KNOXVILLE — The good news for Tennessee's running game is John Kelly leads the Southeastern Conference in rushing yards, is tied for first in rushing touchdowns and is on pace to challenge for the school's single-season rushing yardage record.
But in reaching those early benchmarks, the junior star has accumulated more combined touches than any other running back in the league.
Kelly is second in the SEC with 81 carries and tied for fifth in receptions with 18, making him the most-used back in the conference through four weeks. Even in a 42-7 win over Football Championship Subdivision foe Indiana State and Saturday's 17-13 victory over winless Massachusetts, Kelly had 23 and 27 touches, accounting for just more than half of his total of 99.
As the Volunteers (3-1, 0-1) enter the heart of their SEC schedule with a game against seventh-ranked Georgia (4-0, 1-0) on Saturday at Neyland Stadium, they'll do so with their most potent offensive weapon on track for more than 300 total touches this season, assuming Tennessee plays in a bowl game.
Jalen Hurd reached 299 total touches in 2015, and Montario Hardesty eclipsed the 300-touch barrier in 2009. But both had backups who ended the season with more than 100 carries.
That's where the 2017 Vols differ. Tennessee is one of two SEC schools without a second running back who has 20 or more carries — pass-happy Ole Miss is the other — and five schools in the conference have three running backs with 20 or more carries.
Georgia stands alone with four running backs who are past the 20-carry marker at this point.
"They have as much depth at running back as any team I've ever seen," Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said Tuesday of the Bulldogs.
So what's the solution for the Vols?
"We spoke about that as a staff," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Wednesday. "Ty Chandler needs to be more involved, which we'll involve him a little bit more."
Chandler, a freshman from Nashville's Montgomery Bell Academy, has run 17 times for 64 yards this year and made three catches for 42 yards. His lone touchdown came on a kickoff return against Indiana State.
"He continues to get better and better from a pass protection standpoint week in and week out in practice," Jones said. "He's earned that right to play more."
Sophomore Carlin Fils-aime has eight carries and four have gone to freshman Tim Jordan, another runner Jones indicated has earned more playing time.
"Again, there's so much with a freshman running back," Jones said. "I see those individuals starting to grow and develop. They're earning our trust and earning the trust of their teammates. I can see more of our running backs being actively involved this week, and we're going to need that."
In the meantime, Kelly isn't exactly complaining about getting the football.
Asked before the UMass game if he ever worries about his workload, Kelly wasted no time responding.
"Oh," he said. "Not at all."
Contact David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org.