Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly looks to make most of second chance

QB Chad Kelly led East Mississippi Community College to a 12-0 record and the NJCAA national title last season. Rogelio V. Solis/AP

OXFORD, Miss. -- It's the middle of August, still nearly three weeks from the beginning of the season, and coach Hugh Freeze is already tired of talking about Chad Kelly.

"I've talked about him until I was blue in the face," Freeze said last week while declining to answer any questions about his quarterback.

And in his defense, the Ole Miss coach has talked about Kelly quite a bit. From signing day to spring practice to SEC media days to fall camp, he has been asked about the junior college transfer time and time again. And yet, we still don't really know who Chad Kelly is.

(Ole Miss declined to make Kelly available for this story.)

We know he was dismissed from Clemson following a heated argument with coaches at halftime over a decision to punt on fourth-and-short rather than go for it -- in a spring game. At the time, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney announced his decision by saying Kelly "has had a pattern of behavior that is not consistent with the values of our program."

We know he nearly threw away his opportunity at a second chance when he was arrested in December, just a week after signing with the Rebels, for another altercation with a couple of bouncers at a bar in his hometown of Buffalo, New York. (Kelly later pleaded guilty to a non-criminal charge of disorderly conduct and agreed to 50 hours of community service.)

And now we know him as the kid Freeze is rolling the dice on.

"I do think he has some redeeming qualities that hopefully we can help put some structure around him that will enable him to rewrite his story in a positive way," Freeze said in February. "I'm sure hoping and pray like heck that he doesn't embarrass our team, our university and myself. But that is a possibility. That is certainly something I recognize and I will have to own."

The other thing to know about Kelly is he's undeniably gifted -- a top-100 prospect out of high school, nephew of Hall of Famer Jim Kelly and coming off a record-setting year in junior college.

"For me, I try to go out and find the guy who can help us win the most," said Ole Miss offensive coordinator Dan Werner, the man responsible for recruiting Kelly. "And then if there are [off-field] issues, that's where the head coach makes those decisions. In my mind, he was talented. He could throw. He could run. He obviously put up some huge numbers in junior college."

And it didn't hurt that Kelly could be the missing piece for an Ole Miss team that is loaded with stars such as Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell but has questions at quarterback. Not to mention the sense of urgency in Oxford, considering that much of that talent is likely headed to the NFL after this season.

But Kelly would not have even been in this position without a stop in tiny Scooba, Mississippi, population 716, and home of East Mississippi Community College.

"I don't care where you're from. Scooba is a change of pace," former EMCC quarterbacks coach Scott Gasper said. "Chad coming from upstate New York and then Clemson, which is a big college town, I actually think East Mississippi worked as an advantage for him because he got away from the spotlight."

It certainly helped on the field, where Kelly put up video-game numbers in his one season there. The former Under Armour All-American threw for 3,906 yards and 47 touchdowns while leading his team to a 12-0 record and the NJCAA national title.

But he showed a more mature side too. That arrogance was gone. He was as competitive as always, but he was more focused on pushing his teammates and making them better.

"It would be the end of practice and we've got our kicker out there for a 40-yard field goal," Gasper recalled. "And Chad's screaming in his face, pumping him up and acting like we're about to win a national championship on a Tuesday practice."

Now Kelly is at a top-15 program with championship aspirations, and he's right back in the spotlight. Every move he makes will be magnified, both on and off the field, and there's not even a guarantee he will be the starting quarterback when the Rebels open the season.

"You just come to work every day and you understand that there's a microscope on you at all times, on the field and off the field," Kelly said earlier this summer.

On the field, Kelly is fighting for his spot every day. He's locked in a position battle with fellow quarterbacks Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade.

Off the field, he hasn't gotten into trouble. It has been eight months since he first arrived in Oxford, and he's doing everything the right way. He has done what the coaches have asked. He has been a good teammate. He has gotten good grades. He's making the most of his opportunity.

"He's an intense guy that wants to do well," Werner said. "He definitely has a sense of urgency about him, but just getting to know him, I can tell that's sort of his personality.

"I think the thing that may have gotten in trouble in the past was that maybe he lets that go a little too far. But he's an extreme competitor, he wants to win and he gets fired up in there. Like I said, the other players see that, and they like that kind of stuff.

"Chad knows this is his chance. He's putting everything into it."