RB John Kelly may be Tennessee’s most important player in 2017

John Kelly Indiana State-Tennessee
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY Sports

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – If you could select a player to make all-conference on your favorite team, it probably would be the quarterback, right?

That’s considered the most important position on the field.

A great quarterback means you probably have an effective offense. It means you can usually find ways to score, even against a stingy defense. It usually gives you a better chance to win.

But if you could pick a player to make first-team All-SEC at any position other than quarterback, who would it be? Do you want a shutdown corner? A pass-rushing defensive end? A stout left tackle? A game-breaking receiver? An intimidating middle linebacker?

In the case of Tennessee, you want it to be running back John Kelly.

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Kelly burst on the scene last season by rushing for 630 yards, and he averaged a whopping 6.4 per carry. He led the team in rushing among non-quarterbacks. He gained more than projected second-round pick Alvin Kamara, and more than Jalen Hurd.

Not bad for a 5-foot-9, 212-pounder who didn’t play in the opener and had just 18 combined rushing yards in the first five games.

Kelly didn’t just gang up on non-conference foes last season. He had 101 yards against Missouri, 94 against South Carolina and Kentucky, 89 against Texas A&M. He added 70 more against Nebraska in the Music City Bowl.

He had a 34-yard run against South Carolina, a 27-yard run against Kentucky, another 27-yarder against Missouri.

Kelly was at his best late in the season, when he split time with Kamara after Hurd quit.

So why would he be Tennessee’s optimum pick to make first-team All-SEC?

Because if he did, it means he probably rushed for about 1,500 yards, considering the quality of backs in the SEC. It means he would take some of the pressure off Tennessee’s first-year starting quarterback, whoever that might be. It means the offensive line is playing at a relatively high level. It means the running game will either take heat off the passing game or open up the passing game. It means Tennessee could eat some clock and keep off the field what turned out to be one of the SEC’s worst defenses last season.

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It means the Vols also might be able to hold onto late leads by running the football.

That’s why having a star at running back would better serve Tennessee this season than any other position.

And that’s why John Kelly could be the most important player on the UT team this fall.

(You can follow Jimmy Hyams on Twitter @JimmyHyams)

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