Update: The Rams took John Kelly with the second pick of the sixth round.
INDIANAPOLIS — Over the last two seasons, these things have stuck out about Tennessee’s football program: general disappointment, fans wanting the Volunteers to hire Jon Gruden, and a star running back emerging while everything crumbled around him.
In 2016, it was Alvin Kamara. He started the year No. 2 on the Vols’ depth chart behind someone named Jalen Hurd, who was six inches taller but clearly not better. The 5’10 Kamara didn’t make his first start until the Vols’ sixth game. He had 18 carries for 127 yards and two touchdowns that day, and he didn’t give the job back except for two weeks missed with injuries. UT collapsed down the strech, but Kamara finished at 5.8 yards per carry.
In 2017, it was John Kelly. The 5’9, 216-pounder is built like a cut bowling bowl. Kelly started for the Vols all season, after Hurd transferred and Kamara declared for the NFL draft. In the starting job , Kelly didn’t set the world on fire statistically. He finished at 4.1 yards per carry, with nine touchdowns and 778 total rushing yards in 11 games. He added 299 receiving yards on a solid-for-Tennessee 6.4 yards per target, but his numbers weren’t big.
Kamara was the 67th overall pick, by the Saints, and went on to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Kelly’s now in the middle of his own draft cycle, having declared as a junior, too.
The parallels between Kamara and Kelly are size, style, and circumstance.
Their arcs aren’t identical, to be clear. Kamara was a blue-chip recruit, and Kelly wasn’t. Kamara initially played for Alabama and then transferred to a junior college, while Kelly was a Vol all the way through. And Kamara had significantly better stats in Knoxville.
But they share a lot. At their respective combines, they measured in almost identically in both height and weight, with Kamara a hair taller and two pounds lighter. They both managed 15 bench reps, below average for a running back. But both of them draw more strength from their legs and their compact centers, anyway.
“I think I run better routes than him,” Kelly said this year’s combine. “Tell him I said that.”
And both of them had to wait a while to contribute at Tennessee before bursting through the wall like an orange version of the Kool-Aid Man. They both became the subject of scorn toward now-fired head coach Butch Jones, whose last offenses were ugly aside from them.
“It was a coach’s decision,” Kelly told SB Nation. “We never complained about anything. We just showed up and went to work, and whatever was asked of us, we just tried to go out there an execute to the best our ability. When we had the opportunities to get the ball in our hands, we made sure we made the best of it.”
Kelly’s underwhelming college stats shouldn’t scare teams away.
He didn’t grade well in efficiency stats, and his per-carry average was bad. But it’s difficult to run in the SEC, and it’s especially difficult when you’re playing in one of the worst passing offenses in that league. The Vols had worse quarterback play in 2017 than any SEC team except Florida, and they finished 110th nationally in team passer rating, third worst in their league. By later in the season, when Kelly’s numbers lagged, everybody knew Tennessee couldn’t throw the ball anywhere. It was incredibly easy to key on him.
Kelly is a brutal runner, though. At Tennessee, he often had defensive company in the backfield right after getting the ball. But he proved he can run through people, like here:
And that he could bounce off people and win a race, like here:
And that he can do truly cruel things to defenders at the second level:
“I just try to let them know, regardless of if we’re starting five yards back or anywhere, I can at least get back to the line of scrimmage. Like, I’m getting downhill as fast as possible, so that’s something I feel like would separate me from a lot of other guys,” Kelly said.
Kamara became a superstar as a rookie. It’s not fair to expect that of Kelly.
But he doesn’t have to be like his predecessor to be like his predecessor. Kelly watched Kamara put up a Pro Bowl season, and the two kept up throughout it.
“I knew it was coming from him,” Kelly said. “I knew he was gonna be a steal in the draft, too. I expected great things from Alvin, same as he expects great things from me.”