Getting To Know: CB Eric Kelly

Vikings rookie cornerback is full of confidence, but that doesn't mean he isn't still trying to learn and improve.

Saying Vikings cornerback Eric Kelly lacks confidence is like saying the Atlantic Ocean lacks water or the Mall of America lacks shopping space or Minnesota highways lack road construction.

Get the picture? Kelly is confident. Real confident. So confident that before he ever put on a purple jersey, he quickly laid the roadwork for a not-so-far-away walk he would be commanded to take after prematurely having talked the talk.

On draft day last April, the Vikings coveted Kelly so much they traded their third-round selection (86th overall) and fourth-round selection (119th overall) in order to move up in the third round and select the Kentucky cornerback with the 69th overall pick.

It didn't take long for Kelly to let us know how he felt. With confidence oozing out of every pore, Kelly displayed a dash of Don King's promotional ability, hyping himself as a potential starter on the Vikings defense — despite being an unproven rookie.

Get a load of these bulletin-board gems from Kelly on NFL draft weekend:

"I feel I can come in and compete for a starting spot."

"I feel I am the best cornerback in the country."

"My athletic ability is phenomenal."

"I'm not scared to match up with any receiver there is."

It doesn't appear he is in need of any 12-step program to strengthen his self-image any time soon. Webster's dictionary describes confidence as "a firm belief, a trust, a belief in one's abilities." In the definition, the dictionary doesn't say "see Eric Kelly," but it should. He truly is the meaning of confidence.

Kelly is all about being self-assured. But don't misread his confidence as arrogance. Kelly isn't full of himself, just sure of himself. Actually, it is precisely what the Vikings were looking for when they drafted him. In fact, it is the very reason they felt the need to make a two-for-one draft-day deal in order to land their man.

Kelly possesses strength and speed. At 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, Kelly runs a 4.39 40-yard dash. Some say he can play bump-and-run as well as stay step-for-step downfield with the speedier receivers in the league. As a senior at Kentucky, Kelly tied a school record with 13 pass deflections and ended the season with 25 tackles and three interceptions. Not bad production from a cover man who spent most of his senior year with Kentucky wearing an awkward cast on his right hand after breaking it during the season opener. In his career as a Wildcat, Kelly started 32 of 42 games. He recorded 106 career tackles and four interceptions.

"He's got tremendous speed," Vikings coach Dennis Green said. "What he (did) at Kentucky was play a lot of man coverage. We saw him play man coverage against those very good Florida teams and man coverage against Tennessee over the years. He can help us right away."

And help them he has.

Kelly entered camp as a third-string cornerback on both the left and right sides behind starters Robert Tate and Kenny Wright, and reserves Wasswa Serwanga and Carl Kidd. "I just started catching up and getting things together at training camp," Kelly said. "In training camp, I didn't make the strides I wanted to make. Gradually, it was a slow process and now I'm just starting to pick it up."

The coaches have taken notice because it didn't take long for Kelly to move up the ladder. Kelly made his climb quickly after the Vikings released Kidd during one of the first rounds of cuts. He moved up the depth chart even higher Sept. 9 by temporarily leapfrogging Wasswa Serwanga, who was inactive for the season opener against Carolina. Kelly played nickel-back as well as on special teams.

"I'm just sitting back, praying and trying to stay healthy," Kelly said. "I'm ready to go. I'm just trying to do my role, which is nickel-back and second-team cornerback. Whenever they need me I'll be ready. I need a little more learning. I don't have a weakness, I don't think. Weaknesses are a mental game. So I don't have a weakness, it's just that I have things I need to work on."

Well, before camp had ever started, the Vikings signed Kelly to a three-year rookie minimum deal for $1.413 million that included at $517,000 signing bonus. Kelly had been labeled by many scouts and draft publications as a defender that could only excel from the bump-and-run style of coverage.

Not necessarily true, his coaches say. "Some say he's strictly a bump-and-run corner," Vikings defensive backs coach Willie Shaw said. "But that doesn't have any value with me, because when I first came (to the Vikings) Carl Lee had been a bump-and-run corner and we backed him off and played him in zone and for the next three years he was a much more productive player."

The Vikings hope Kelly will be just as productive. It doesn't appear the blueprints involve a large learning curve for Kelly, though. After just two weeks of play, Kelly already is seeing major playing time in major game situations.

On defense, the Vikings are playing at least five rookies (Patrick Chukwurah, Shawn Worthen, Winfield Garnett, Willie Howard and Kelly) as well as another second-year player or two (Chris Hovan and Fred Robbins) on any given down. For the past couple of seasons, it has been a defense in dire need of playmakers. The Vikings hope they have found some. One of them may be Kelly.

Last season, the Vikings defense stumbled and staggered to the finish line, allowing huge yardage from the passing attacks led by Brett Favre, Kurt Warner and Peyton Manning. What may have been most alarming to players, coaches and fans alike is that hapless New York Giants quarterback Kerry Collins sliced and diced the Vikings defense for 381 yards and five touchdowns through the air in the NFC Championship. Remember, that wasn't Y.A. Tittle picking apart the Vikings defense; that was Kerry Collins.

Kelly won't be the sole savior to resurrect this defense, but he may be one brick needed to help rebuild that once immovable purple wall. "I was drafted as a cornerback and they said they needed help," Kelly said. "I just thank God because it's a great situation to be in. Being a defensive back, the Lord put me here for a reason. Coach Shaw is a great coach and they say I needed some good coaching, so this really works out good."

Both sides say the fit is good. Kelly needed to land on a team like the Vikings and the Vikings needed to land a player like Kelly. There are some adjustments, however. No fit, after all, can be perfect.

Looking back at his career in Kentucky, the only time Kelly spent in a classroom was earning his degree and working on his masters. At Winter Park, Kelly feels as if he went back to school yet again. With the Wildcats, there were no defensive playbooks, just a brief scouting report of the opposing offense issued every week. "We had a couple of scouting papers each week, but that was it," recalled Kelly.

At Winter Park, Kelly was issued two or three playbooks the size of encyclopedias totaling nearly 300 pages. He went from Cliff's notes in college to War and Peace in the NFL.

"It's a lot more complex," admitted Kelly. "There's a lot of learning, a lot of time spent in the class room. I never thought we'd spend so much time in the classroom. Physical ability — everybody has that. In the NFL, it's who knows the most."

Kelly possesses the tools needed to be a complete football player. But the 24-year-old defensive back is much more than a gifted athlete who can blanket a receiver and prevent him from catching a football.

Kelly graduated from Kentucky in May of 2000. He is currently working on post-graduate studies in the social work field. He was inducted into the UK Athletics Society of Character for excellence in academics, athletics and service. The Vikings didn't simply draft a football player, they picked an intelligent, ambitious college graduate with goals, dreams and ambitions.

"I was blessed to get my degree. I'm not sure what I want to get my masters in, but I'm trying to keep my options open," Kelly said. "There are a lot of guys, a lot of veterans who don't have their degrees and they get cut and don't have anything to fall back on. I still have the power and motivation inside of me to go and get my masters. That makes me feel really good."

So, too, does being a Minnesota Viking.

"The fact that I'm going to be playing makes me feel good, too," he said. "Being around these guys, meeting these guys … I haven't had the chance to have a lot of fun, because this is work and I take it seriously. But I've had a good time getting together and going out to eat before games, getting hyped up. It's all good." VU

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