KNOXVILLE — Tennessee didn't skip a beat when it was short one dynamic running back against Texas A&M.
The Volunteers expect a similar result down a different game-changing back at South Carolina on Saturday night.
Three weeks after playing without Jalen Hurd in the double-overtime road loss to the Aggies, Tennessee will be without Alvin Kamara against the Gamecocks after he suffered a left knee injury in the loss to Alabama before the open date.
The good news is Kamara currently doesn't need surgery and should return sometime in November, but the bad news is the Vols won't have perhaps their best playmaker for at least a couple of games.
"Alvin, he's definitely a tough loss," quarterback Josh Dobbs said. "He brings a different dynamic. Obviously we see what Alvin can do when he has the ball in his hand, but the expectation is for, of course, Jalen to play at a high level and J.K. (John Kellly) to come in and pick up the slack and play at a high level as he did in the Texas A&M game.
"We're thankful to have several dynamic running backs that continuously come in and make plays for us, and we'll be happy to get Alvin back when he's healthy."
In seven games Kamara ran for 330 yards and three touchdowns on 64 carries, caught 22 passes for 260 yards and three scores and averaged better than 10 yards on 18 punt returns in the absence of 2015 All-American Cameron Sutton. His breakout game was at A&M, when in the featured role Kamara totaled 288 yards (127 rushing, 161 receiving) and scored three touchdowns.
Josh Smith likely will handle punt-return duties, though Tennessee coach Butch Jones indicated multiple players remained in contention for the role, and Kelly will step into a larger role in the backfield.
"We felt really confident with him," offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. "We saw what he did in the A&M game, so he's got confidence right now and is excited to play. We're excited to have him back in there."
With Hurd out of the lineup, Kelly ran for 89 yards and a touchdown and added a 12-yard reception, and Tennessee's coaching staff believes he can handle all of the plays Hurd and Kamara can.
The 5-foot-9, 212-pound sophomore showed against the Aggies he's a capable runner who can go up the middle and hit holes quickly, power through contact and fall forward for a couple of extra yards.
"He's got the ability with the speed and quickness," DeBord said. "He's also a bigger back inside that way, too, so he's got the availability to do both. We'll kind of get into the game and kind of see what they're giving us — are they giving us the outside game or the inside game? — and we'll try go from there."
The Vols may view their three running backs as interchangeable, but Kamara's skill set is hard to replicate.
He's tied with Josh Malone for the team lead in receptions, and the Vols threw the ball to Kamara as a slot receiver in a five-wide formation for a touchdown against Georgia and a long gain against Texas A&M.
DeBord said Hurd and Kelly both can handle that role, but neither of them present the same kind of matchup problems for defenses as Kamara does.
"John and Jalen both get those reps in practice as well," DeBord said. "It won't eliminate anything we really do that way. They'll more than likely probably get more catches this week."
The Vols need more from Hurd, who managed just 28 yards on 13 carries against Alabama after missing all of one game and most of another. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior ran for 110 yards in the season opener against Appalachian State but hasn't cracked the century mark since. He's averaging only 3.8 yards per rush.
Hurd should be fresh, and Tennessee would like to get its workhorse back going.
"I don't feel like we've run the ball as much this year as we did last," DeBord said. "We're better in the red zone this year because we're throwing it more in the red zone. The wear-and-tear effect of a defense through the course of the game we're getting, but we're not getting it like maybe we did last year because of running the ball so much.
"I don't think it's anything with (Hurd). It's kind of been our approach of mixing in more throw-game stuff and not running it as much. Alvin has done some things for us, too. I don't see anything with his performance."
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