Last spring, the now-senior was entering his first practices as a Rebel, set to compete against Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade for the starting job vacated by Bo Wallace. And there were concerns about some of his off-the-field issues, including his dismissal from Clemson.
Now Kelly is firmly entrenched under center, his position cemented as face of a program facing championship-caliber expectations.
“I think every day I have to make sure I’m making the right decisions on and off the field,” Kelly said. “Just because of what happened in the past, I still have to look forward and just understand I’ve still go this next year where I really have to stay focused on and off the field. In order to get to where I want to be, I have to do the right things off the field first.”
Gone are the questions about his past. He’s kept his nose clean for over a year and produced numbers typically suited for video games.
Kelly was an All-SEC selection as a junior after breaking or tying 14 single-season school records, including total offense yards, touchdowns responsible for, passing yards and completion percentage. He threw for 300 yards in eight of the team's 13 games, the most in school history.
“I’m definitely a lot more confident,” he said. “From the first game to the last game, I feel like I can see the whole field. I feel like I can go through my first to fifth progression just like that. That’s just getting used to the offense and understanding what coach is going to call in certain situations and getting familiar with the players and how they run certain routes and how the break with certain things. With more and more reps, I think it’ll keep getting better.
“On the field, just going through my progressions and having the game slow down. As a quarterback, you want the game to slow down as much as it can and as often as it can. That’s where I’m trying to take the next step — kind of seeing things before they happen. Off the field, having a coach like (Ole Miss head) coach (Hugh) Freeze just preaching about making the right decisions off the field and trusting in the Lord and just trusting everybody around you. Just understanding everyone is here to help and they want the best for you. Listening to coach Freeze all the time, that’s all he preaches about, and that’s all I think about all the time is off the field stuff.”
Ole Miss opened spring practices Wednesday. Freeze said Kelly had to beg for more reps, but not because he was competing directly with two others to start. No, the Rebels know what they have. Freeze wanted to give enough time to highly-touted freshman Shea Patterson and redshirt freshman Jason Pellerin.
Patterson was the No. 1 quarterback in the country, according to Scout.com, and is available for spring practices after enrolling early in January. Pellerin is the only other returning scholarship quarterback after Buchanan opted to quit football and pursue other career opportunities and Kincade left for Grambling.
“The transformation continues,” Freeze said of Kelly. “I couldn’t be more pleased with what Chad has done off the field and on the field. He just continues to seek the type of man he wants to be. We refer to it as rewriting your story, or writing the end of your story.”
“Coach Freeze really preaches about it all the time to me,” Kelly said. “Not every once in a while, but every time I see him we’re talking about off-the-field stuff. It’s not only me, it’s the whole team — when we’re in the meeting rooms, when we’re out on the field, when we’re not on the field and just hanging out. He’s just a different type of a character and just a great overall coach.”
Kelly could have turned pro after leading Ole Miss to a 10-3 season (the most wins by a first-year Ole Miss quarterback since Jake Gibbs in 1959) and a Sugar Bowl win, when he became the first Rebel since Archie Manning to win Sugar Bowl MVP. The season of firsts didn’t end there, though. He was the first Ole Miss quarterback to lead the Rebels to wins over Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the same season, as well as the first to post five victories over top-25 ranked teams.
But it wasn’t enough. Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and Robert Nkemdiche are all poised to become first-round picks in the 2016 NFL Draft in April. Kelly, meanwhile, will be looking to a summer filled with offseason strength and conditioning.
Because there’s work left to do.
“It wasn’t a tough decision at all because I really want to win an SEC championship and a national championship,” he said. “That’s our main goal, that’s the whole team’s goal. We really feel like we can do that.”