Supremely talented, but erratic on the field. A checkered past off of it. The 2017 draft’s top senior QB prospect has six months to convince NFL teams that he can be trusted, and Uncle Jim—the Hall of Fame passer—is ready to help
OXFORD, Miss. — Chad Kelly grips the podium as he stares down two dozen journalists. The Ole Miss quarterback is about to undergo an exercise that will become very familiar over the next six months: He is going to explain his actions to a room full of strangers.
Today, it’s the media. Soon, it will be NFL teams trying to get a better read on one of the 2017 draft’s most polarizing prospects. Everything he does on the field is ripe for scrutiny; he is at times electrifying and at times infuriating. Everything he does off the field is fodder for the 24/7 college football news cycle.
On this Monday in early October, Kelly is doing damage control. Three days earlier, during the Rebels’ bye week, he had attended younger brother Casey’s high school game in Buffalo. Casey, a quarterback at St. Joseph’s Collegiate (also Chad’s alma mater), took a late hit out of bounds. Players traded shoves. Chad bolted from the stands and ran onto the field. The scuffle swelled. The game was suspended. The headlines all weekend: “Chad Kelly involved in high school football brawl.”
Now he will speak publicly about it for the first time since. It’s nearly 75 degrees outside, but Kelly wears black suede boots (they are Yeezy’s), grey jeans with ripped detailing at the knees (he designed them himself) and a red Ole Miss polo.
“Well, first, that’s a bad decision on my part that I made,” he says. “If I could have done it differently, I would have. I obviously wouldn’t have run out on the field, of course. I regret doing it. But at the same time, I’m sure any of us, if we saw a family member out there who needed help, we would have come to the rescue too. But looking forward to the next game, we have to keep working hard and make the right decisions.”
Kelly speaks for another five minutes. By the time he exits, headlines have moved on to his apology.
More than thirty years ago, in a drastically different college football landscape, Jim Kelly was a big-armed, wild-at-heart draft prospect from the University of Miami. Now, he is a Hall of Fame quarterback and Buffalo Bills legend. He’s also Chad Kelly’s uncle.
“Sometimes I look at what he has to deal with and it’s crazy,” says Jim Kelly. “Apologize for a brawl? He wasn't involved in no freakin’ brawl! Nobody’s talking about what they did to his little brother, who was down on the ground with the other guys kicking him, hitting him, ripping his helmet off. Chad just ran down there to help. The thing about the Kelly’s is we stick together. If that was one of my younger brothers, damn straight I’d do the same thing.
“But if you’re Chad, you have to understand from the outside, a little thing can turn into a big thing because of your past. From here on, every little thing he does is going to blow up.”
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Kelly is the country’s most talented senior quarterback. Davis Webb, Jared Goff’s successor at Cal, and Central Michigan’s Cooper Rush generate some buzz, but at this point it’s hard to imagine any other senior meriting a pick in the draft’s first two days. Kelly is ruggedly built (6-foot-2, 224 pounds) with a big arm. He’s athletic and his ability to scramble commands respect, yet he’s comfortable in the pocket—sometimes too comfortable. He can hang in unnecessarily and take big hits. For instance, in the third game of the year, Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster rammed into Kelly so hard that Foster sustained a black eye. Kelly earned a tick on the toughness checklist for staying on the field for the next play.
When Kelly takes shots downfield, the throws can be stunning: Check out that Alabama game, when Kelly found the safety cheating and fired a perfectly placed throw down the sideline, connecting with wide receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow for a 32-yard gain. But scouts lament that Kelly too often tries to manufacture magic. It’s a paradox the quarterback is keenly aware of: “I love being a gunslinger, and getting into gunslinger mode; you don’t get that from dinking and dunking all the time,” he says. “Although I know I need to tone down that mindset some. A good quarterback just needs to get his team down the field.”
Says an NFL evaluator: “No doubt he has an NFL arm, and some of his habits can be fixed.”
The bigger concerns rise when teams look off the field.
“I do think there are legitimate concerns off the field. If you’re going to take him, especially if you’re going to take him high, you’re really going to need to ask: Does this guy get it?”
It’s not necessarily a problem that Kelly ran onto the field at the high school game, several NFL sources said. But it’s disconcerting that he’s in the news again. It wasn’t a total write-off when he was dismissed from Clemson for “conduct detrimental to the team” in April 2014, or even when he was arrested eight months later after being accused of punching a bouncer at a bar a friend had been thrown out of, threatening to open gun fire in the bar, and getting into an altercation with police upon his arrest (he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was sentenced to a conditional discharge that included community service).
