Sooners can't help but notice Jordan Kelley now

OU defensive tackle is finally making plays after long, slow return from injury
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Jordan Kelley chases TCU's Max Duggan

Jordan Kelley chases TCU's Max Duggan

Jordan Kelley saw it all happening right in front of him, and he wasn’t sure he could do anything about it. But he did.

Last Saturday in Fort Worth, Kelley made a defensive stop in the second quarter that helped set the tone for the rest of the afternoon in Oklahoma’s 33-14 victory over TCU. 

TCU had just scored its first touchdown and seemed ready to cut further into what had been a 17-0 Sooner lead. 

On the Horned Frogs’ second possession of the quarter, Max Duggan touched a quick pass to wideout Taye Barber on a jet sweep, and Barber lateraled on a reverse to Mikel Barkley.

For the most part, Kelley was where he was supposed to be. But he quickly realized he had to be somewhere else.

“I was supposed to loop out and I came to a double team, I’m pretty sure,” Kelley recalled this week, “and I was like, ‘Man, I’m gonna get cussed out if I don’t get upfield.’ So I just found another way to get up field, and I just saw him and I was like, ‘I gotta make the play,’ you know? I just made it.”

Kelley slammed Barkley for a 7-yard loss and the Sooners eventually forced yet another TCU punt. It was arguably his most impactful play since he’s been in a Sooner uniform, but it was also just another step in his return from a 2019 ACL injury.

Kelley, from the powerhouse Union High School program in Tulsa, had injured his knee in the spring of 2019. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, hired just a few months before, said Kelley didn’t stand out — how could he? — as he worked his way back to the field late last season. Kelley’s only game was the College Football Playoff loss to LSU, so Grinch didn’t have much to work with as Kelley slowly regained his health, his strength and his confidence.

“Some guys take to that very well, some guys don’t,” Grinch said. “I don’t think he attacked it the way that he needed to. I think he fell into the injury mode and came back with us and was kind of content to maybe get some snaps in practice and some of those things. I don’t think he attacked the 2019 season coming off the injury as well as he could have. Again, that’s not easy to do. It’s his knee, not mine. As critical as I am, that’s just fact. I thought he could do a better job of it.”

Kelley, a third-year sophomore, might be further on if he’d had spring practice in 2020. But that never happened, so a successful return was further deterred.

Eventually, though, Grinch couldn’t help but notice the 6-foot-3, 292-pound Kelley.

“ ‘Who is this Jordan Kelley guy?’ ” Grinch asked himself.

“You really didn’t get a chance to see him workout because he’s always in the injured group and all those things. Then he comes back and he’s on the practice field but there’s no flash and there’s nothing to suggest that he’s going to become some elite player at Oklahoma. And that’s just the reality of it. You can only go on based on what you see.

“And so what you saw this offseason – some of which was afar – but there was just a recommitment on his part to be a high-level football player. You saw it in workouts. You saw it early on in fall camp. All of a sudden, going into the defensive staff room, talking about, ‘I’m a fan of Jordan Kelley. I don’t know who this guy is or where he came from, but I’m turning into a fan.’ “

Kelley’s teammates have been a fan for a while now.

“Jordan was a guy who came in my class,” said rush linebacker Nik Bonitto. “And from the beginning, you could always tell that was a kid (who), whenever he did get his chance, you know he was going to show out. I’m just happy for Jordan.”

“Man, it feels really good,” said cornerback Tre Brown, Kelley’s high school teammate at Union. “… I told him the other day, ‘I’m so excited to see you out there, starting to play and show what you can actually do. You’re looking really good out there. You're starting to show everybody,’ and it’s an amazing feeling for me to watch him do what he’s been doing all since he was in high school.”

Kelley said during the Coronavirus shutdown, he was working out with some other teammates from Tulsa — Patrick Fields, Jon-Michael Terry, Bryan Mead — and they were “instilling that work ethic they had and passing it down to me.” He said he feels like that’s when Grinch finally noticed him.

Kelley said his injury — now 18 months ago — led to some dark times.

“It definitely was tough,” Kelley said. “Having been on the field and then getting hurt, it’s like, ‘Why are you here?’ kind of feeling.”

Kelley credits long, grueling rehab sessions alongside linebacker Caleb Kelly, who also was rehabbing an ACL (his second). He said the Sooners’ medical staff of head athletic trainer Scott Anderson, director of rehabilitation Jim Hillis and athletic trainer Chris Watson “pushed me very day” to “keep the end goal in sight.”

ACL rehab is more a series of smaller goals than one big one. One of those smaller goals took place on Oct. 3 in Ames, IA, minutes before the Sooners played Iowa State.

“I was in my knee brace still and I was just like, ‘Chris, can I just take it off and let loose?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, just go for it.’ I feel like I finally just got over that hump. I feel good.”

The bottom line is that even Kelley noticed himself making more plays. It was a long time coming — and he’s still making progress — but it’s happening.

“I’m not gonna lie. It felt good,” Kelley said. ”But at the same time, I knew that … I had a lot more stuff to do. Went back to film and I was just like, ‘There’s more plays to be made.’ So, it felt good, but now it’s just — I’m more hungry.”

“He’s continuing to progress that way,” Grinch said. “Those impact plays that you are talking about is something that’s going to continue to gain his confidence. He’s someone who has been in the program a couple of years and hasn’t had a major impact on Saturdays yet, you kind of saw that this past week. That’s good for him, that’s good for us.”

“He made a huge play for us on Saturday,” Bonitto said. “I know he’s going to keep making big plays with the more opportunities that he gets. I’m really proud of Jordan and the way he’s playing right now.”

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