Earlier this week Jimmy Hyams quoted some of Tennessee’s offensive linemen saying they wanted John Kelly to get 2,000 yards this season. Perhaps they’re unaware that no one at Tennessee has ever run for even 1,500 yards in a single season, but hey, aim high!
It’s not fair to Kelly to call his sophomore season a good news/bad news campaign. He is Exhibit A in the, “Just because they were playing behind someone great doesn’t mean they can’t be great,” argument for Team 121. It was no sin to be third team behind Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara in their final seasons in Knoxville. The “bad news” side of the equation is, when he did get his chances, most of Kelly’s productivity came against lesser competition: only six carries in the first five games plus Alabama, none against Florida or Georgia. Most of his 630 yards last year came against Texas A&M, Nebraska, and the late October-November stretch that didn’t feature a Top 50 defense.
The good news is those 630 yards came on only 98 carries. That’s 6.43 yards per carry. And when you break out the media guide and compare that to what the leading running back has done at Tennessee since 1980, it’s very good news indeed:
First of all, let’s all tip our cap to Charlie Garner’s 1993 campaign. You can make an argument that the ’93 Vols were Tennessee’s most dangerous team of the decade; put a future Pro Bowler like Garner in the backfield with the Heisman runner-up at quarterback, and you get fireworks.
LaMarcus Coker is an interesting comparison for John Kelly. Coker’s 2006 season came as part of a crowded backfield with Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty, and much of his success came against lesser opponents: 417 of his 696 yards came against Marshall, Memphis, and Vanderbilt; 176 of those yards on two runs. He was dismissed from the team the following season while still competing with Foster and Hardesty. But John Kelly has the lead back role all to himself this fall.
Having historically great numbers against below average competition is no guarantee. It’s what makes Kelly both so intriguing and so difficult to project this fall. As he and the line are chasing numbers, Tennessee’s single season rushing record can be had if he averages 113 yards per game. As the lead back in what should continue to be an up-tempo offense, that’s not out of the question. It’s strange to think about something like that just a year after being so sure we were going to see the career record fall to Jalen Hurd. School records aren’t a fair expectation, but it might not be an exaggeration.
What can we expect from John Kelly this fall? He’ll run hard and his linemen talk like they’ll genuinely enjoy blocking for him. That’s always a good sign. Maybe he’ll settle at solid and some of the Vols’ talented freshmen will get to make some hay as well. But there is at least the potential for something special in Tennessee’s backfield from #4.