Let’s give Butch Jones some credit. The embattled Tennessee football coach could have turned a blind eye to his best offensive player being cited for marijuana possession and assured the Volunteers a better chance at victory Saturday night against Kentucky.
Instead, Jones chose to suspend star running back John Kelly along with backup outside linebacker Will Ignont for the 7:30 p.m. SEC game at Kroger Field.
Kelly and Ignont were cited after police discovered marijuana in their vehicle during a routine traffic stop on Tuesday night in Knoxville.
“Members of our football team have a responsibility to represent the University of Tennessee in a first-class manner,” Jones, the UT coach, said in a statement Wednesday. “I met with John and Will and they understand their actions were unacceptable.”
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For an offense that has gone 14 quarters without a touchdown, losing Kelly is a significant blow. A 5-foot-9, 205 pound junior out of Detroit, Kelly ranks fifth in the conference in rushing with 615 yards.
He’ll be replaced by Ty Chandler, a freshman who has rushed for 118 yards this season. Chandler has caught seven passes and he returned a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown against Indiana State.
Jones badly needs a win Saturday. The former Central Michigan and Cincinnati head coach was 30-21 with three straight bowl wins through four seasons in Knoxville before the Vols dropped off the cliff this season, going 3-4 overall with an 0-4 record in the SEC.
In its last three games, Tennessee has lost 41-0 to Georgia, 15-9 to South Carolina and 45-7 at No. 1-ranked Alabama. Under first-year offensive coordinator Larry Scott, the Vols have not scored an offensive touchdown since the first half of a 17-13 win over Massachusetts.
There are those in Knoxville who believe Tennessee must win its five final games to save Jones’ job. A loss to Kentucky, which has beaten UT just once since 1985, might earn the 49-year-old coach an immediate pink slip.
Coming off a 45-7 loss at Mississippi State, Kentucky opened as a 5.5-point favorite Saturday.
So as for Kelly’s run-in with the authorities, Jones could have taken the position of letting the matter play out in the courts before taking disciplinary action and allowed the running back to play Saturday. He could have said the matter was being handled internally.
Instead, Jones opted for the suspension rout knowing full well it will hurt his team’s chances on Saturday. No matter what happens the rest of the way, give the coach credit for making the tougher but correct choice.
John Kelly 2017 game-by-game
SEC rushing leaders