Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel, Dak Prescott ... Chad Kelly?
We thought he’d be important. But nobody could have foreseen the level of success that Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly enjoyed in 2015.
The JUCO transfer, who played one season at Clemson prior to that, was an instant sensation for the Rebels. He broke all kinds of school records in his first season in Oxford. Kelly led the SEC in passing with 4,042 yards, third-most in SEC history, and broke Bo Wallace’s school-record for completions (298) in a season. His 31 touchdown passes led the SEC and tied Eli Manning for the school’s single-season record.
Kelly was in a class by himself as the top quarterback in the SEC. He also led the conference in average passing yards per game (310.9), total offense per game (349.4) and points responsible for (246). In 2016, Kelly will have an opportunity as a senior to become the first quarterback in SEC history to throw for 4,000 yards twice in a career.
It was truly one of the greatest seasons ever by a quarterback at Ole Miss. Kelly did something no other Rebels signal-caller had ever done. He beat Alabama, Auburn and LSU all in the same season.
He led the Rebels to their first 10-win season since 2003, which included a Sugar Bowl victory. Kelly was the MVP of that 48-20 victory over Oklahoma State. He became the Rebels’ first Sugar Bowl MVP since Archie Manning, helping the offense to school records for most points and yards (554) in a bowl game. His four touchdown passes set the school-mark for a bowl game and tied the Sugar Bowl record.
Overshadowed by his passing arm, Kelly proved to be a key factor on the ground as well. He was second on the team in rushing last season with 500 yards and a team-high 10 rushing touchdowns in 107 carries.
The question is, can he do it again in 2016? Can he put his name alongside the recent great quarterbacks to come through the SEC? Will he have another wildly successful season and put his name next to Heisman Trophy winners Tim Tebow, Can Newton and Johnny Manziel?
Without Laquon Treadwell, the SEC’s leading receiver last season with 1,153 yards, Cody Core, the team’s second-leading receiver, and a group of departed offensive linemen it would take a Herculean-type effort.
But he still gets a stable of talented receivers to throw to. Damore’ea Stringfellow, Quincy Adeboyejo and Evan Engram all have big-play abilities. The three combined for 116 pass receptions, 1,571 yards and 14 touchdowns. A group of experienced running backs will help as well, but it’s the pass protection that remains the biggest question mark.
A healthy line infused with some good, young talent — including five-star true freshman Gregory Little, a fall arrival and the potential starting left tackle — could be enough to keep Kelly upright. If so, watch out. With two years of experience in the system, Kelly could be dealing out even more record numbers in 2016.
Alabama’s Derek Henry wrestled the Heisman Trophy away from LSU’s frontrunner Leonard Fournette. In 2016, Fournette will once again have stiff competition for the prize, this time from an Ole Miss veteran signal-caller.
It would be a first, if it should happen. The Rebels have never had a Heisman Trophy winner. Eli Manning (2003), his father Archie Manning (1970), and Jake Gibbs (1960) all finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting. It’s the closest an Ole Miss player has come to hoisting the trophy.
If Kelly can turn out another season like 2015 and help Ole Miss to a West Division title, his name will belong on the pantheon of recent, great SEC quarterbacks. That’s a big “if.” But it’s not every year that a quarterback possesses the talent and the pedigree to even challenge for a spot on that kind of list.
Kelly should be an entertaining watch in 2016.