Whether at Florida or South Carolina, Will Muschamp has dominated Tennessee for years – but to keep that going, he’ll have to slow down an “elite” runner.
Muschamp, who is 5-0 against UT as a head coach, described Tennessee running back John Kelly as “one of the elite backs in our league” in his weekly news conference before the Gamecocks travel to meet the Vols at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
Kelly has rushed for 494 yards this season in five games, and his per-game average of 98.8 yards is second in the league. He’s averaging 5.1 yards per carry, and his 97 rushing attempts are exceeded only by the 126 rushes for Benny Snell Jr. at Kentucky.
To Muschamp, Kelly’s energy spreads its influence throughout the Vols’ team.
“To me, especially offensively, their football team, they feed off him,” Muschamp said. “He’s a guy that certainly gets them going. He runs violently. He’s a great competitor.”
Kelly’s performance is especially critical Saturday because of the uncertainty surrounding first-time starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. One potential positive is that Guarantano should be effective on the read option; that wasn’t the case with Quinten Dormady.
The Gamecocks got a taste of what Kelly could do last season, when he rushed 14 times for 94 yards in a 24-21 loss to South Carolina.
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That game, Muschamp said, gave Kelly his first serious chance to show what he could do. Now, Muschamp considers him one of the SEC’s elite.
“This guy really ran hard against us last year, playing behind some of the guys he was playing behind,” Muschamp said. “It was really the first time, I think, he really got a lot of time was in our game last year. He took off from there.”
Muschamp is encouraged by South Carolina’s defensive showing against Arkansas. Facing Bret Bielema’s ground-heavy attack, the Gamecocks didn’t allow any Razorbacks rusher to gain more than 32 yards, and the defense scored three touchdowns.
He gives much of the credit to the linebacker duo of Skai Moore and T.J. Brunson, who each scored in the 48-22 win over Arkansas.
“When you have two really instinctive players, we may get bounced out of a gap up front defensively, but they’re able to make us right,” Muschamp said. “I always say, ‘Make us right in the run fit.’ And Skai and T.J. make us right a lot.”
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