Vols readying other running backs with Alvin Kamara's status uncertain

Tennessee's John Kelly (4) is pulled down by Alabama's Hootie Jones (6). The top-ranked University of Alabama Crimson Tide visited the University of Tennessee Volunteers in SEC football action on October 15, 2016

KNOXVILLE - Already decimated by significant injuries to key players this season, Tennessee can't yet catch a break.

The injury list is growing again during the Volunteers' open week, and the additions include one of the team's best players.

Running back Alvin Kamara is dealing with a left knee injury suffered in the blowout loss to Alabama last week, and his status for Tennessee's final five games is uncertain as the team captain, who set a program record for all-purpose yardage at Texas A&M 11 days ago, undergoes further evaluation.

photo Tennessee's Alvin Kamara gets a big Tennessee gain before being knocked out-of-bounds by Alabama's Ryan Anderson (22). The top-ranked University of Alabama Crimson Tide visited the University of Tennessee Volunteers in SEC football action on October 15, 2016

Beyond confirming defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie would miss the rest of the season with a torn pectoral tendon, Tennessee coach Butch Jones on Tuesday afternoon volunteered no other injury updates, though he did answer a question about Kamara's status.

"Everything is wait and see," he said. "Is he banged up? Obviously everything's banged up. But I just got off the phone with him, and some of that (speculation) was news to him.

"We have a lot of guys that are injured and banged up. It's been a long, long season. There comes a point in time where some things, let it take its course and let's not be too premature to judge and get it out there."

Kamara played and scored Tennessee's only touchdown against the Crimson Tide after taking a hard low hit out of bounds on a punt return, and reports from 247Sports.com and ESPN on Tuesday indicated the concern centers on his lateral cruciate ligament and potentially his meniscus.

A home-run threat every time he touches the ball, Kamara is a valuable piece to Tennessee's offense, but the Vols could do much worse than a backfield tandem of Jalen Hurd and John Kelly if Kamara is forced to miss games.

Hurd can handle a heavy workload, and Kelly ran for 89 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries in Hurd's absence at A&M.

"John's always been a guy, even last year, I told you guys he's a guy that I always felt comfortable putting in the game," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. "Last year we didn't have to. This year he's come in and played well when he was called upon. He's going to be a kid that gets better with reps.

"This will be a great week for him to get more reps and get better for the final stretch."

Three practices during the week of the open date will give Tennessee the chance to improve the health of some players and get injury replacements and younger reserves ready at nearly every position, and it's badly needed given how injury-ravaged the Vols currently are.

In the backfield, beyond the trio of Hurd, Kamara and Kelly, the team's only scholarship running backs are freshmen Carlin Fils-aime and Jeremy Lewis. A late addition to the 2016 class who joined the program in the summer, Lewis is a "two-year project," Gillespie said. All four of Fils-aime's carries came at the end of the Virginia Tech game.

"At that position, you only get better with the reps that you get in games," Gillespie said. "You can't simulate it with just the physical part of the game. The only way he's going to learn is by getting in the game, and I have that same confidence in him that I had in John Kelly last year.

"Obviously this is a great week where we can rest some of the older guys and get some of the younger guys some reps in practice. They can grow and kind of jell a little bit with the offensive line and the quarterbacks. I think this will be a great week for Carlin."

With only 23 carries the past three games, Hurd should be fresh for the stretch run, and Kelly proved against A&M he can be a playmaker for the Vols.

"John's a very highly motivated kid," Gillespie said. "John plays on a lot of special teams for us. When you get young guys involved in special teams, they always feel like they're a part of the game. John plays 10 to 12 snaps a game (on special teams), so to say now go in and play running back, I don't think it fazed him."

Contact Patrick Brown at [email protected]