Chad Kelly went from the doghouse to the penthouse in a matter of months.
In Dec. 2014, the Ole Miss quarterback was arrested outside a Buffalo nightclub. Twelve months later, he was atop the makeshift stage at the Superdome as the MVP of the Sugar Bowl, a Heisman contender and the unquestioned leader of one of the SEC’s best teams.
A year ago, the question was whether or not Kelly would be the Rebels’ starter. With the 2016 season opener less than a month away, there is no question that this is Kelly’s team.
“I’m taking the older role now, trying to be as much of a leader on and off the field and trying to help those young guys groom into being a leader and being a vet.”
More than seven months after demolishing Oklahoma State in New Orleans, all of the past is the past, the good and the bad. Kelly’s past troubles, including his dismissal from Clemson, seem way past. He is receiving early Heisman hype and with September games against Florida State, Alabama and Georgia, has a chance to take control of the race.
He has openly set the future goals for Ole Miss, spurting out at SEC Media Days that 15-0 was the goal, including an SEC and national championship.
“He’s hungry. He’s determined,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said following Monday’s second practice. “Today, I thought he was very, very sharp, looked like he did at the end of the season last year.”
What Kelly did last year was break or tie 14 Ole Miss single-season records. He was the first Rebel to win Sugar Bowl MVP since Archie Manning did it in 1970. His 4,542 total yards and 4,042 passing yards are both third-most in a season in SEC history, while his 41 total touchdowns are tied for seventh all-time in league records.
Kelly completed at least 60 percent of his passes in 10 of Ole Miss’ 13 games, 63.4 percent or higher in eight of the last nine.
Ole Miss was first in the SEC with 334.7 passing yards per game. Kelly loses SEC receiving leader Laquon Treadwell to the NFL, as well as second-leading receiver Cody Core in the sixth round. But Quincy Adeboyejo and Damore’ea Stringfellow return, and redshirt freshman Van Jefferson in the slot was named the spring’s most improved player. They have potential to be the top trio in the SEC.
“I think a lot of people will have the option to get the ball and make a lot of plays,” Kelly said. “There’s weapons all over the field. It’s up to me to get them the ball, and them to make the plays. I’m excited about the opportunity and the weapons around me.”
Tight end Evan Engram could see an expanded role and is one of the best tight ends in the country. Newcomers A.J. Brown and DK Metcalf, the top two high school receivers out of the state of Mississippi, are already earning practice praise from Freeze.
There is competition behind Kelly, namely from five-star freshman Shea Patterson. Freeze said Patterson and Jason Pellerin will travel with the team and be ready to play. Outside an injury, Kelly would have to work harder to lose the job than to keep it.
“You’re competing every day. You’re not thinking that it’s your job. Obviously you’re taking the first-team reps, but every day you’re fighting every single rep to be the best. That’s how you get better, have a competition mindset every day. I want to win every drill. So does all the other quarterbacks. So does everybody else on the team.”
Kelly rushed for 500 yards last season. His offensive line is under scrutiny entering the season, the big question replacing first-rounder Laremy Tunsil, who allowed only two sacks in three years.
Kelly is taking his protection in his own hands.
“A lot of those guys have a lot of potential. With LT being out (six games) last year, a lot of those guys got some good game-time reps. I know those guys are getting ready to go. They make it all run. It’s up to me really to call the protections to get those guys right. I take it upon my hands for that to be right, and I know they want to help me out to make me right if I get it wrong.”