It’s the full body of off-the-field problems raises the proverbial red flag. Can you trust Chad Kelly? And yet, those who have worked with him since would rather answer a different question: Has Chad Kelly turned a corner?
After leaving Clemson, Kelly toiled in Scooba, Mississippi (population: 732) at Eastern Mississippi Community College, fittingly home of the Netflix show, Last Chance U. In his first year at Ole Miss, in 2015, Kelly broke or tied 14 school records including single-season passing yards (4,042), passing TDs (31) and completion percentage (65.1).
When NFL scouts come to Oxford, Ole Miss coaches emphasize that the team keeps a “distraction” list for players who are late to class or miss assignments; Kelly has never been on the list. Coaches tell the story of the aftermath of last year’s Sugar Bowl win, when they returned to campus after a recruiting visit to find Kelly in the film room scouting 2016 opponents.
“If [an NFL team] asks about Chad this is exactly what I’ll tell them,” says quarterbacks coach Dan Werner. “Since he’s been here, he’s done everything I’ve asked him. He’s gotten basically all A’s and B’s. He’s played great for us and he loves the game of football.”
* * *
Growing up in Buffalo, Chad was often known first and foremost as “Jim Kelly’s nephew.” Jim’s only son, Hunter, died of a rare nervous system disease at age 8. Chad is Jim’s godson.
“I taught him how to hold a football, the three-step, the five-step, high release all those things that dads or uncles do,” Jim says. Chad was the star of Jim’s football camp, and his legend grew in Western New York. He is the only winner of four national Punt, Pass and Kick competitions. “There was pressure for me for as long as I can remember,” Chad says. “Once in an interview I said it’s hard to be Jim Kelly’s nephew and people killed me for that. It became a huge thing. I learned not to say that anymore.”
While Jim was starring for the Bills, Chad’s father, Kevin, the youngest of Jim’s five brothers, made his career at Wegman’s grocery store. Kevin was relocated to different chain when Chad was in high school, and Chad enrolled at Red Lion High School in Pennsylvania. He was suspended as a freshman, then kicked off the team his sophomore year. He moved back to Western New York to live with his maternal grandparents, who helped pay for private school. “When my parents didn’t have any money and I was living with my grandparents I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life,” Chad says. “But I felt like I had a right arm that was really special and a mind to read defenses at such a young age. That’s why I love this game. For three or four hours, I can not think about anything else but football.”
At Clemson, he never had a chance to find that solitude on the field, and he didn’t know how to handle it. He redshirted in 2012, then tore his ACL in next year’s spring game. He appeared in five games as the No. 3 quarterback in 2013 and was in a three-way competition for the job in the spring game in 2014 before he was dismissed. “I thought I was going to be able to play after redshirting and this and that, and I was like, man, should I just play lacrosse now?” Kelly says. “Lacrosse was one of my first loves. I told the coach [Dabo Swinney], ‘If I’m not the starting quarterback, I’d love to go play lacrosse.’ There’s Major League Lacrosse, and I might not make a lot of money if I do that, but I could do other things on top of that. And then I got kicked off the team.”
Looking back, Kelly sees the immaturity (and the absurdity) of that stance. “I wasn’t thinking about my future,” he says.
When he drove Casey home on Friday night after the high school scuffle, Kelly says he told his brother: “You have a lot of people gunning for you, you have a lot of people who want to be in your spot just as bad as they wanted to be in my spot. That’s just part of the game. We need to be smart about it.”
* * *
When Kelly arrived at Ole Miss there were two other quarterbacks who had each been in the system for two years. “Chad had a really strong arm and you could tell he knew the game of football,” Werner says. “I was worried that because we run a no huddle; not only does he need to know plays but how to call them at the line.” Over that summer, Kelly worked with receivers Laquon Treadwell and Stringfellow to get in tune with timing. By the end of fall camp in 2015, the job was Kelly’s. “We were all a bit surprised how fast he learned it,” Werner says. “He’s a workaholic.”
When Jim Kelly worked with his nephew for a few days last summer, Chad insisted on throwing and throwing while Jim insisted his nephew ice up his arm.
“He has a work ethic I never had,” Jim says. “He just wants to play so bad.
