The Saban Top 100: No. 23 Ryan Kelly

BamaCentral is ranking the top 100 players of the Nick Saban era at Alabama over the course of the 2020 football season
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23] Ryan Kelly, C

  • Won 2015 Rimington Trophy
  • 2015 All-American
  • 2015 Jacobs Blocking Trophy
  • 2015 All-SEC
  • 18th-overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft
  • As a junior missed just seven assignments in 806 snaps for a 99.1 percent success rate and did not allow a sack
  • As a senior, Kelly missed only eight assignments in 1,012 snaps for a success rate of 99.2 percent. He also committed just one penalty in 1,012 snaps with no holding calls
  • Team captain

Ryan Kelly had heard it before. Being a third-year starter and in his fifth year at Alabama there wasn’t much that could classify as being new anymore.

But when strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran said what he always tells all the seniors on the first day of training camp it got the center thinking.

This was the last time he would be going through the first day of practice with the Crimson Tide, just like he went through the final spring, A-Day and summer.

“I guess being the senior year every day that goes by is the last time you’re going to do something,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how fast the time goes by. My parents always tell me it’s only gonna go by faster. Taking advantage of it, just cherishing every moment I have.”

That even included 2015 SEC media days, when Kelly was one of three players to represent the Crimson Tide, and on Fan Day when alongside linebacker Reggie Ragland and running back Kenyan Drake led his teammates through drills. It’s the kind of honor and responsibility that eventually goes to the team captains at the end of the season.

“Ryan Kelly’s great,” Drake said. “He’s definitely the brick of that offensive line. We definitely need him moving forward in our process of becoming champions again because he is a perfect part in our offensive line and also a senior.”

Actually, with sophomore left tackle Cam Robinson the only other returning starter, Kelly was considered the lone established veteran of the offense. When he took over for Barrett Jones in 2013 he had Arie and Cyrus Kouandjio to his left, with Austin Shepherd and Anthony Steen to his right.

Those other four all spent the summer in NFL training camps.

“It’s cliché here, but it is the process,” said Kelly about his success. “Everyone wants to talk about it, but it’s the real thing. No matter who you bring in we aren’t going to change our standards for who you are. This is the ’Bama Way. This is a special place. It’s not for everybody to come to.

“I think that is one of the biggest things Coach [Nick] Saban has drilled in is that if you come here, you are a part of something bigger than you. Every guy who has had success here has partaken in that. All the success, the way he recruits—you can’t get around [the process], the hard work, the dedication, and he’s taught me to be a good person as well.”

The center position had a strong pedigree during the Saban years as Kelly followed Antoine Caldwell, William Vlachos and Jones, who were named, in order, All-American, second-team All-American and winner of the Rimington Award as the nation’s best center (the other two were both finalists).

Kelly was definitely in that same mix.

“My appreciation for Ryan Kelly is through the roof,” Robinson said. “Everything he does is behind the scenes, but he’s the heart and soul of the offensive line. Everything starts with him. Great player, great competitor, extremely smart. He does an incredible job for us.”

Ask any of the linemen, or even anyone who was on the team, and they’ll tell you that Kelly was the undisputed leader of the offense. Having a center with his experience was a luxury that every team in the nation coveted. In addition to being responsible for the line calls and adjustments he’s the one guy other than the quarterback who had to know absolutely everything — from the entire playbook to what personnel the opposition preferred to have on the field when it blitzed.

That was really the key to having Jones replace Vlachos after winning the Outland Trophy as college football’s best interior lineman at left tackle.

“If you can play center you can play anywhere because you know the whole offense,” Bradley Bozeman said.

Kelly, though, turned out to be the best of them. Not only did he go on to win the Rimington after helping lead Alabama to the 2015 national title, but was a first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft — a rarity for the position. 

“It has been incredible,” Kelly said. “I think the biggest thing that separates Nick Saban at Alabama from other coaches is the detail he goes into every single season. There is never going to be a game we go into where we don’t know what they are going to do, their tendencies.

“Not only on the field, but off the field, he allowed me to get a bachelor’s. I am about to get my master’s, which I never thought of getting when I first signed on. It has been the greatest experience of my life, and he has made me the man I am today. ” 

A version of this story appeared in the book: Sweet 16: Alabama's Historic 2015 Championship Season

The Saban Top 100 will be revealed over the course of the 2020 football season, with the top players unveiled one a day as part of BamaCentral's 25 Days of Christmas celebration.

The series thus far:


No. 24: Landon Collins

No. 25: Cam Robinson

26-30: Terrence Cody, Calvin Ridley, Javier Arenas, Reggie Ragland, Jedrick Wills Jr.

31-35: Dee Milliner, D.J. Fluker, Marlon Humphrey, Rashad Evans, A'Shawn Robinson

36-40: Rashaan Evans, Dre Kirkpatrick, Marcell Dareus, Eddie Jackson, O.J. Howard

41-45: Courtney Upshaw, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Henry Ruggs III, Jarran Reed, Xavier McKinney

46-50: Dalvin Tomlinson, Antoine Caldwell, Kareem Jackson, Cyrus Kouandjio, Trevon Diggs

51-55: Mike Johnson, T.J. Yeldon, Ronnie Harrison, Damien Harris, JK Scott

56-60: Ross Pierschbacher, Eddie Lacy, Bradley Bozeman, Ryan Anderson, Glen Coffee

61-65: Greg McElroy, Josh Jacobs, Anfernee Jennings, James Carpenter, Kenyan Drake

66-70: Terrell Lewis, Blake Sims, Christian Miller, Irv Smith Jr,, Tim Williams

71-75: Mack Wilson, ArDarius Stewart, Deionte Thompson, Raekwon Davis, Jalston Fowler

76-80: Josh Chapman, Cyrus Jones, Kevin Norwood, Isaiah Buggs, Jake Coker

81-85: Bo Scarbrough, Anthony Averett, Leigh Tiffin, Ed Stinson, DeQuan Menzie

86-90: Jesse Williams, Shaun Dion Hamilton, William Vlachos, Da'Shawn Hand, Arie Kouandjio

91-95: Nico Johnson, Wallace Gilberry, DJ Hall, Vinnie Sunseri, Quinton Dial

96-100: Trey DePriest, Damion Square, Christion Jones, John Parker Wilson, Simeon Castille