Tennessee safety Todd Kelly Jr. on why he likes Vols' chances vs. Alabama, greatness of Derek Barnett and more
Safety Todd Kelly Jr. turned 21 last week, but he hasn't celebrated yet. First, he needs a win over Alabama. The Tennessee native grew up rooting for the Volunteers—he even has Smokey, the Vols' mascot, painted on a wall in his room at home—and believes he has the guys around him to upset the No. 1 Crimson Tide this weekend. Before getting dressed up for the Vol Walk, Kelly chatted with Campus Rush.
Lindsay Schnell: I heard you fancy yourself a snappy dresser. What's your outfit plan for the Vol Walk this weekend before the big game?
Todd Kelly Jr.: I can't give out all the details, but it'll be a two-piece suit, pretty snappy but not over the top. I'll catch more eyes than coach [Butch] Jones' suit, I can promise you that.
LS: Do you have a fashion icon?
TK: My dad, Todd Kelly Sr. He's the one who hooked me up with all the suits. He got into the suit game when he was in the NFL and he taught me everything, including how to tie the knot for my neck tie. I think I've got it down better than him to be honest. Sometimes he asks me to tie his for church.
LS: Who needs to be an X-factor for you guys this weekend against Alabama?
TK: Colton Jumper. He's our middle linebacker, so he has all the calls, he gets us set up and aligns us. If he plays great—which he usually does—that sets the temperament for our defense. We thrive off what he does, so if he plays well, that helps us a lot.
LS: When you beat Florida and finally broke the streak, and your mom rushed the field, what was that moment like for your family?
TK: Amazing. I had no clue she was on the field to start with. And then when I turned around, she was there smiling with open arms, so I picked her up. I was just so happy to see her. She's my idol, I look up to her. Whenever I need energy to get through the day, she'll send me Scripture. She told me it was going to be a big week not only for me but for my team, and when we got that victory, I looked for her in the stands immediately. And when I didn't see her, I found out she was on the field and it made that moment that much more special.
LS: After so many games where you dug yourselves a hole and had to climb back, why do you think you can be the ones to dethrone the Tide?
TK: Because I believe in the guys to my left and my right when I line up on the football field. If you don't have that mindset going into a game, something's wrong with you. I believe in the guys I line up with, whether it's on defense or special teams, or when I'm on the sideline watching the offense. I know what we're made of. I know these guys are built with the strength to never give up and to give their all, not only for themselves and their teammates, but also for the fans and the state of Tennessee.
LS: Your 21st birthday was Oct. 9. What did you do to celebrate? What was your first legal drink?
TK: I actually didn't celebrate because of the loss [to Texas A&M]. So I just rehydrated for Alabama week so I can be ready to go.
LS: Your dad, Todd Kelly Sr., played at Tennessee in the 1990s and then in the NFL for four years. What's the most valuable football thing he taught you?
TK: I think to always listen to the older guys, the veterans who have a lot of wisdom. Going into my college career I had the opportunity to play as a freshman, but I had older guys in front of me who had played more, and I felt like listening to those guys enabled me to become the man I am today. I still don't see myself as a veteran, but this is my third year. Now I've got young guys looking up to me asking questions.
LS: I'm guessing as a Knoxville native and the son of a Tennessee player that you grew up a Vols fan. Are you living your dream right now, playing for them?
TK: No question. My whole room back home is painted orange and white. I've got an orange and white rug in my room. Smokey the mascot is even painted on my wall. [laughs] That was kind of interesting during my recruiting days. We kept the non-UT coaches downstairs in the living room so they wouldn't run away.
LS: How is it that in a Tennessee hous your sister went to Alabama and became a cheerleader? Who is she cheering for this weekend?
TK: [laughs] She has to root for her brother, of course. But anyone who goes to college understands that having an alma mater is very special. It's close to your heart. You spend four years there so … I told her, as much as she loves her school and as much as she loves me, to do what she wants. I don't know what she's going to wear to the game, but I know at the end of the day she has my back and she truly believes in me. She's always been my No. 1 fan.
LS: You're a Biomed Engineering major, which sounds insanely challenging. What's the hardest class you've taken at Tennessee?
TK: Differential equations. It was a pretty tough class. The answer to most of the questions isn't even a real answer, it's just another equation that you have to solve. I won't lie, that class was not fun.
LS: What three Netflix or TV shows should everyone have to watch?
TK: I watch Power on STARZ, and on Netflix I started Prison Break. I think that's a pretty cool show. And also Narcos seems pretty cool. Those three keep you on your toes.
LS: What's the best Halloween costume you've ever worn?
TK: Probably when I was in the third grade, my friend—he didn't play football but he was my best friend—he put on my shoulder pads and my jersey, and I dressed up like a cheerleader. My sister and my mom helped me. I had my sister's cheerleading uniform on, I wore a wig and I went door to door. I don't tell many people that.
LS: You're a defensive back and you play with one of the best defensive players in the country in Derek Barnett. What's it going to take for a defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy? Do people just not respect that side of the ball enough?
TK: I think people respect both sides of the ball, but I think it's going to take a lot. A defensive player would have to be very, very disruptive, very dominant and be on a great team. I'm not going to say a defensive player is never going to win because it's happened before. Everyone at the University of Tennessee knows that Peyton Manning got second to a defensive player. To think now that we have a defensive guy at UT who's in the conversation, that's pretty cool to see. And I think he should win because of what he does off the field, how hard he works, how much he prepares. I see that every day.
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LS: You changed your number this season from 6 to 24 to honor Zaevion Dobson, a local high school student who died shielding three young girls from gunfire during a drive-by shooting. Why did you do that? Did you know him personally?
TK: I did know him and his family. I still talk to his brother a lot, he's a senior in high school. He also changed his number to 24. I just wanted to do it just to emphasize how much of a hero he was and honor his dedication. What he did for those girls, it was exceptional. I want his legacy to live on. He loved the game of football and he always wanted to be a Division I athlete. Wearing his number, that helps him live on and do what he wanted in life.