Tennessee football: Could RB John Kelly break the Vols single-season rushing record?

NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 05: Alvin Kamara /

Tennessee football running back John Kelly is the clear starter this year for the Volunteers. With that, he could bring back memories of Travis Stephens.

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Let me tell you a story about a Tennessee football running back who arrived on campus with very little hype and spent the first part of his career sitting behind two elite running backs.

This player patiently waited for his turn to start at the position, and in his redshirt senior year, he finally seized the reigns. All he did in his one year as a starter was break the school record for rushing yards in a season with 1,464.

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I’m talking about Travis Stephens. Stephens spent most of his career sitting behind Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry, but after waiting his turn, he had a more memorable season than both of them.

If that story sounds familiar to you, it should because of the Vols’ current starting running back: John Kelly.

Kelly came to Knoxville as a three-star freshman with very little hype in 2015. He expected to spend at least three years sitting behind two much-more elite backs in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara.

But with both gone, he now has this upcoming season to himself as the clear-cut starter. So we’re back at this again.

Given that fact, could we expect a repeat of 2001? It’s certainly possible.

Like Stephens, Kelly got unexpected action his sophomore year. Stephens got it in 1998 due to Jamal Lewis‘s season-ending injury. Kelly got it because Hurd left the program.

Stephens was the leading rusher in the Vols national championship game. Kelly rushed for over 600 yards in 2016, giving Vols fans a taste of how good he could be.

Of course, unlike Stephens was in 1999, Kelly is actually set to take over full-time this year. Stephens had to redshirt that year and wait for Lewis and Henry to leave so he could be the full-time starter as a fifth-year senior.

Still, there are so many other similarities. And Kelly is now in great position to break Stephens’s single-season rushing record.

An article by Mike Griffith of SEC Country noted that he could get 25 to 30 touches a game. Doing that would almost certainly get him the record.

And some expectations for him are even higher.

Jimmy Hyams of Gridion Now has an article with current offensive linemen suggesting he can get 2,000 yards.

And given the fact that the Vols are extremely deep on the interior line, it’s a strong possibility. Add in the fact that they have a new offensive coordinator in Larry Scott who comes from the more physical side of things and likely wants to run it more, and you have a recipe for a big year.

Kelly’s perfect positioning to break the school rushing record is why we have him very high up among in our post of the 10 Vols most likely to win postseason awards.

He really has a chance to be great. And following in the footsteps of Stephens is something to be excited about.

Of course, that doesn’t mean he could match Stephens’s memorable performance. Travis Stephens had arguably the most memorable game in modern history for a Tennessee football running back by rushing for 226 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Vols to a 34-32 upset win over the Florida Gators on the road in what would become Steve Spurrier‘s final home game as a coach there.

Of course, that was a bittersweet win since the Vols blew the SEC Championship game and a chance at the national title the next week against the heavy underdog LSU Tigers.

But still, Stephens’s play in that game remains in the memories of many. Now is Kelly’s chance to build his own legacy.

Tennessee football has a long history of running backs waiting their turn to play. Before Kelly, Montario Hardesty had to wait for years and got his chance to shine as a starter in 2009. Stephens himself burst onto the scene after Jamal Lewis‘s injury, but the breakout star at that point was Travis Henry.

Before both of them, Jay Graham waited behind Charlie Garner, Aaron Hayden, James Stewart and Mose Phillips for his chance to start as a junior and senior in 1995 and 1996.

And before all of them, Tony Thompson led the Vols to the 1990 SEC Championship with over 1,200 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. It took the dismissal of Reggie Cobb in 1989 and an injury to Chuck Webb in 1990 for Thompson to get his chance. But he seized the moment when he did.

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Seizing the moment has always been the nature of Tennessee football running backs. Now, despite some elite freshmen to help him out, John Kelly‘s moment has arrived. And he’s in perfect position to make it a memorable one.