Vols true freshman since Eric Berry picked off 5 passes in 2007. Kelly Jr. also made a clutch interception late in the Vanderbilt game that allowed the Vols to hold off the Commodores. With limited playing time because of his youth, Kelly seemed to have a special ability to be around the football and was named to the All-SEC Freshman team.

Kelly Jr. also did things right off the field. He was named to the Omicron Delta Kappa National Leadership Honor Society. He was also named to the 2015 All-SEC Academic Honor Roll.

His play on Saturdays often was at its best against the Vols’ toughest opponents. He had a career high 11 tackles against Alabama in 2016 and 2 interceptions against Oklahoma in 2015.

Kelly Jr. also had character. He showed that when he announced he would change his jersey number from 6 to 24 to honor Zaevion Dobson, a local high school player who had been shot to death as he tried to protect others. The play-making continued. In his first full season as a full-time starter, Kelly Jr. recorded a team-high 71 tackles, including 49 solo stops, to go with 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble and 2 passes defended.

Then things went awry. Kelly played in only two games last season after suffering a knee injury that required season-ending surgery. During the offseason, he was involved in what his girlfriend called a “minor altercation” with her in which he fell from a 30-foot wall. Kelly Jr. suffered minor injuries and managed to avoid any legal issues involving the incident.

Kelly now has one season left to play after petitioning the NCAA for a fifth year of eligibility. If he thrives this season, he’ll have an opportunity to play in the NFL and a chance to avoid being lumped together with so many players that never reached their full potential under former UT coach Butch Jones. Kelly Jr. doesn’t want to be remembered as a legacy player that didn’t uphold his father’s legacy. Former Vol Kahlil McKenzie must surely know how that feels.

My fondest memory of Kelly Jr. was when I met him and his father at a local Knoxville restaurant in order to interview them and write a feature story about the two. Kelly Jr. was about 30 minutes late, but this wasn’t some high school diva that decided to do interviews on his own time. Kelly Jr. had gone to the wrong location. When he realized he was at the wrong restaurant, he apologized profusely. The three of us had a great conversation over lunch and I left the meeting sure that Kelly Jr. was a good-natured, young man of integrity that just happened to have a 4.0 grade point average.

Whether it’s football or some other endeavor, Kelly Jr. will be successful at life. I hope that begins on Saturday when the Vols play West Virginia. Now, healthy, I hope the season unfolds just as he’d like it. There’s simply too much about Kelly Jr. to root for.

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