“I’m also just amazed by his arm strength, being able to throw from the college hash, throw a deep comeback on the opposite side. I’m a big advocate of footwork and it’s going to be a change when he’s out of the gun formation and has to go under center. I also don’t like when he gets flat-footed in the pocket. But after the season Uncle Jim is going to become Coach Jim and we’re going to work all of those things.”
Though Ole Miss is stumbling, 3-4 and unranked for the first time this season, Kelly’s decision making seems to be improving. “There’s still two or three decisions every game I wish I had back,” he says. “They might not result in turnovers, but an errant throw or a throw to close coverage where I probably should have worked to my next read.”
Says Werner: “He’s really been working on it since the beginning of last year, and I think he’s getting a lot better. But the thing most people don’t understand is, the deep throws down field, that’s part of our offensive philosophy. People think that taking a shot is a gamble, but if the safeties are low and you’re making them at the right time, they’re not.”
And Kelly has found stability in Oxford. He’s become close friends with his roommate, Stringfellow, the receiver with a checkered past of his own. (He transferred to Ole Miss after being suspended from Washington’s program due to his involvement in two assaults during the aftermath of the Seattle Seahawks’ Super Bowl XLVIII victory. He pleaded guilty to one count of third-degree malicious mischief and was sentenced to work-crew duty and community service.) “We get along really well,” Kelly says. “We’ve both been in trouble before and we both know that we got a second chance, but we might not get a third.”
And Kelly has a back-up quarterback who can relate to him.
“Chad always did have the pressure of being Jim Kelly’s nephew, and maybe I could understand that more than most because of who my dad is,” says senior Drew Davis, son of former Miami, North Carolina and Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis. “But Chad always tried to be his own person, he never wanted that title of ‘Jim Kelly’s nephew.’
“You could tell when he got to Ole Miss that he knew what he wanted to do, and that he had to do everything he was supposed to in order to get back on that track. When NFL scouts come down here I really think they’re going to see that Chad isn’t the guy they saw in the news from years ago. He’s a different person since he’s been down here, he’s focused.”
Jim Kelly wants nothing more than for the past to stay there. “What pisses me off as an uncle: Every single time you talk about Chad, you start off with, ‘Well he was kicked off Clemson.’ That was [two and a half] years ago.”
* * *
In three months, the scrutiny will intensify for Kelly. It’s a few minutes after that October press conference, when he had to explain his actions at his brother’s high school game. We’re sitting in a quiet room at the Ole Miss facility. I ask him to pretend it’s a mock interview, that I’m a general manager and I want to know why my organization should draft him.
Kelly looks me in the eye: “I have it all. I might not have the same mojo as your basic quarterback, but I feel like I bring a different type of swag to the team and the players around me. I have friends all across that field. When I go out there on the field, I play with a different attitude that you usually don’t see in a quarterback. I play with a swag they’ve never seen before.”
And you know what the GM is going to ask next…
“Off the field,” Kelly says, not missing a beat. “Can we trust you?”
“I think you can,” he says. “The decisions I made that resulted in bad things happening, I was thinking of other people and just trying to help other people before I thought of myself. Yeah, I took it upon myself to make decisions that, at the time, I thought were good ideas, but at the end of the day they only hurt me. Thinking of other people at that time, that’s what got me in trouble. Now with social media and the media the way it is today, it’s a totally different game than it was 30 years ago when my uncle played. You just gotta grow up.”
• IN SEARCH OF ‘THE NEXT CARSON WENTZ’: Combing the FCS ranks for the next top QB prospect, the search came across Brady Gustafson, a 6'7" passer from Montana who beat Wentz in his first career start.
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PICK MY GUY
A current NFL player explains why his former collegiate teammate is destined for success as a pro. Here’s Lions center Graham Glasgow hyping his former Michigan teammate (and brother) Ryan Glasgow.
He’s a defensive end, so I went against him in practice every single day. It’s hard to go against a guy like that because he’s very technically sound. I’m not just saying that because he’s my brother. He made me better every day. His best attributes are how he sheds blockers and can take double teams. He’s very stout and has great hands. He’s a big effort guy, he’s a guy you know won’t give up on a play ever. I really enjoy watching him play this year; it sucks I’m not there to watch him in person but he’s doing a great job. It’s also weird that we’re not playing together. Now that I’m in the NFL, I can tell he has the skill to play at this level. And I can’t wait to face him again, though it will probably be in a game that matters, not just practice.
