The John Kelly Takeover in full swing in Vols backfield

People around Tennessee football are not expecting a major drop-off in the Vols ground game even after losing a high-round NFL Draft pick from their backfield. Enter John Kelly.

A rap at the door. Squeaky wood floor. Eyes attempting to adjust to darkness. It’s time for man’s best friend to step up and ward off any criminals.

“You’d rather say, ‘Whoa!’ than ‘Sick ‘em!’”

Robert Gillespie is exactly right. Big dogs serve a purpose and can act as a safety net for an entire family. Only difference is that the Tennessee running backs coach was talking Thursday about John Kelly, not a four-legged security guard.

Kelly is itching to carry the load on his shoulders, and it’s time for him to be the leading man with the Vols’ ground attack. The maturation into that role commenced last year.

The former Scout No. 2-rated back in the state of Michigan’s 2015 class began shifting his mindset in December when the Volunteers were preparing to take on Nebraska in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Kelly had long since known that Alvin Kamara was declaring early for the National Football League Draft, and he would have the inside track on being Tennessee’s No. 1 runner. Kelly is “taking it and running with it” this spring according to Gillespie.

“Even though Alvin was there for the Nebraska game, I think you could start to see John Kelly say, ‘This is going to be my running back room,’” Gillespie said. “Alvin being the guy that he is, understood that.”

As Kamara continues to mock by NFL Draft analysts as a first- or second-round pick, what he could do creating mismatches and aiding in the passing game may be where the greatest void arrives.

In his two-year career at Tennessee, the Detroit native Kelly had 138 rushes for 795 yards (6.4 yards/carry) with six touchdowns. In the passing game, he's not yet shown as productive as Kamara, totaling just six receptions in 22 games.

“We’re doing a lot of the same things we did with Alvin last year,” Gillespie said. “I told John, ‘This is your chance to show that you can do that.’ We’ve got some young guys in (signees) Tim Jordan and Ty Chandler that we think can do some of those things also out of the backfield. John understands that this time of the year is when he’s auditioning for those same things that we did with Alvin and so far he’s been really good at it.” No one back is going to carry the load for an entire 12-15-game schedule in the Southeastern Conference. Kelly will need at least one other running mate. The aforementioned Chandler is the odds-on favorite to win the No. 2 job at some point during his freshman campaign and has enough talent to either push Kelly for meaningful snaps or provide first-year Vols offensive coordinator Larry Scott another tray in the toolbox to build up more points than the opponent with two-back sets.

“I think Ty Chandler is a hell of a football player; he’s going to come in here and be ready to play,” Gillespie said.

“I think Trey Coleman, Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan, those guys are going to be able to come in and be ready to play. We meet and we talk football almost every day.”

Gillespie pointed to how he can break down each Tennessee spring practice with his yet-to-arrive signees because of technological advances. What’s more is the typical summer enrollee moves to Knoxville in May or June. The days of showing up in August are long gone for incoming scholarship football players.

“Those guys will know the offense and be ready to come in and play,” Gillespie said.

The name that is being overlooked by some is Carlin Fils-Aime. Like Kelly, he’s “dinged up” but showed his ability and toughness in the first scrimmage Saturday.

“Shoot, man, he was one-on-one with the safety twice, man, and ran the guy over and got in the end zone,” Gillespie said.

Fils-Aime is in his first spring on Rocky Top but has another seven practices this spring to earn carries in the 2017 season ahead by impressing the staff.

Learn more about Tennessee’s running game by watching the video interview with Gillespie above or the content below.


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