Todd Sr. was a 6-foot-2, 250-pound pass-rushing defensive end who still ranks fourth in Tennessee’s record book for both single-season sacks (11 in 1992) and career sacks (22.5 in 1989-92). Lacking the heft of his dad, Todd Jr. utilizes his 6-foot, 191-pound frame at safety, where he is launching a serious bid to start as a true freshman.
Don’t bet against him. The gifted rookie from Knoxville's Webb School has everything in the safety job description. He’s tough. He’s agile. He’s smart. He’s quick enough to cover wide receivers but also rugged enough to bring down 250-pound tight ends. And, believe it or not, he might be the best open-field tackler on the team. That’s an incredible asset for a safety, since there’s no one behind him to clean up the mess when he whiffs on a ball-carrier. Kelly credits this knack to Willie Martinez, the man who oversees Tennessee’s secondary.
“Coach sat us down and basically told us how to make open-field tackles on these quick guys,” TK2 said. “You have to be on your toes. You can’t be leaning back. You just have to look at their hips and see which way they’re going. The technique the coaches teach us is pretty impressive, so I just go out and use that on the field.”
Yep, he’s modest, too. That underscores perhaps the greatest attribute Kelly has going for him … maturity. There’s a little “Wow” in his voice when he does interviews but he shows remarkable poise, concentration and intensity when he’s between the white lines. Mark it down: He will be a star someday. Based on recent strides, that day may arrive sooner rather than later.
“Todd Kelly is one that continues to mature,” head coach Butch Jones said following Monday’s practice. “We see that growth and development each and every day in practice with him…. For TK, the game is slowing down. He’s been a sure tackler. He’s played physical.”
How physical? Consider this: To prevent injuries Tennessee does virtually no full-speed tackling in practice. Instead, the Vols play “thud” football. Basically, a defender positions himself to make the tackle but merely pops the ball-carrier with both hands, rather than wrapping him up and taking him to the turf. You’d figure senior linebacker A.J. Johnson, soon to be a four-year starter, would be the role model for this drill … and you’d be wrong.
“We keep going back to illustrations of how you thud,” Jones said, “and it’s always TK.”
Kelly may not have his dad’s size but he has his dad’s aggressive nature. That’s a necessity playing a tough position like safety in a tough conference like the SEC.
“The SEC is the most physical conference in the country, so you have to bring it every day,” TK2 said. “Practice is like a game. These practices are more intense than my high school games were, so we’re just bringing it every day – having a mindset to be physical, play fast and make plays. We’re a physical team, and that’s what we’re trying to impose as the Orange Swarm defense.”
Most freshmen struggle adapting to the speed differential between high school and college ball. Kelly did at first but he’s rapidly making the adjustment.
“The more you learn the defense the more plays you’re able to make,” he said. “As a young freshman, when you first get in here you’re not sure what to do or where to be. When you know the game and the techniques you’re supposed to execute, you’re there to make plays. I think that’s why it’s mentally slowed down for me … because I’m starting to understand more and more each day.”
"We’re a physical team, and that’s what we’re trying to impose as the Orange Swarm defense."
Wide receiver Pig Howard, who faces Kelly in practice on a regular basis, sees the freshman’s development accelerating rapidly.
“Todd Kelly,” he said, “is one of those mature freshmen that’s in his playbook and in the right place at the right time.”
That isn’t surprising, given his bloodlines. When the grind begins taking a toll, TK2 has a dad who experienced the rigors of preseason camp living just a few miles away, eager to offer expert advice.
“He just says to take it day by day,” Todd Jr. said. “Coach Jones says that, as well. He says to focus on one – taking one thing at a time, one purpose, one commitment.”
From all accounts, TK2 has done precisely that. He’s developing his skills, developing his knowledge of the defense and developing camaraderie with his fellow Vols.
“The thing I’ve done best is probably just hanging in there, making relationships with my teammates,” he said. “We have a lot of good guys on the team, and I’ve made a lot of friends. The defensive backs have become pretty close with one another.”
Young Kelly is especially close with junior safety Brian Randolph, who has become something of a mentor to him.
“He’s awesome,” TK2 said. “He was actually my roommate at the hotel this whole week. Any questions or concerns I had, he answered ‘em for me.”
With a dad like TK1 and a mentor like Brian Randolph, Kelly appears to have an excellent chance to play a significant role as a true freshman this fall.
“It’s very exciting,” TK2 said. “Coach says all the time that it’s healthy competition out there. He doesn’t care how old you are or what grade you’re in. He just wants playmakers out there.”
Make no mistake: Todd Kelly Jr. is a playmaker, which means he’ll be “out there” a lot this fall.
Todd Kelly Jr. video interview