Through the season’s first four games, it’s no secret Georgia has been stout against opposing ground games.
Entering today’s meeting at Tennessee, the Bulldogs rank 18th (of 130 teams) in the FBS in rushing yards allowed per game (97.5), 19th in rushing yards yielded per carry (3.0), and 14th in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (two). Notably, if the fourth quarters of Georgia’s three wins by three-plus touchdowns are excluded, when the Bulldogs had already all but won and were featuring primarily reserves (vs. Appalachian State, Samford and Mississippi State), the defense is yielding a paltry 2.1 yards per rushing attempt.
It might be hard to envision an opponent, particularly an opposing player, having success running the ball on Georgia’s physical and quick defense, especially if that individual was, until recently, somewhat of an unknown—like Tennessee’s John Kelly.
Still, despite being perhaps once undervalued and seemingly appearing out of nowhere, Kelly’s all-purpose running prowess is evidently no secret—and how—to the Georgia Bulldogs.
''He's one of the best backs I've seen, really in a long time,” head coach Kirby Smart said of Kelly earlier this week. “He runs through arm tackles. He's extremely physical.”
That’s high praise from Georgia’s head man considering Kelly, a three-star prospect from Detroit, Mich., played sparingly as a freshman in 2015 and through the first five games of last season. Overshadowed by standout teammates Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, he finally got an opportunity in the middle of the 2016 campaign when the former endured a concussion (and later quit the team). Beginning against Texas A&M through the end of the season, Kelly rushed for a team-high 612 yards, which was nearly 150 more than Hurd and Kamara combined for during that stretch.
This season, Kelly has been thrust into the role of the workhorse of the Volunteers’ slim stable of backs. Averaging an impressive 5.6 yards per carry, his 450 rushing yards lead the SEC and rank 12th in the FBS. Even more impressive, according to CFB Film Room, 54 percent of the 5-foot-9, 205-pound fireplug’s rushing yardage, or what is believed to be tops in the SEC, have resulted after contact (28 percent combined for the remaining Tennessee rushers).
“When we went over it, [Kelly has] gained the most yards [in the SEC] after contact,” said senior nose John Atkins, who indicated “gap responsibility” will be his primary role in stopping Kelly. “So, we got to focus on really wrapping him up and tackling him.”
Easier said than done—or will it be? In facing Kelly, the Georgia defenders are not only well aware of their individual roles but rather familiar with his running style, as they routinely encounter it at practice, particularly in star Nick Chubb.
“He kind of reminds me of our backs—low-centered to the ground, runs very hard, runs behind his pads, and great vision,” senior linebacker Davin Bellamy said of Kelly who, along with Chubb, is tied for first in the conference with six rushing touchdowns. “I watched the Georgia Tech game, and that’s a pretty good back.”
In Tennessee’s 42-41 season-opening two-overtime win over Georgia Tech, Kelly rushed for four touchdowns, including an 11-yard scoring run to tie the score sending the game into overtime, and on a short run for each of the overtime periods. Two weeks ago against Florida, he was at his best again down the stretch. Trailing the Gators 13-3 and nearing the midpoint of the fourth quarter, Kelly rushed for 69 yards including a touchdown on five carries in the Volunteers’ final three possessions. In addition, he caught a screen pass resulting in a 52-yard gain during what was an eventual 26-20 heart-breaking defeat.
An added element to Kelly’s game this season is receiving the ball out of the backfield. After making only six receptions his first two seasons combined, he is currently tied for the team lead with 18. Kelley’s 632 all-purpose yards are tied for the most in the SEC and 11th nationally. Regardless, because of Georgia’s extraordinary physical play at all three levels of defense, the Bulldogs remain confident in stopping opposing backs—no matter who he is, or how versatile.
“Every week, we put ourselves in a position to be physical no matter who we’re facing,” said defensive back Tyrique McGhee who, as a sudden viable part-time starter, essentially emerged out of nowhere, as well. “So, when you come in each week with that mindset that we don’t care who is running the ball, it’s easy to play [that way] especially when you got Chubb, and practicing against guys like that.”
Speaking of the defense’s physical play through four games, including by the secondary, the sophomore defensive back added, “No finesse corners, like Coach Tuck (defensive coordinator Mel Tucker) says.”
Notably, its physicality is a major reason why the Bulldog defense has displayed a knack of not merely containing, but outright stopping opposing feature/primary backs. Consider that the current leading rushers of Georgia’s first four opponents have rushed this season for an average of 90.8 yards per game and 6.8 yards per carry against teams other than the Bulldogs; however, against Georgia, these same leading backs were strikingly limited to an average of 23.5 rushing yards and 2.4 yards per carry.
Notwithstanding, Kelly is not like any other back Georgia has faced thus far this season, and maybe is even better than the two Tennessee rushing greats who once overshadowed him. What’s more, especially this year, he possesses tremendous physicality, which provides an intriguing matchup when facing a physical defense.
“This year he's like Alvin (Kamara) and (Jalen) Hurd altogether in one,” Smart said of Kelly. “The guy runs hard and he doesn't seem to get tired. The more carries he gets, the more physical he runs.”