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THE ANONYMOUS SCOUT
A few NFL evaluators introduce you to the players they’re keeping an eye on…
Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State: He’s a stud. Right now he has a first-round grade. Has a thick lower half. Physical at point of attack, great instincts. Natural in coverage but also stout run-stopper.
Alex Anzalone, LB, Florida: Great athlete, finally healthy this year. Playing lights out with his hair on fire. Really covers sideline to sideline. Best linebacker on the team, in my opinion.
Jordan Sterns, S, Oklahoma State: A well put together athlete. Has a little bit of stiffness but athletic enough to play center field. Also not afraid to come into the box and hit against the run game.
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FACTOID OF THE WEEK
It has been more than a year since Ohio State last won a game against Penn State.
Shocking, I know. But that’s what happens when the Nittany Lions (representing a school that has produced many fine journalists, such as Emily Kaplan and Jenny Vrentas of The MMQB) climbs back from a 21-7 fourth-quarter hole, blocks a field goal, and records its first win over a top-five team since 1999. Did I mention Penn State was unranked and still weathering effects from sanctions and scholarship reductions?
Anyway, if anyone is concerned, drop a line to check in on Buckeye Albert Breer, who had a tough weekend. In case you missed it, here was his Twitter avatar from Monday, courtesy of losing a friendly wager with me. Lesson learned, Bert. Don’t bet against Penn State—even if I give you a seven-point handicap.
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WHAT I’M WATCHING
Saturday unless noted, all times Eastern…
No. 4 Washington at No. 17 Utah (3:30 p.m.): Too early to start looking forward to the 2018 draft? The class features Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and UCLA’s Josh Rosen leading the pack, and Washington’s Jake Browning is right behind them. The sophomore has been stellar (26 touchdowns, two interceptions) for the undefeated Huskies, who are also benefitting from an embarrassment of NFL-ready riches in the secondary (Budda Baker, Sidney Jones and Kevin King are names you should know). The Huskies lead the country with a plus-14 turnover margin, and a win over plucky Utah makes a statement before the playoff committee releases its first rankings on Nov. 1.
No. 15 Auburn at Ole Miss (7:15 p.m.): Want to check out Chad Kelly for yourself? The Rebels fell out of the rankings for the first time this season after a 38-21 loss to LSU last Saturday. Ole Miss is slogging, and not just because they let Leonard Fournette run all over them. Keep an eye on how Kelly plays in the second half; a struggling second-half offense has been a big issue. Meanwhile, remember when Auburn fans set up a GoFundMe to raise the $9 million to buy out Gus Malzahn’s contract? Hard to believe that was only a month ago. The Tigers have been playing good football and they’re favorites on the road. The Tigers’ rushing attack is no joke; in piling up 543 yards on the ground in last Saturday’s win against Arkansas, they averaged almost 10 yards per carry.
No. 3 Clemson at No. 12 Florida State (8 p.m.): Love this note from my former Penn State classmate Jared Shanker, now of ESPN: Of the seven undefeated teams playing Saturday, all of them are on the road and five of them are facing an opponent that beat them in 2015. That doesn’t include 7-0 Clemson, though. Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, who has ridiculous runaway speed, has emerged as No. 2 in the draft running back ranks, behind Fournette. The Seminoles have lost two ACC games and are essentially out of the conference title conversation, though they could spoil it for Clemson. The Tigers are still poised for the college playoff, but show major deficiencies (defense unable to secure leads, Deshaun Watson simply not as dominant as he was in 2015).
• EVERYTHING LEONARD FOURNETTE DOES… EXCEPT RUN: You already know that Fournette is outstanding as a runner. But what else do scouts want to see from the star tailback? I asked, and then I spent a Saturday watching Fournette do everything else but run.
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GENIUS COACHING DECISION OF THE WEEK
Last week we delved into Mike Leach's Air Raid offense, which generates incredible production for quarterbacks. Turns out, Leach’s innovation doesn’t stop there. The Washington State coach isn’t so high on team captains. “What is this captain stuff? Everybody around here can be their own captain. I’ve got assistant coaches to be their captain. The coach tells them what to do anyway,” he said in a press conference. Instead, Leach believes a captain’s biggest job is winning the coin toss. And thus, I bring you perhaps the greatest rationale for selecting a captain of all time.
