The junior college transfer, who arrived a week late because of academic snags, had to follow NCAA rules and couldn't dress in full pads like his teammates. But that didn't stop Kelly -- who was wearing a helmet, shoulder pads and shorts -- from dropping former receiver Carlos Ousley after the junior caught a ball near the goal line.
"It was just a reaction," Kelly said of his first tackle as a Razorback. "Seeing somebody in front of me with the ball, I put my eyes where they needed to be at and made a tackle. (Defensive backs) coach (Bobby) Allen told me not to hit, but once I made the good play, he told me not to do it again."
Two months later, Kelly is being asked to make as many tackles as he can.
The 6-foot, 185-pound free safety, who earned plenty of playing time during Arkansas' 45-30 loss at Florida on Oct. 2, has worked with the first-team defense in place of junior Vickiel Vaughn the past two weeks. Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack hasn't announced a starter for Saturday's game at No. 4 Auburn (6-0, 3-0 in Southeastern Conference), but Arkansas (3-2, 1-1) is giving Kelly a larger role in its struggling secondary.
"It's going to be Randy's opportunity right now to keep out there and play," Allen said. "He's done a good job."
That's what the Hogs were hoping for when they recruited Kelly from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College.
The Manatee (Fla.) High graduate was courted by a few schools after a solid prep career, but had to settle for a junior college when he fell one point short of a qualifying score on the ACT. Kelly moved across the country to Coffeyville where he was homesick and redshirted his first year, but collected 107 stops, 1 interception, 3 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries in 10 games as a sophomore.
Kelly, who signed with the Hogs last winter, had his Arkansas arrival delayed for more than a week because of a math course that had to be completed. Kelly was behind when he finally was cleared to practice and fell even further back after being held out of contact drills to satisfy the NCAA's acclimation rules.
Wommack said his absence also hurt the Hogs because Vaughn wasn't pressed for the starting job during preseason camp.
"I said all along, it hurt us not having him those first eight days," Wommack said. "Not just for not being there, but also with competition with Vickiel. The competition means so much to push each other and all that. He has gotten better."
Kelly, who is undersized for his position, wishes he had 20 more pounds on his frame to wrestle with running backs like Auburn's Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown and bigger receivers. But Wommack said Kelly is working with what he's got and the physical player is a strong tackler who breaks on the ball well.
He had a first-half moment he'd like to forget against Florida, when quarterback Chris Leak faked a screen pass to the flat and found receiver Dallas Baker behind Kelly for a 34-yard touchdown catch. The Hogs talked about screen passes all week and Kelly thought he recognized one during his first few plays in the second quarter.
"I was cheating a little bit," Kelly said. "When he gave me the pump fake I squatted and the man got behind me and beat me for six."
Said Wommack: "That was his first play coming in there. You've got to think. It's not junior college anymore."
But Kelly was elevated to the first-team defense after recording two tackles and a pass breakup while playing mistake-free in the second half at Florida. And he has become more than the player recognized for his dreadlocks (which he has grown for three years) and gold teeth (which he got before arriving at Arkansas in July).
Kelly is Arkansas' last line of defense and believes he'll get plenty of snaps, along with Vaughn, during Saturday's game. Kelly has embraced the responsibility and hopes to "lock down the starting spot" this week.
"I think he's coming," said Arkansas coach Houston Nutt. "He has been physical and is tackling well. He's learning. The first play (against Florida) he felt so bad about. He just had his eyes on that fake screen. No one hates it more than he does.
"But I thought from that play on he responded very well. He made some plays, got us three-and-out and I tell you, he's doing some good things."
Kelly Earning Opportunity
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