NASHVILLE — When Tennessee's football team arrived Wednesday at Nissan Stadium for a walk-through for Friday's Music City Bowl, safety Todd Kelly Jr. reminded teammate Alvin Kamara it was where the running back played his first game for the Volunteers.
The former Alabama freshman landed at Tennessee after a season in junior college and rushed for 144 yards and two touchdowns in his debut against Bowling Green in the 2015 season opener at the home of the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
It launched what has been a successful run with the Vols.
"You never know going into a place what it's going to be," Kamara said. "I feel like you just come in and kind of keep your head down and be quiet. Then whatever comes is a blessing. To say the least, it's been a blessing to be here and mess with these guys here and have a good time."
Kamara's Tennessee career very well may end where it began.
The versatile, explosive redshirt junior is expected to enter the NFL draft after this season. Kamara nearly decided to do so after last season before electing to return. This season he rushed for 565 yards (averaging 5.9 per carry) and nine touchdowns, caught 33 passes for 346 yards and four scores and averaged 18 yards on 18 punt returns.
"He's obviously a phenomenal football player," Kelly said. "I love just sitting back and watching him play. He's just so smooth with everything he does. It almost looks like he's not trying, but then you look and you see what he does and the statistics he puts up, and it's phenomenal. Whatever he has planned in his future, I know he's going to be a great player."
Kamara insists he hasn't decided what he'll do after this season, but like teammate Derek Barnett, an All-American defensive end, he could make his departure official soon after Friday's game with Nebraska.
"I still haven't really solidified what I'm going to do next," Kamara said. "I'm still kind of weighing my options and just trying to figure out what's the next plan, what's the next step. Right now I'm just focused on playing this game, really. We've got one more game. It's not over yet. We've still got some preparation we've got to handle. I'll attack that when it gets here."
Despite taking an unorthodox path to Knoxville, Kamara has been a respected team leader and dynamic performer for the Vols. His talents were on full display this season during Jalen Hurd's absence at Texas A&M, where he set the program's single-game record for all-purpose yardage, and after Hurd left the team, when Kamara tallied seven touchdowns in three games.
The amazing plays he has made mirror some of his feats in the weight room, where Kelly said Kamara is capable of doing the unthinkable.
"Crazy things you don't think a human body can do, he can do it," Kelly said, "and that transfers over to the field."
Most remarkable, though, is how quickly Kamara became the type of player who was voted by his teammates to be a team captain as a second-year player. The other three captains are seniors.
Quarterback Josh Dobbs, one of those players said Kamara has "had a huge impact" and that his selection as a captain "is a testament to the type of person he is."
"He's came in since day one with the mentality to make an impact and to change the program, just like all of us have," Dobbs said. "It's just shown with his work ethic. He got injured in the Alabama game and fought his way back and is still playing right now. Even with the knee brace, he still wants to get back on the field, still wants to play with his brothers, his teammates, through the last game."
It's hard to picture Kamara and his flashy personality — his stylish pregame suits are rivaled only by the gold teeth grill and nose ring he wears during games — in the middle of nowhere Kansas, but that's where he was between Alabama and Tennessee. Kamara laughs about his stint at Hutchinson Community College, but he credits his time there for helping him have a successful career at Tennessee.
"When I landed in Kansas at the Wichita airport that was smaller than I don't even know what, it was a shock, like a culture shock for me," Kamara said. "I was like, 'Whoa.' You say you're going to JuCo, then when you actually get out there it's like, 'What did I do?'
"The airport was like 45 minutes away from Hutchinson, so I'm riding, riding, and I saw like one light. It was in a field, just one little light in a field the whole way to Hutch. I was like, 'Oh my God,' and like, ' I don't need to be out here.' I got over that and put my head down and did what I had to do, and I'm here now."
In nine games with the Blue Dragons, Kamara totaled 1,469 yards of offense and scored 21 touchdowns.
"It wasn't fun. It was work," he said. "I don't really think I was out there to have fun. That's kind of the mindset I went into it with, like I'm not out here to have fun. I've got a goal in mind. I've got to get in and get out. Literally, I really just sat in my room, read, went and got food, went back to my room, went to practice, went back to my room and just hung out around just in the dorm. I didn't do anything."
When he got to Tennessee, Kamara relied on the same work ethic.
"Since the day he came in, he's been a great leader for us," said offensive lineman Brett Kendrick, a redshirt junior. "You don't see that impact with many people, for him to come in day one and for us to look at him as a leader. He did that, and he's always been there for us. He's played through a bunch of injuries, and we have a lot of respect for him.
"If this is his last game, we're going to miss him next year, but he hadn't made up his mind yet. I'm hoping he comes back."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.