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VOL. 41 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 11, 2017

Kelly, legacy teammates ready for final season

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Todd Kelly Jr. is one of six players in the 2014 Vol recruiting class whose fathers also played for Tennessee. He is headed into his final season.

-- Dave Link | The Ledger

Todd Kelly Jr. can’t believe it’s his last hoorah. The senior safety from Webb School of Knoxville enters his final season at Tennessee with thoughts of how it all started in fall of 2014.

“It’s wild how time flies,” Kelly says. “The veterans told me when I was a freshman, ‘When you blink your eye and snap your finger, you’ll be a senior and it will be all over with, and it will be your last time running through the ‘T.’”

“Now, I’m looking and realizing how much it meant to me then, and how much it means to me now, just to emphasize to the younger guys how important it is to spend your time wisely and manage your time and make it the best you can while you’re here at the university.”

Kelly, son of former UT defensive end Todd Kelly Sr. (1989-92), was one of six legacy Vols arriving on campus in summer of 2014. Of those six, Kelly, Dillon Bates, and twins Evan and Elliott Berry are still on the team.

Kelly is coming off his best season as a Vol. Last year, he played in 12 games with 11 starts (all but one at strong safety) and led the team in tackles with 71 and tied for the team-high in interceptions with two.

As the Vols prepare for the Sept. 4 opener against Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Kelly is assuming another role with the team.

“I think my mentality this year as an individual is realizing that I’m a senior and holding myself accountable as being a leader,” he explains, “first and foremost for the defensive back group, then the defense as a whole and lastly just the entire team, and just bringing everybody together collectively and making sure they’re all on the same page and have the same goals throughout the season.

“Just having three years under my belt, I think it’s huge for me because I’ve experienced a lot, good bad and indifferent. But at the same time, I’m excited, and it’s my last year, so I’ve got to make it the best I possibly can.”

Kelly is one of 109 players on the Wuerffel Trophy watch list for an award known as “College Football’s Premier Award for Community Service.” It’s named after former Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel and is awarded to the player who best combines community service with athletic and academic achievements.

A four-star prospect at Webb, Kelly is majoring in biological science and was on the SEC Fall Academic Honor roll in 2015 and 2016, and as a freshman was on the SEC First-Year Academic Honor Roll.

His community work ranges from visiting East Tennessee Children’s Hospital to mentoring youth at Lonsdale Elementary and working at Emerald Youth Foundation and Read Across America. He’s also a member of the 100 Black Men of Knoxville, which serves as a catalyst for minority youth to maximize potential.

“Most of the guys I’ve seen on that (Wuerffel Trophy) list, we do it not to be on that list,” Kelly points out. “We do it for the cause and to give back to the community because I know how many kids want to be on this platform. I was a kid and was able to make it this far, and I just want to give back to my community, especially being from here, the city of Knoxville, whether it’s the elementary school, tutoring middle schoolers, whatever I can do to help, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Kelly seems to relish the Vols’ underdog role in Butch Jones’ fifth year as coach.

Tennessee posted its second consecutive nine-win season in 2016 and won its third straight bowl game, but the Vols failed to win the SEC East after entering the season as the favorite.

Not this year. The Vols are picked to finish third in the East behind Georgia and Florida (not necessarily in that order), and it would be an upset if they get to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2007.

“Well, a lot of people say, ‘It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish,’” Kelly says. “That’s what I truly believe. You hear about guys who were no-names making it to become big names. I think that speaks with our team. It doesn’t matter where we start. It’s all about where we finish.

“Right now, we’re in the weeds. Nobody’s really seeing us, almost like a snake in the grass, but our goal is to end up biting somebody at the end of the day and making them pay.

“That’s why we have that mindset where we know our value, and that’s all that matters, and if we give it our all and stick together as a unit and as a team, it’s going to be pretty special.”

Tennessee is scheduled to have its 10th practice by this weekend, which marks the midway point of fall camp.

Here’s a breakdown of UT’s defense going into the opener against Georgia Tech at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Defensive line

Tennessee took heavy hits at defensive end from the 2016 group with Philadelphia Eagles’ first-round pick Derek Barnett passing up his senior season and starting left end Corey Vereen and backup/part-time starter LaTroy Lewis exhausting their eligibility.

Junior Jonathan Kongbo and sophomore Darrell Taylor had big springs and appear to be leaders to start at end.

Taylor has evolved from a 6-foot-4, 200-pound wide receiver/defensive end at Hopewell (Virginia) High School into a 254-pound edge rusher. He played in eight games as a true freshman last year and had nine tackles.

Kongbo (6-6, 264 pounds) was the No. 1 overall junior-college prospect out of Arizona Western Community College but didn’t have the impact many expected in his first year at Tennessee.

To his credit, Kongbo moved to tackle as the Vols battled depth issues, and now he’s back to his natural end position. He played in all 13 games last year (two starts at tackle) and had 11 tackles, one sack, and three tackles for loss. He returned an interception 59 yards for touchdown against Missouri.

Junior Kyle Phillips (6-4, 263) of Nashville Hillsboro also is in the rotation, if not pushing for a starting job. Phillips, a consensus four-star end in high school, played in 11 games last year with a start at tackle against Tennessee Tech and finished with 15 tackles, two for losses.

