KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee safety Todd Kelly Jr. remembers how he often played the video highlights of his father’s senior season with the Volunteers.
He’d see some of his dad’s memorable moments during a career that included 22 ½ sacks, two SEC championships and a Sugar Bowl victory. He’d watch that tape over and over again until technology caught up with him.
“I can’t watch it anymore because the DVD players can’t play a VHS tape,” said Kelly, whose dad Todd Kelly Sr. was a first-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers.
Kelly is just one of the Vols continuing a family tradition by playing at Tennessee.
Safety/kick returner Evan Berry and linebacker Elliott Berry are the younger brothers of 2009 Jim Thorpe Award winner Eric Berry. The trio are the sons of former running back James Berry, who played for Tennessee from 1978-81.
Defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie’s father is now Oakland Raiders general manager and former Vols linebacker Reggie McKenzie and his uncle is former Vols and NFL offensive lineman Raleigh McKenzie.
Safety Nigel Warrior’s dad is former Tennessee cornerback Dale Carter, who also played in the NFL. Linebacker Dillon Bates’ father is former Tennessee and Dallas Cowboys safety Bill Bates.
Tennessee’s family ties could have been even greater. The Vols recruited Clemson freshman wide receiver Amari Rodgers, whose father is Tee Martin, the quarterback of Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team. Rodgers instead verbally committed to Southern California — where his dad’s an assistant coach — before signing with the reigning national champions
“Growing up in a football household, (they) can never forget how their fathers got there by being driven, hard work and all that,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “That helps. Obviously it’s a great sounding board, a great resource for their sons to have that resource. It’s also a matter of pride as well.”
Indeed, family connections assure the latest generation knows only too well the high expectations here. Kelly Jr. grew up in Knoxville and watched plenty of Tennessee games at Neyland Stadium while growing up.
“Just knowing how important it is to these fans, the community and people around Knoxville, Tennessee (and the area code) 865,” said Kelly Jr., who led the Vols in tackles last season. “It’s all about Tennessee football.”
The current Vols are trying to get Tennessee back to the status enjoyed when some of their fathers or siblings played here.
Todd Kelly Sr. and Carter were teammates on the 1990 SEC championship team that won the Sugar Bowl. Eric Berry was a freshman in 2007, the last time Tennessee reached an SEC championship game.
Evan and Elliott Berry were teenagers during their older brother’s playing career and now can watch him play with the Kansas City Chiefs every Sunday. The twins insist they don’t feel any extra pressure to live up to the family name.
“It’s just that we have family members who were fortunate enough to play here, and we’re fortunate enough to play here as well,” said Evan Berry, who was the nation’s top-ranked kick returner in 2015. “I look at it as something good. Not really anything bad comes out of it.”
The ex-Vols have tried to avoid heaping extra pressure on their kids.
Kelly Sr. points to their respective academic achievements as evidence that his son already has accomplished more than he did at Tennessee. Kelly Jr., a member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll, majors in biological science with concentrations in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology. The senior safety is interested in going to medical school and becoming an orthopedic surgeon.
“At the end of the day, I tell TK don’t worry about being my son,” Kelly Sr. said. “You go out there and create your own legacy, go out there and compete and do things in the community and make sure if someone asks about Todd Kelly Jr., they’re going to talk about your character first and not what type of football player you are.”
Kelly, the Berry twins and Bates came to Tennessee in 2014 as part of a heralded recruiting haul nicknamed the “legacy class” because so many prospects had family ties to the program.
The group has helped Tennessee win bowl games each of the last three seasons, but they haven’t reached the SEC championship game. That provides plenty of incentives heading into the 25th-ranked Vols’ Sept. 4 season opener with Georgia Tech.
“We obviously have big expectations, just like every year,” Evan Berry said. “Anything short of a national championship isn’t enough. It’s not enough – or I’m not satisfied with it.”
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