KNOXVILLE — John Kelly announced on Dec. 29 that he will forgo his senior season at Tennessee and declare early for the 2018 NFL Draft.
What does that mean for the Vols’ backfield as the star running back departs, leaving behind a chance to play during the early stages of the Jeremy Pruitt era on Rocky Top?
The Vols will miss Kelly’s elusiveness, which led him to 778 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in 2017, but they can overcome his loss with returning backs Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan, Carlin Fils-aime and Trey Coleman. Incoming freshman Jeremy Banks will also join the Vols’ backfield after joining UT during the early signing period.
The five running backs bring different elements, which should suit new offensive coordinator Tyson Helton in his approach of maximizing his talent and running formations to best suit his personnel. The Vols didn’t adapt to personnel and formations during the Butch Jones regime, leading to his downfall.
Chandler (below) and Jordan are similar and could be the top two on the depth chart this spring. Both are 5 feet 11, 195 pounds and both can run inside the tackles with power or use speed to get outside.
Both Helton and Pruitt are going to bring back smash-mouth formations when needed, something lacking in Jones’ tenure. Both Coleman and Banks suit that role.
Coleman is a bit bigger at 5-11, 214 and Banks is 6-2, 215, so their size can be beneficial in short-yardage situations.
The backs will be running in more of a pro-style system this season with the quarterback under center in one back sets, or in shotgun sets, or a variety of other formations.
With the variety of backs and formations planned for the upcoming season, the Vols’ offense will need stability on their line.
The Vols lose Coleman Thomas, Jashon Robertson, Brett Kendrick and Jack Jones (injury) up front. But first-year offensive line coach Will Friend will have several returning players to work with this spring.
Marcus Tatum, Drew Richmond, Nathan Niehaus, Ryan Johnson, Devante Brooks, Chance Hall, Riley Locklear, Trey Smith and K’Rojhn Calbert all return and will have spring practices to get accustomed to the new staff. Jerome Carvin, Jahmir Johnson (junior college), Tanner Antonutti and Ollie Lane (early enrollee) signed in the 2018 class.
Kelly made a good decision to better himself in the long run; he is a good enough playmaker to perhaps be a mid-round draft pick and might have topped out at his evaluation in college. But he will leave behind a strong enough running back depth chart for Tennessee to field a stable ground game in 2018.