In the scouting process for the 2018 Inside the Pylon Draft Guide, we used a grading scale that ranked a prospect’s traits from a 7 (marginal) to a 1 (rare). I solely focused on safeties in 2018, but in 2017 – using the same scale – I also delved into cornerbacks and running backs.
One such back was Kareem Hunt. In my scouting report, I evaluated the eventual 2017 NFL leading rusher as a back with pro-bowl potential, which was largely due to his balance through contact – something Joseph Ferraiola expertly highlighted in this piece. Kareem Hunt’s balance through contact was rare.
Comparisons are bad. They generate unfair expectations, create a false lens to view a prospect through and are reliant on our own hazy recollections. Fortunately, I’m not going to compare; I’m merely pointing out a similarity: in 2018 we have another player whose balance through contact can be described as rare.
Introducing Tennessee running back John Kelly. Every game of his is a highlight reel of broken tackles, vicious off-hand stiff arms and unadulterated violence – all coming while Kelly keeps his balance and ploughs forwards.
I struggled to be selective with the clips when it comes to Kelly. His massive game against Florida is a highlight reel alone. After much thought, below is a quintuplet of plays which clearly illustrates his ability to stay on his feet when fighting off tacklers – in addition to other positive traits from the 2018 Draft prospect.
Kelly’s Junior Year
First, let’s travel back to Kelly’s junior year.
Versus Kentucky, responding to an early score, Kelly takes the split action, outside power handoff and presses the playside B gap. This causes playside inside linebacker Courtney Love (#51) to hesitate, easing the reach block for center Dylan Weisman. Weisman thoroughly drives Love away from the gap, creating an open crease. Kelly reads the play correctly and cuts up the seam.
Want an example of what elite balance through contact looks like? Look no further. Tripped by his own lineman, Kelly stays on his feet by lowering his center of gravity and using his left hand to stay running. Already low, he uses his pads and strong waist to run through the lack-of-wrap tackle that safety Blake McClain (#24) offers.
Bouncing off that challenge, he meets cornerback Chris Westry (#21) with his head up and his left shoulder smacked into the defender’s chest. Churning his feet, he carries three gang tacklers for an additional two yards – falling forwards past the line and the first down.
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Another clip taken from the back’s third year in college, here’s more evidence of Kelly’s fight, hunger, and desire when dealing with defenders. So far, the South Carolina defense has done a sound job of bottling him up, holding the running back to 21 yards off 7 carries.
And then the first offensive play of the second-half happened. Kelly takes the counter and bursts through the hole, correctly reading the run design. He is unaffected by the weak arm tackle/ball strip of the two-gapping nose tackle Taylor Stallworth (#90).
At the second-level, he faces linebacker T.J. Holloman (#11) and safety D.J. Smith (#24). At the moment of contact, he is leaning forwards with his hips squat and his pads in front. He uses the impact from free safety Rico McWilliams (#1), the third tackler, as a counterweight: Kelly explodes upwards and drives his feet. He motors on in the pile, putting himself in a position to be pushed by the rest of his team and keep chugging despite his slowing momentum.
With over half the defense trying to take him down, Kelly still manages to fall forward in this hard-fought 17-yard rush. It is a fantastic way to set the tone for the rest of the half. “Yes, we may be losing 14-7, but you are going to have to stop me from coming back.”
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Kelly’s Senior Year
Next up, two plays from the previously mentioned Kelly demolition of Florida; this was a game that Tennessee somehow still managed to lose despite their tailback rushing 19 times for 141 yards (an average of 7.4 yards per carry).
With Tennessee scoreless in the first trailing 3-0, Kelly receives the ball in the flat following orbit motion to a play-action bootleg. He leaves the ground slightly too long while making the reception but is quick to turn up field, transitioning from receiver to runner in solid time.
Safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (#23) diagnoses the play rapidly, bulleting downhill towards Kelly. Yet Kelly chooses to initiate the contact. He demonstrates massively impressive flexibility and bend in his hips and knees, getting lower than the defensive back. He leads with his left forearm and shoulder, smashing the defender backwards. Kelly obliterates Gardner-Johnson. He then gets his balance and works to get the first. What could have been a five-yard gain is transformed by Kelly into a new set of downs.
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Later in the battle, as Tennessee attempted a comeback drive, Kelly displayed more of his ability to win the physical war.
He correctly chooses to bounce the inside zone read after linebacker David Reese (#33) shoots through the playside A gap. Kelly has the speed to get to the corner. He also has the strength and balance. He off-hand stiff arms the low tackle of Gardner-Johnson (#23) down into the turf, as he shoots his left foot upwards to counteract the contact his right leg receives.
Now running outside, Kelly knows that he is being shepherded to the sideline by multiple Florida players – especially based on the pursuit angle of cornerback Marco Wilson (#3).
Once more though, Kelly chooses to keep fighting through the play. He seeks impact again, perfectly angling, timing and aiming another off-hand stiff arm at Wilson. Moving at this speed, the well-executed and violent maneuver propels Wilson to the floor as Kelly gets the first down and more. “Get off me”-lite.
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The final example is taken from a game against the best tackling and rallying defense Kelly faced in 2017, and possibly in his entire college career. The Georgia Bulldogs largely bottled Kelly up, holding him to 44 yards on 16 carries. That miserable 2.8 yards per carry reflected the entire game: a 41-0 blowout delivered by the Bulldogs. The game was a case of being thoroughly outplayed and outcoached, but, although it raised negatives around Kelly’s evaluation, Kelly still showed his best trait on multiple occasions.
Down 24-0 and facing a 3rd and 8, Georgia runs a stunt up front with green dog blitzer Lorenzo Carter (#7). Kelly releases from the backfield and wins crucial inside leverage versus Carter after a nice shoulder feint to the outside and short stutter at the route stem.
Wide-open, he catches the ball in stride. Surging forwards, he proves his bend and flexibility again as he lowers his pads into cornerback J.R. Reed (#20). He breaks that tackle, at the same time as causing pursuing safety Tyrique McGhee (#26) to overextend and Carter to fall over.
Keeping his balance, Kelly steps over Carter’s body and then exhibits his typical competitive toughness. He churns and stiff arms into the other safety, Dominick Sanders (#24), and demands the attention of other Georgia players. It is here that he “fumbles” the ball (even though his knee appears to be clearly down). He is not helped by the fact there are four Georgia players for one Tennessee player in the vicinity.
“Fumble” aside, and Kelly only fumbled once every 123.3 touches, focus on the rare contact balance showcased for the fifth time.
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Kelly’s NFL Projection
Some may be concerned about Kelly’s running style given his size. Yet at 5097, he weighed in at 216lbs at the NFL Combine. Furthermore, he missed zero games in college due to injury despite playing at a lighter mass. Kelly can stay on the field for all three downs due to his receiving ability and solid, willing pass protection – which will naturally improve in the NFL.
He does lack gears, mid- to long-speed and athleticism – registering a RAS score of 4.24. But at his pro-day, he slimmed down to 209lbs and demonstrated the short-area burst that he shows on tape via a 1.58 10-yard split. That, combined with the vision, physicality and balance through contact that are essential in running backs makes Kelly a great pick in the fourth round – with him rushing in a committee or not.
This piece was inspired by work done for the 2018 Inside the Pylon Draft Guide. With over 175 full scouting reports, player interviews, historical analysis and more, be sure to purchase your copy today!