Holding the line: Alabama center Ryan Kelly opens up about losing, ignoring critics and the Army-Navy Game
A four-year starter for one of the best teams in college football, Ryan Kelly has seen it all during his time at Alabama, from winning a national title to Iron Bowl heartbreak after the Kick Six. With the Crimson Tide on the brink of yet another SEC title—Alabama plays Florida in the conference championship game on Saturday in Atlanta—Kelly caught up with Campus Rush.
Lindsay Schnell: After you guys lost to Ole Miss 43–37 on Sept. 19 there was lots of talk along the lines of, "The dynasty is dying!" But here we are and you are primed for another run at a national title. Other top programs can crumble after losing games they aren't supposed to. Why does Alabama always rebound?
Ryan Kelly: You look at some of the great years we've had here, and we didn't always have undefeated teams—we just had resilient teams. Week in and week out, [we] came back. When we lost to Ole Miss [this season], coach Saban said, "People are ready to bury you six feet under. They say that it's all over and you're not gonna have a good year. But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what other people say about your team. It's all about the guys who are in the room." For us, we knew that with one loss we'd have to play a heck of a lot better. We didn't play a good game against Ole Miss. We didn't go out and show even half of what we had. I think after that game everybody made a decision that we weren't going to lose again, [and that we were going to] keep getting better week in and week out. Games aren't won when you step on the field Saturday, it's all about your preparation that week. … At this point, we control our destiny, and I think a lot of guys are up to that challenge.
LS: Coaches always say, "We don't listen to outsiders!" But the reality is players are on social media, watch TV and can't totally tune things out. Does it annoy you when you hear stuff like, "The dynasty is dying," or, "It's never going to be what it once was?"
RK: I think with today's technology, there are always people who are going to try to break you down as a team or as a person or as a program. But I think that's where the leadership in the locker room takes over. There's always going to be critics, and people who blow things up and make them seem a lot better or a lot worse than they really are. I think coach Saban has done a great job of really emphasizing the fact that it's not about outside perceptions of who we are as a team, it's about each individual taking a step back and looking at, "How can I make this team better?" It's not about living in other people's perceptions, but about our reality. After that Ole Miss loss, we had to take a step back and find out who we wanted to be. I think we started playing with a chip on our shoulder after that.
LS: Besides the SEC title game, which conference championship are you most interested in this weekend?
RK: I'm honestly only interested in what we've got. Outside of football, I don't really watch a whole lot of football because I live it every single day. It's my job. It's what I love, but at the same time it's good to get outside of here and use your mind for something else.
LS: If you don't watch football, what do you watch? What's in your Netflix queue?
RK: I was watching Sons of Anarchy for a while, finished that. Watched Bloodline. And now I watch pretty much everything on National Geographic or the Discovery Channel.
LS: Nick Saban is always so serious. Is there anyone on the team who can consistently make him laugh? Or does he not laugh?
RK: You know, he does [laugh], but it just depends. You've gotta catch him at the right time. I think Derrick [Henry] can do it. I know AJ McCarron used to be able to. But you've gotta catch him at the right moment, or you're going to look kind of stupid.
LS: Have you ever seen Saban dance in the locker room?
RK: No. … It's been a really fun year, lots of big wins, but no dancing so far. I'll let you know this weekend, or in the future, if he starts dancing.
LS: I think that would go viral very quickly.
RK: No doubt.
LS: What is offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin like behind closed doors?
RK: Hmm. I don't know if I can talk a whole lot about it. Coach Kiffin does a great job. He's a little different than coach Saban. It's sort of an opposites attract thing. Kind of a laid back guy but very intense on the field. Really plays to our [offense's strengths]. But the coaches and players don't hang out a whole lot, so …
LS: You've protected some terrific QBs, from McCarron to Blake Sims to Jake Coker. Who is your favorite?
RK: Oh man, you're gonna make me pick? They're all different. I came in as a young guy with AJ and I was a little more intimidated. He'd had [center] Barrett [Jones], so I didn't want to let him down. Blake came in at the same time as coach Kiffin. Coker is more of a country boy. It's been a roller coaster with those three guys, they're all different but they're all great.
LS: See, I thought you would respond by saying, "Whichever one I'm protecting today."
RK: [Laughs.] Whichever one gets rid of the ball fastest.
LS: You're from Ohio. Were you surprised by the passion for football in the South?
RK: I was surprised. Football is obviously huge in Ohio, but I think because there's no professional team here [in Alabama], that's why it's so huge. Every Iron Bowl you see it, any SEC game, sold-out crowds. You hear, "Roll Tide!" wherever you go.
LS: How would you describe SEC passion to someone from another country?
RK: Well, I hear the soccer leagues are huge over in Europe. You see the riots on TV. … I wouldn't say it's on that level, but the fan energy and the support is there. I don't know how to describe it if you haven't experienced it. … Maybe some people think it's over the top, but that's the way we are.
LS: Who is your celebrity crush?
RK: Jennifer Aniston.
LS: You know, I'm surprised at the number of college guys who say that. She's 46.
RK: That's why! Every movie she's in, you just fall more in love with her.
LS: Two-way players are pretty trendy in college football right now. Any other position you would excel at?
RK: I'd probably be an unreal quarterback, just based off pure arm strength. Me and Coker go out and throw every now and then and I throw a pretty nice spiral.
LS: Your brother, Mike, is a junior linebacker at Navy. I hear you're going go watch your first Army-Navy game on Dec. 12?
RK: Wait, how do you know that? Are you stalking me?
LS: Am I stalking you? No offense, I don't have that kind of time. Your sports information director told me.
RK: O.K., just checking. I'm going next weekend. … You know, when I was getting recruited, [Mike] used to come to all the places with me. I don't get to go watch him play very often, but my parents said that the Army-Navy game is incredible. So, it's either go to [my] graduation or to the Army-Navy game. I got my undergraduate [degree in 2014] and I walked for that, so it's either walk for my master's or go to Army-Navy. I'm choosing the Army-Navy game.
LS: What advice do you give your brother before a big rivalry game?
RK: We always exchange texts before any game we play. We played in high school together, [and we always say that it's] all about, whatever reps you get, however many plays you play, just make [them] count, because you never know who's watching. Everyone plays for different reasons, but service academies, watching them play, it's just incredible.