Three freshmen could be pushed into action: Deandre Johnson (6-4, 258) of Miami Southridge High; Matthew Butler (6-4, 274) of Garner Senior High/Raleigh, North Carolina, and Ryan Thaxton (6-4, 236) of St. Agnes School/Alexandria,Virginia. Johnson and Butler are the most likely to be in the rotation of the three.

Fifth-year senior tackle Kendal Vickers returns after starting every game the past two seasons. Danny O’Brien was a senior starter at the other tackle last year until getting kicked off the team after the Texas A&M game.

The return of junior tackle Shy Tuttle (6-2, 308) is tenuous due to a knee injury, and he’s been limited in fall camp. He’s suffered season-ending injuries each of his two seasons.

Junior Kahlil McKenzie (6-3, 320) looks like the potential starter at the other tackle after working his way back from a pectoral injury suffered last year against Alabama, when he got his first career start. The five-star prospect and son of former UT star Reggie McKenzie arrived at UT with plenty of hype, and it now appears to be his time. Kahlil has 36 tackles and one start in two seasons.

Fourth-year junior Alexis Johnson (6-4, 300) should be in the rotation after missing 2016 due to legal issues; a misdemeanor assault charge against him was dropped in April. The Atlanta native was a four-star recruit out of Fort Scott (Kansas) Community College.

Junior Quay Picou (6-1, 280) benefitted from the offseason and should be more of a factor, and true freshman Eric Crosby (6-1, 336) of Ocean Lakes High/Virginia Beach, Virginia, could get playing time on the interior.

Linebacker

Tennessee played much of 2016 without senior weak-side linebacker Jalen Reeves Maybin of Clarksville, so most of the linebacker corps was expected to return intact for fall camp.

However, Jones announced before camp junior Darrin Kirkland Jr. (6-1, 238) and sophomore Daniel Bituli (6-3, 240) would be out or limited in starting fall camp.

Kirkland remains the probable starter at middle linebacker, where he started seven games last year while missing five games with an ankle injury. A member of the 2015 All-SEC Freshman team, Kirkland had seven tackles and two tackles for loss in the win over Nebraska in the Music City Bowl, but was limited in spring and missed the Orange & White Game.

Bituli, who played at Nashville Christian School, played in nine games last year, mostly on special teams.

Jones said at start of fall camp he expects Kirkland and Bituli to be full speed later in preseason, perhaps by this weekend.

Seniors Cortez McDowell (6-0, 228) started four games in 2016 at weak-side linebacker, played in 12 games, and had 54 tackles and four tackles for loss. Senior Elliott Berry (5-11, 206) got four starts and played in 13 games at weak-side linebacker last season, finishing with 34 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss.

Senior Colton Jumper (6-2, 229), a former walk-on from Chattanooga Baylor, should find his way on the field, as usual. He started six games at middle linebacker and one at weak-side last year and had 61 tackles, four for losses.

Other linebackers to watch are third-year sophomore Austin Smith (6-3, 236), third-year sophomore Quart’e Sapp (6-2, 222), redshirt junior Dillon Bates (6-3, 224), and freshmen Shanon Reid (6-0, 215) and Will Ignont (6-1, 228). Smith played in 13 games as a freshman with one start, and didn’t play last year due to injury.

Secondary

Tennessee returns starters at four of the five secondary positions. Four-year starting cornerback Cameron Sutton is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but spent much of 2016 hampered by a foot injury.

Kelly is back as the starter at strong safety and started one game at free safety last year.

Fourth-year junior Rashaan Gaulden (6-1, 193) of Independence High in Spring Hill, started nine games and played in 13 at nickel last year. He was third on the team in tackles with 68 (52 solo) and had six tackles for loss.

Senior Emmanuel Moseley (5-11, 184) was a starter at right corner when Sutton was in the lineup, and went to left corner when Sutton was out. Moseley finished with 10 starts, played in 13 games and had 57 tackles. He’s got 19 career starts and has played in 39 games.

Junior Micah Abernathy (6-0, 223) started 10 games at free safety and played in 12 last season. He was second on the team with 69 tackles and tied with Kelly for the team-high two interceptions.

The Vols’ secondary was bolstered with the addition of fifth-year graduate transfer Shaq Wiggins, who’s been a starting cornerback for both Georgia (2013, eight starts) and Louisville (2015-16, 21 starts).

Senior Evan Berry (5-11, 205) started three games last year, two at strong safety and one at free safety, and ranks first in UT career kickoff return average at 32.4 yards. He’s made several All-American teams as a kick returner.

Senior Justin Martin (6-1, 196), who played at Overton High in Nashville before going to Northeast Oklahoma A&M for a year, got two starts last year at corner when Sutton was hurt. He started the last six games as a sophomore at Tennessee and played in all 13 games.

Sophomore Nigel Warrior (6-0, 194) started at strong safety last year against Missouri, played in 12 games, and finished with 22 tackles. With his athleticism, Warrior should find time in the secondary.

Freshmen to watch in the secondary include Maleik Gray, a four-star safety from LaVergne High; Theo Jackson, a three-star safety from Overton High in Nashville; Cheyenne Labruzza, a three-star corner from Albany (Louisiana) High; and Shawn Shamburger, a three-star cornerback from Colquitt County High/Moultrie, Georgia.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.