In Leach’s words: “So then I thought, all the guy really does is the coin toss. And then I decided one of the most screwed up things about this country is in order to do anything, to cross the street, we have a committee. So I figured screw the committee, we really only need one guy. And he’s gotta be smart enough to either call ‘heads’ or ‘tails.’ That’s it. So then I thought, ‘Should I get the biggest guy on the team or the littlest guy on the team?’ And then I thought, ‘Jamal Morrow was on The Price Is Right and was fairly lucky and went to the final round and almost won the sucker.’ He was closest to the price but he was over by like three dollars. The other person’s under by like 60 dollars, but since he’s over he loses. So I figured Jamal Morrow’s a lucky guy, plus he’s got pretty good energy to him, so why not Jamal Morrow? And then Jamal Morrow goes out and did have an amazing knack for winning the toss. He wins it almost all the time. I’m serious about this. I don’t know what his record is, but it’s something incredible. But I don’t even really care about that because one way or the other you get the ball one half or the other, except one time when I played Nebraska. Morrow had a funny tendency to win, and then I’m thinking, ‘I don’t want to sit here and think of a new guy to do it.’ So Jamal Morrow has gone out there for the coin toss for about two-and-a-half years and quite honestly done a tremendous job in my opinion. And then we got on a roll and I liked it even better.”
There you have it. High school recruits, do you want to be a college team captain one day? Go ask your parents to sign you up for a game show.
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Former NFL GM and current Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage highlights senior match-ups he’ll be keeping an eye on this week.
As the color analyst for the Crimson Tide Radio Network, I always utilize our bye week as an opportunity go see a number of "small college" prospects for the Reese’s Senior Bowl. This year, my trip will take me to and through the state of Pennsylvania with a few hours spent in eastern Ohio.
On Wednesday, I will be meeting Villanova DE Tanoh Kpassagnon at noon before driving to Kutztown University for a 2:15 practice. Kpassagnon (6' 7", 290 pounds) has 30 total tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks through eight games. After redshirting in 2012, the Golden Bears’ Jordan Morgan (6' 4", 320 pounds) has started four consecutive seasons at left tackle, but likely projects to guard for the NFL.
Later, I will drive to Bucknell University for a 5:30 practice to see offensive lineman Julie’n Davenport, another four-year starter who is a three-time All-Patriot League selection. He is an athletic big man (6' 7", 315 pounds) with long arms.
On Thursday Youngstown State is on the docket. I will see two defensive ends for the Penguins. Derek Rivers (6' 5", 250 pounds) has 19 total tackles, 8 sacks and 11 QB hurries through seven games this season. His counterpart, Avery Moss, transferred from Nebraska and sat out the 2014 season. After being a part-time player last year, he has accumulated 31 total tackles, 6 sacks and 5 QB hurries in a full-time role as a senior.
It will be back to the "big schools" on Thursday night when my journey ends at Heinz Field, where Pittsburgh will host Virginia Tech in a pivotal ACC Coastal matchup.
• FROM WESTERN MICHIGAN TO ROUND 1: He nearly missed out on college altogeher, but now record-setting wideout Corey Davis could join Randy Moss as the only MAC receivers ever taken in the NFL draft’s first round.
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Oxford, Mississippi might be the quintessential Southern college town, and Ajax is its token greasy diner. First, downtown Oxford: I think the only word that you can use to describe it is “adorable.” The Square is rows of restaurants, boutiques and cafes encircling the county courthouse, which is a regal white building with a very well-manicured lawn. Square Books might make my top 10 for best independent bookstores. I really appreciated their cafe on the second-floor balcony. But Ajax diner is the place to eat. I was stuck on the menu until the man next to me at the counter insisted I get a “Big Easy.” Local legend has it that Eli Manning invented that sandwich. Or maybe he just ordered it every time he came. Or maybe he came up with the name for it. I heard at least three variations of the story in my hour and a half there. Either way, I figured it was an inevitable choice. The sandwich: country-fried steak topped with mashed potatoes, gravy and butter beans. There was definitely a layer of butter on the bun, and maybe even some butter swirled in to the potato and bean concoctions. It was slimy, messy, rich, and pretty delicious. This is coming from someone who usually doesn’t like gravy and might not have ever had country-fried steak or butter beans in her life. It was 2 p.m. and I was starving, but I could barely finish half. I like to think the only way Eli would eat that would be as a post-game meal. It would definitely be comforting, win or loss, and he probably wouldn’t have had to jump right in his car and drive an hour and a half to the Memphis airport.
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