Butch Jones speaks to media ahead of Florida game this upcoming Saturday.
Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel
One of football’s great ironies: Those who play the game the right way often get punished.
The sport takes a toll on the game’s hardest hitters and hardest runners. For example, think of all the running backs whose careers have been cut short because they never shortchanged their team on a play, even though it subjected them to more body blows.
I thought about that Saturday while watching one of Tennessee‘s all-time hardest runners, John Kelly. Never mind the score or the situation. He doesn’t cheat his team or his fans when he has the ball.
But you knew that last season before he became Tennessee’s lead running back. When running backs Jalen Hurd or Alvin Kamara were injured or needed a break last season, Kelly took on defenders with a vengeance.
A year later, in his junior season, he has become a one-man force. Surely, that won’t change when the Vols play Florida in the Swamp on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS).
But over the course of a 12-game season, UT will need to find more legs to support its running game.
It took steps in that direction in a 42-7 victory over Indiana State on Saturday. Four other running backs had three or more carries. That contrasted sharply with the opener when Kelly had 19 carries and his only replacement, Ty Chandler, had one.
In two games, Kelly has caught 10 passes for 95 yards and rushed 37 times for 208 yards. But you can bet he isn’t complaining. You don’t run the way he does unless you enjoy it.
Fans aren’t complaining, either, because it’s fun to watch a running back who never shies away from a defender and never backs away from an extra yard.
Combine his aggressiveness with his elusiveness, and there’s no reason he couldn’t finish the season as one of the SEC’s leading rushers. But finishing the season that way will require staying healthy.
That’s why UT needs to minimize Kelly’s risks. And you don’t do that by getting him the ball 23 times in a 42-7 game.
Tennessee could be encouraged by the way its backup running backs handled their business against an outmanned opponent. Carlin Fils-aime had a 30-yard touchdown run and totaled 41 yards on three carries. Chandler showed his speed on a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the game.
That doesn’t mean those younger running backs are ready for Florida’s defense. Or Georgia’s on Sept. 30.
However, Massachusetts is scheduled in between those two divisional games. In a best-case scenario, Kelly won’t lead UT in rushing against the Minutemen. And, in a best-case scenario, Tennessee will be able to spread out the running and receiving workload when it closes out the season with six consecutive games without an open date.
If it hopes to finish strong, it needs to have Kelly running as strong at the end of the season as he is now.
Reach John Adams at email@example.com or 865-342-6284 and on Twitter @johnadamskns.
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