Freeze, the fourth-year Ole Miss head coach, holds Kelly to a high standard. To be expected, of course. Quarterback is the most recognizable position on a football team, and fairly or not, the position draws the majority of the praise in the good times, and more than its share of criticism when things go south.
Freeze’s demands are pretty cut and dry. Ball protection is priority No. 1 (maybe even No. 2 and No. 3 as well), followed by an ability to keep his up-tempo offense on schedule and to, obviously, put points on the board. Kelly has done as well as can reasonably be expected of a first-year player in the mighty Southeastern Conference.
But he can do more, a demand Kelly embraces.
“Chad and I have a relationship that’s in a good spot,” Freeze said. “We can be very honest with each other. If you watch the first quarter and a half (against Texas A&M), that is as good as I’ve seen. He understands exactly what we’re trying to do. And somewhere in there, we had a few things go bad. We had a touchdown get called back, and the very next play a turnover. We started pressing a little. He needs to handle that a little better, stay within the system and move the ball.
“What I like about him is he’ll be the first to tell you exactly what he should have done differently. It isn't a mystery. Now, it’s just us moving him to getting that done on the field.”
Kelly leads the league in passing (309.4 yards per game, 12th in nation), total offense (327.0 ypg, 11th in nation), passing touchdowns (18, 11th in nation), pass efficiency (154.8, 17th in nation) and points responsible for (132, 10th in nation).
However, he’s also thrown for 10 interceptions, including three in the Rebels’ 23-3 win over Texas A&M last week. Up next is a road trip to Auburn, and their SEC championship and playoff hopes depend in no small part on the play of Kelly.
“You get upset at yourself for knowing you know what you did and you know what mistakes you made,” Kelly said. “But coming off the field and knowing they know I made a mistake and I know I made a mistake, that's when both of us can come together and work even better to know A, how can we fix this, how can we change and not put ourselves in that type situation, and just taking what the defense gives you.”
The three interceptions somewhat took the shine off of what was otherwise another strong effort for the 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior, who completed 26 of 41 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 23 yards.
The mistakes, though, are what he’s trying to avoid. Ole Miss (6-2, 3-1 SEC) has four games remaining it its season, and should the Rebels win out, they’ll be in Atlanta, Ga., for their first-ever SEC championship game appearance. They control their own destiny.
Kelly welcomes the tough coaching from Freeze and co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dan Werner. When he arrived in Oxford in January after a stellar one-season stop at East Mississippi Community College, he let the staff know he desperately wanted to be challenged in every aspect of his game. No area is safe.
He’s gotten his wish, the most-recent example from the Texas A&M game after one of his interceptions.
“I know (Freeze) was mad, but the man that was really mad about it was coach Werner,” he said. “And I did get chewed out, definitely. He actually hung up the (sideline) phone on me and called back. He was like, 'All right, I'm calling now. What are you doing?’ I've just got to make sure I take care of the ball. That's the biggest thing. Playing football, you can't turn the ball over.”
Freeze began his approach to Kelly early. Very early, in fact. The pair exchanged some messages on Twitter during his recruitment, and ever since, Kelly, a former four-star prospect, said they’ve been able to be brutally honest with each other.
“That's all he wanted from me, and that's all I wanted from him,” Kelly said. “You can't ask for anything more than that when a coach is dead honest with you. That's really when it started.
“You don't want to turn the ball over. You want to have every drive end in a kick: either a punt, field goal or extra point. Of course you're going to take your shots during the game; you've got to. At the same time, you’ve got to control the game, and you're the leader of the whole game. You ou have to protect the ball at all costs.”
If he does just that, Ole Miss will have a great chance to knock off the Tigers on the Plains and continue its push towards a memorable postseason destination. Auburn is 4-3 overall and 1-3 in conference play. The Tigers are fresh off a four-overtime 54-46 loss at Arkansas, and they’ve won four of the last five games in the series, including a 35-31 win a year ago.
“I don't think there's revenge. That was last year's team. Like coach always says, this is this year's DNA,” Kelly said. “We’re not going to be with each other after this season. It's going to be a whole new team. You have to keep looking forward, can't look back, and we have to understand that we're all in it for each other. We've got to keep playing for each other.”