Kamara going to draft; Barnett, Malone also expected to leave early

Kamara going to draft; Barnett, Malone also expected to leave early

January 1st, 2017 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara is tackled by Nebraska safety Kieron Williams, left, during Friday's Music City Bowl. Kamara, a junior, is entering the NFL draft after two seasons with the Vols.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Read more about the 2016 Music City Bowl

NASHVILLE — It took just a couple of hours after Tennessee's Music City Bowl win against Nebraska on Friday for the first offseason domino to fall for the Volunteers.

More are expected to tumble in the coming days.

Running back Alvin Kamara made his decision to enter the NFL draft official on Friday night after signing with the New York City-based agency VaynerSports, which previously inked a deal with Tennessee senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin.

Kamara posted on Twitter: "It's been a great 2 years on Rocky Top! I love you all and appreciate the many memories. Go Vols!!"

Kamara won't be Tennessee's only early entry into the NFL, as All-American defensive end Derek Barnett, fresh off breaking the program's career sack record against the Cornhuskers, and wide receiver Josh Malone, who caught 50 passes for 972 yards and 11 touchdowns during his junior season, are expected soon to announce their decisions to turn pro.

In 24 games over two seasons, Kamara rushed for 1,294 yards and 16 touchdowns and averaged 6.2 yards per carry while catching 74 passes for 683 yards and seven more scores.

He began his career at Alabama before spending one season in junior college and becoming an influential figure on and off the field for the Vols the past two seasons.

"They're a great team and they're always going to be in contention," Kamara said of the Crimson Tide two days before the Music City Bowl. "It'd be cool to be a part of it, but anybody can win it in any year. Who says we couldn't have won a national championship here? I don't regret any decisions I've made.

"It's been fun coming here and being here with these guys that I've got to be cool with and be brothers with basically and building something special here."

John Kelly, who ran for 630 yards and five touchdowns this season, will be Tennessee's leading returning rusher in 2017.

"Alvin, he's always been a great mentor for me since I even stepped a foot on campus," Kelly said after Friday's win, "and he's just basically been able to help me with all aspects of the game. If it's pass protection or if it's just running in between the tackles or working on my second-level moves, Alvin has always just been there to keep pushing me and keep motivating me.

"I've always just been there to push him, too, so me and him have been working hand in hand with each other."

Kelly finished the season in which he emerged from behind the shadow of Kamara and Jalen Hurd with a 15-carry, 70-yard performance against the Cornhuskers. It included a 28-yard first-half touchdown run during which he showed excellent burst to get to the edge and the straight-line speed he needed to outrun a couple of defenders.

"I didn't really expect it to be there," he said, "but it was just a great play call. I just rode the wave, the guys up front took care of the bigs, and everybody blocked and I just ran hard. I felt like I wasn't going to be denied if I was just going to run hard."

Freshman Carlin Fils-aime is the lone returning scholarship running back for the Vols, who have verbal commitments from four-star prospect Ty Chandler, the No. 60 overall player in the 2017 class according to 247sports, and Trey Coleman.

After missing out last week on Cam Akers — the five-star back picked Florida State — Tennessee hopes to add another running back and remains in the mix for Travis Etienne, whose final three were the Vols, Oregon and Texas A&M prior to receiving an LSU offer; Darrian Felix out of Florida; and Western Kentucky commitment Timothy Jordan.

"Honestly, I'm just focusing on bringing everybody else along, because as of right now I'm going to have the most experience in our backfield," Kelly said. "I'm really just working on bringing the young guys along as well."

The other dominoes are changes to the coaching staff, though it's unclear when those will occur.

The current deals for defensive backs coach Willie Martinez and offensive line coach Don Mahoney expire at the end of February, as does the contract for defensive line coach Steve Stripling, who could move into an off-field role.

Tennessee is expected to move quickly on a strength and conditioning coach, with the players set to begin winter workouts soon, and Rock Gullickson of the NFL's Los Angeles Rams remains the favorite there.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.