Todd Kelly Jr. embracing role as veteran for Vols

UT's Todd Kelly Jr. (6) intercepts the ball intended for Oklahoma wide receiver Dede Westbrook (11) during the first half of play Saturday. The Volunteers played the Sooner's at home on September 12, 2015 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee.
photo Tennessee safety Todd Kelly Jr. said the leadership example provided to him by older players in the past is helping him as he tries to be a role model for younger Vols this spring.

KNOXVILLE - There are two pairs of big shoes to fill in Tennessee's secondary, and Todd Kelly Jr. believes he's capable of fitting into one of them.

That's as both a playmaker and a leader.

For the first two years of his college football career, Kelly looked up to fellow safeties LaDarrell McNeil and Brian Randolph, and this spring the Knoxville Webb graduate is embracing his turn as a veteran for the Volunteers.

"I looked up to both of those guys as an example," Kelly said after Tennessee's practice Saturday in Neyland Stadium, "and now that I'm a veteran, I hope the young guys do the same with me."

Kelly credited McNeil and Randolph for teaching him to how to watch video, play as hard as possible every snap and understand the importance of being an example to younger defensive backs. It's a role Kelly and Tennessee's coaches believe he can handle with aplomb.

"We've challenged T.K. with everything, stemming from his leadership, (like) being first in the meetings," Vols coach Butch Jones said. "He's a very cerebral player. He's very intelligent. (It's) just letting it go and playing on instincts. Every time that we've had live situations, T.K. has really shown up. I've been very pleased with T.K., not only on the defensive side of the ball but also in terms of special teams as well."

That shouldn't be surprising. Since struggling in his first career start at Oklahoma in 2014, Kelly has been a reliable back-line player. His six interceptions, which came in only five starts - he often rotated into games as McNeil's backup - all seem to have come at key moments or in big games.

As a freshman, he intercepted passes against Florida and Georgia. He had a pair of pickoffs last season in the loss to Oklahoma. Both of his interceptions against Vanderbilt (one each in 2014 and 2015) were at vital junctures in those Tennessee victories.

"The plays that I've made in the past have been strictly on watching film and knowing where I'm supposed to be," Kelly said. "(It's) teaching the young guys the habits and what it takes to be a veteran. I'm still learning, too. I'm a rising junior, so I have a lot to improve on, and that's why I'm glad we're doing this spring practice. I always do something wrong every day, but I make sure the next practice I don't do the same mistake."

First-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop tried to recruit Kelly when Shoop was at Vanderbilt, so there is some familiarity there.

"I knew him, but I'm at the only school in Tennessee that's important," Kelly said. "He said (when he got here) he's happy to be at Tennessee and that he kind of knew I was going to come here."

Under Shoop, who spent the past two seasons at Penn State under former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, Tennessee's defense has made generating more turnovers a point of emphasis this spring. The Vols forced only 19 last season, and four were in their Outback Bowl win against Northwestern.

A couple of players have said Shoop is installing a more aggressive defense, one built on the foundations of stopping the run and getting after the quarterback.

"He wants a championship defense," Kelly said. "That's what he wants to bring to the table, and that's what we're working for. In terms of the terminology, we're basically keeping everything the same. He's keeping it pretty easy for us. He's transitioning into our defense versus us transitioning into his."

Meanwhile, Kelly is transitioning into a new role of his own.

"When I was a younger guy, I went to the older guys when I didn't know anything, and they helped me out the most," he said. "Now that I'm a veteran, I look to these guys for them to (see me) as an example."

Contact Patrick Brown at [email protected]