KNOXVILLE — John Kelly's pre-practice routine includes a victory lap of sorts.
The Tennessee running back will stop by the defensive line, the position he secretly wishes he could play, to visit with the assistant coach who recruited him to the Volunteers out of Michigan.
Then Kelly might swing by and pat the offensive linemen on their helmets, after he tosses some verbal barbs at the defensive backs, of course.
The only explanation for these actions is it's just how Kelly is wired.
"I definitely go around to every position group, especially the D-line," Kelly said after Friday's practice, "because Coach Strip (defensive line coach Steve Stripling) is my guy. I'll be over there running around with those guys for the most part at the beginning of practice and also go talk some junk to the DBs and everything.
"I just try to make sure everybody on the team and every position has got their head right and focused for the practice we're about to have."
The 5-foot-9, 212-pound sophomore is the future of Tennessee's backfield. The 2017 season always was going to be Kelly's time to shine given the likelihood of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara leaving for the NFL after their junior seasons. Heading into this season the potential void was a point of worry for the Vols.
Instead both of Tennessee's top backs missed games due to injuries and Hurd left the Vols after the South Carolina game, so Kelly's future arrived sooner than expected. He took advantage of the opportunity by rushing for 560 yards and four touchdowns, recording a pair of 100-yard games and averaging 96 yards in the five games when Hurd and/or Kamara were absent.
"If anything, I could have definitely proved myself a little bit more, but I'm always going to be a confident player," he said. "Every time I get out there on the field I'm always going to be confident in my abilities. The stats, it's cool and everything, but I'm going to be confident regardless."
The confidence is a byproduct of Kelly's infectious personality that quickly made him a favorite among his teammates.
"I think you've got to start with John Kelly the person first," offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said early this week.
"With our guys, he jumps in and out of everything. He'll go down to the D-line — I'm not saying he skips out of the drill or whatever — whenever he might have a free second or whatever he'll jump down to the D-line and go around patting them on the helmet, then leave. Or he might run down to the O-line and pat them on the helmet, then leave.
"The players love John Kelly. I thought that what he brought in the Texas A&M game really showed a lot. I've said all along John Kelly's ready, but how do you rotate three backs? That's hard."
Kelly and Kamara are two of the biggest personalities on this team, and they seem to be enjoying each other's company during bowl practices, likely Kamara's last ones with the Vols.
Earlier this week Kamara executed a perfect headstand. Kelly on Friday referenced the movie "You Got Served" in explaining why Kamara did it. Often the two running backs are laughing and joking after running through a drill.
"Alvin's going to always tell me the same thing, and that's we're just going to keep pushing each other," Kelly said. "It's really just me making sure I get the younger guys' heads in the right place, too, because in these bowl games you never know what's going to happen.
"A lot of people be having breakout games during bowl prep, so I'm just making sure those young guys are still ready to get thrown in there at any time, and we're just going to keep pushing each other and keep going hard."
With Jeremy Lewis's decision to leave Tennessee last month, Kelly and Carlin Fils-aime are the only running backs slated to return next season, when the Vols will add blue-chip recruit Ty Chandler from Nashville's Montgomery Bell Academy.
"I like the way he plays," DeBord said. "Just to give you an example, (Tuesday) we were running a play and he's staying right on his course. A defender jumped off of a block, and all of the sudden he made a cut. We were looking at it as coaches and we all said, 'Wow.' Just the quickness he has, his quick feet, his vision — I think he has exceptional vision.
"Some guys can have great quickness in the hole stuff, but they don't see things all the time. I'm looking here and I see here. I don't see that or that or that. He's got that vision. He can see everything. That helps make him, I think, a great running back."
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