Kelly is in Thibodaux, La., this weekend to participate in the Manning Passing Academy, hosted by football’s first family, the Mannings, which includes former Rebel quarterbacks Archie and Eli and former Rebel wide receiver Cooper.
Kelly’s past troubles are well-documented. But he said he’s determined to move past them, to rid the perception some have of him. And he’s trying to do that by throwing himself completely into football.
“I’m just trying to change my story,” he said. “My story right now, I just want it to be perfect. I want this year to be perfect, I want to help my team win in any way possible. I just want to make everybody happy and do the right thing. I just want to change my story, and everything will work out.”
Kelly, who signed with Ole Miss out of East Mississippi Community College in February, is locked in a battle with sophomore Ryan Buchanan for the Rebels’ starting quarterback job.
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze gave Buchanan the slightest of leads over Kelly, as well as sophomore Devante Kincade, following spring practices. But Kelly will be given every opportunity to claim the role once fall camp rolls around in August.
That is, if there are no speed bumps along the way.
“Changing my story, changing my story, changing my story,” Kelly said. “I want people to look (at me) and know it’s never too late to change the perception of what people think of you. I know with the way coach Freeze has been speaking to me, and we talk on a daily basis. That’s what he’s been preaching most about is off-the-field stuff. That’s what I want to change because on-the-field stuff will take care of itself.”
A part of the process in Kelly plotting a different course was a sit-down conversation with Archie and Eli in the spring. They met at the The Grill at 1810, the public restaurant and training table adjoined to the Manning Center on campus, which also houses the team’s indoor practice field.
“I just said it was up to him what he wanted to do here, what he wanted to accomplish,” Eli said. “If you come here, enjoy being a college student and have fun or you can come here and be a football player. I think we have a great coaching staff and great players, and if you can come and bust your tail and be committed to being a great quarterback then you have the talent and the ability. It’s just how you deal with it.”
“Eli had a great talk with him,” Archie said. “Chad and I were going to have lunch, and coach Freeze wanted me to sit down and visit with him. I said, ‘Eli, come sit with us.’ Eli laid it on the line for Chad. Eli had a little hiccup there as a freshman at Ole Miss and he talked to Chad about that and what (former Ole Miss head) coach (David) Cutcliffe said to him about his commitment and everything. I think Chad appreciated it, and they talked a lot of football and everything. I’m glad he’s here. This will be good for him.”
Kelly has apparently responded well to the talk. To be expected, of course. When two of the most-accomplished quarterbacks in history speak, one tends to listen.
Eli holds two Super Bowl rings from his career as the quarterback of the New York Giants, as well as franchise records in passing yards, touchdown passes and completed passes. Archie played for three NFL franchises after an historic career with the Rebels. He was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame, and Ole Miss retired his number, 18. To this day the speed limit on campus is 18 miles per hour.
Not to mention both Archie and Eli were Heisman Trophy finalists.
“I’ve gotten to know Chad a little bit, just being around Oxford this summer and spring,” Eli said. “Saw him at practice a few times, went to work out with the team a few times also. I think he’s a good kid. Throws it well. I’ll get to throw it with him and work out with him a little bit today. Obviously they’re trying to figure out their quarterback situation there in Oxford, but they’ll figure it out. I think Chad has a good chance, and whoever is in there they all have my support and hopefully win a lot of games.”
“He’s doing great,” Archie said. “He likes school, likes going to school, he works hard, the coaches tell me he really did a great job in the spring on catching up on the system. We’ll get to see him work a little bit down here, mix in with these other quarterbacks. Ryan Buchanan was coming too but to his credit he had a tough finance test so Ryan is for sure a student-athlete. He was a camper and he really wanted to come, but when he said he could come he didn’t know how hard this course would be and he has a big test Monday. We really understand and appreciate that.”
Kelly had no reported incidents at EMCC, drawing positive reviews from his head coach, Buddy Stephens, and teammate D.J. Jones, a former four-star prospect who also signed with Ole Miss.
On the field, he was dynamic. He led the No. 1 Lions to an NJCAA national championship over No. 2 Iowa Western, completing 40 of 53 passes for 434 yards and five touchdowns. He finished the season with 3,906 passing yards and 47 touchdowns, as well as 446 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.
“I’m just trying to change my story,” Kelly said. “Whatever it is, God has a plan, and I know that coach Freeze is a great coach and he’s guiding me in the right way. I need to be to be a leader of the university and of the Ole Miss football team and of the community. I’m just trying to do whatever he says and do the right thing.”
“I was over in Oxford in the spring and I saw him throw,” Cooper said of Kelly. “He can get it out there. He’s a strong kid and really athletic. Obviously he’s getting adjusted to a new system, but I’m really excited as an Ole Miss fan to see what it’s all about. I’m looking forward to a fun year.”
In his conversations with Freeze, and there have been many, Kelly said the topic is rarely, if ever, about football.
“It’s all off-the-field stuff. We never talk about on-the-field stuff, it’s always on-the-field,” Kelly said. “He understands that being the quarterback at Ole Miss is a lot more than just being on the field. You’ve got little kids that look up to you on a daily basis that understand, hey, I want to be like him one day. If I can have an influence on someone’s life after what has happened, that means I have changed the way I have been and the way other people perceive me. That’s the way you’ve got to be as a quarterback. In the NFL, in college you’ve got to have a good perception, otherwise other people aren’t going to want to rally around you.”
Kelly, the nephew of former Buffalo Bills great Jim Kelly, redshirted at Clemson in 2012, his debut season at Clemson. His completed 10 of 17 passes for 58 yards in 55 snaps over five games in 2013. He had 117 rushing yards and one touchdown on only 16 carries. He was dismissed by Tiger head coach Dabo Swinney last April.
Now he’s landed at Ole Miss, and expectations are high for his debut season despite the loss of Bo Wallace, a three-year starter at quarterback. The Rebels finished 9-4 last season, including a trip to Atlanta, Ga., for the Chik-fil-A Peach Bowl, a New Year’s Six bowl.
“Just know that you’re going to be the face of the franchise, the face of the university,” Kelly said. “Know that every decision that you make is going to affect not only yourself but the school, your teammates, the alumni and even little kids. You’ve got little kids that look up to you on a daily basis. You want to encourage them that, hey, maybe I can be like him one day. That’s what I really want to do. I can be an inspiration.”
As far as competing with Buchanan, well, Kelly really doesn’t have much to say about that. His only goal “is to help my team win in any way possible.” His grasp of Freeze’s up-tempo offense is “excellent,” and he claims to know it inside and out.
“We push each other every day, on and off the field,” said Kelly, who is currently between 220-225 with his weight and running a 4.5-4.6 40-yard dash. “We have a close camaraderie, but not just us quarterbacks, the whole team does. Not only that, but our coaches are on us every day of, hey, let’s become more of a family. Let’s get together and do things together. That’s really what’s making our team special.
“We’re coming together and doing the right thing and wanting to be the best every second of the day. We know we’ve got a mission we want to get.”