John Kelly

Post-Spring Projections: Running Backs

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As we enter the football-less days of summer, we’ve got to fill our minds with visions of orange-and-white grandeur to pass the time, right?

Spring practice — like most all the springs before of the Butch Jones era — didn’t tell us much. But after what we saw and read, we can make some prognostications about what we may see, or at least expect to see, once fall practice starts. So, over the course of the next couple of weeks, I’m going to break down position-by-position what we saw, what we read and what I’ve heard about to project who’s gonna play where come opening weekend against Georgia Tech.

We’ll continue this series with our look at the Running Backs.


The John Kelly Show is going to debut with heaps of critical acclaim.

Way back when the 5’9″, 212-pound rising junior first arrived on campus, UT running backs coach Robert Gillespie turned heads with an otherwise-throwaway comment. When discussing his running backs room, which featured prominent offensive stalwarts Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, Gillespie said he believed he had three NFL running backs watching film. At the time, those who actually dug into the comment thought, “Woah, he’s including John Kelly, too, and he is a true freshman who’s never even played a snap.”

Flash forward to 2016, and our first extended look at Kelly following Hurd’s shocking mid-season decision to quit on his teammates. That Gillespie comment, in retrospect, looked prophetic. If anything, Hurd is the biggest long-shot of the trio to be in the pros, considering he transferred to Baylor to start over his career as a receiver, electing to sit out a year before changing positions.

With Hurd gone, Kelly wound up rushing for 630 yards and five touchdowns and led the team with a 6.4 average. He showed a second gear when he reached the linebacker level, but he was easily Tennessee’s best running back at attacking holes. Now, with Hurd at Baylor and Kamara in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints, this is Kelly’s team.

GoVols247’s Grant Ramey and Wes Rucker believe he’s the one irreplaceable player on the offense, even more so than junior receiver Jauan Jennings.

This spring, he took another step forward with the intangibles, all the extra-curricular stuff that goes along with his immense talent. Associated Press writer Steve Megargee wrote about Kelly’s emerging leadership ability, and head coach Butch Jones noticed the change in Kelly this spring.

“He’s probably more vocal than he’s ever been,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “He’s coaching the younger players. It gets back to details, accountability and toughness. John has done a really good job of accountability not only to himself, but his teammates around him. His voice is well respected.”

He didn’t even play in the Orange & White Game; the Vols didn’t need him to. He’s already proven he’s the offense’s horse, and he’s going to have to be the Man as UT breaks in a new quarterback.

Though several Big Ten schools (like Ohio State and Michigan State) wanted Kelly as a defensive back, it’s obvious he belongs in the offensive backfield. He’ll enter 2017 as UT’s feature back, and there’s really no question about his ability. It would be a shocker if he wasn’t a 1,000-yard rusher if he remains healthy. Considering this should be the strongest and deepest Tennessee offensive line of the Butch Jones era, Kelly should be licking his chops. He’s an all-around running back, and it’s possible he could be one of the league’s breakout stars. At the RB position, I predict he and Arkansas’ Devwah Whaley will be emerging studs.

It’s behind Kelly that the concerns start.

Tennessee has plenty of talent behind Kelly, but every ounce of it is unproven. It starts with rising sophomore Carlin Fils-aime, who looked capable in very limited action, scoring two touchdowns and gaining 58 yards in 14 total carries. Though he isn’t an electrifying player, he can get up and go and has a second gear. Is he big enough to endure the wear and tear of an SEC season? Fils-aime may not ever be an every-down back at Tennessee, but he has the ability to be a nice niche player who could excel getting 10 touches a game. There’s an outside chance he could emerge as a Kamara type, but at 5’11”, 175 pounds, he’d have to add 35 pounds to do so, and he just doesn’t have the same type of frame. CFA would be a good complimentary back, but if Kelly goes down, it remains to be seen if he could adequately fill the void.

The biggest hope comes to Knoxville this summer in the form of Nashville (Montgomery Bell Academy) true freshman Ty Chandler, a kid pretty much everybody in the Southeast wanted. He wound up choosing the home-state Vols over Georgia, Clemson, Southern Cal and Ole Miss, where his father played. The nation’s fifth-rated running back and No. 68 overall player according to the 247Sports Composite ratings is a dynamic athlete who represented a major win instate in a year where the Vols lost a lot of good players to other teams.

He’s 5’11”, 187 pounds and can hold more than 200 pounds easily. He looks good catching the ball out of the backfield, shows good body lean, slashing ability and can kick it up a notch. Chandler looks like he could be one of the biggest recruiting victories of the Butch Jones era, and it would not be a surprise to see him leapfrog CFA into the No. 2 running back role in 2017.

After those three, the Vols are adding two more freshmen runners in Timothy Jordan and Trey Coleman. One of those guys was a late addition who saw his stock soar while the other was a camp find whose recruitment never really took off.

Coleman was one of the guys who visited Knoxville for Orange Carpet Day and wound up pledging to the Vols. Fans at the time were like, “Who’s this guy?” but UT desperately wanted a power back in this year’s class considering, at the time, they thought Hurd would leave for the NFL after his junior season. The 5’11”, 203-pound running back from West Monroe, Louisiana, had an offer from Arkansas, but he pledged to UT and both sides remained firm in that commitment. Though Coleman may not wind up an every-down back, if he stays on offense, he could be a great short-yardage find. He’ll be an intriguing storyline to watch.

If you’re looking for an under-the-radar find in UT’s 2017 recruiting class, receiver Josh Palmer would be my No. 1, but running a close second is Jordan, a running back from Bartow, Florida, whose recruitment didn’t take off until very late in the process. Jordan was committed to Western Kentucky a long time after surging late in football following a promising basketball career. GoVols247’s Ryan Callahan noted Jordan as the most underrated player in UT’s class. The 5’11”, 189-pound running back is the perfect runner for this system, and he’ll probably get carries immediately in 2017.

So, we may be concerned about running back depth. But the guy who is charged with making those guys great is not. And if you remember back to Gillespie’s first year as the RB coach with Raijon Neal as the No. 1 back, he doesn’t sugarcoat things much. Gillespie likes his guys, and he told Rucker that positional depth isn’t a concern.

“You have to recreate yourself. That’s what we do here. We go out and recruit,” Gillespie said after Thursday’s spring camp practice inside Anderson Training Center. “I think Ty Chandler is a hell of a football player. He’s gonna come in here and be ready to play. Trey Coleman, too. This is my first time being able to say those guys’ names. I think Ty Chandler, Trey Coleman and Timothy Jordan, those guys are gonna come in and be ready to play, and we need ‘em. We talk football almost every day. The same install in this practice which these guys just did, we’re gonna watch it with those [incoming] guys tonight. Technology is something special, with Skype and all that stuff.

“Those guys will know the offense and come in and be ready to play. It’s recreating yourself. This is the SEC.”

It’s gonna be fun to watch these guys develop.

Prediction: John Kelly starter, Ty Chandler 2nd string, Carlin Fils-aime 3rd string, Timothy Jordan 4th string, Trey Coleman 5th string

Next: Wide Receivers

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3 years ago

I’m really excited about the depth across classes they are beginning to build at the position. With Hurd and Kamara we had two very talented backs who were expected to go pro at the same time. Without them we are faced with the current situation where there’s a bit of a drop off in acclaim (but as you note, Kelly’s production is excellent). But with a depth chart that’s JR, FR, SO, FR, FR we are set for lots of competition and capacity to absorb injury in the years to come. This season is more dicey with the lack of… Read more »