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Chad Kelly finds perfect fit with Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss

OXFORD, Miss. -- Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly doesn't smile when he talks about the play. The miracle heave that shook college football by helping the Rebels win yet another historic game against storied Alabama left many stunned, but to Kelly it was only fitting.

You've seen it by now: an awkwardly high snap from center Robert Conyers zips off Kelly's right fingertips and flies roughly 15 feet into the air. Kelly stumbles back, collects the ball with two hands, as three Bama rushers close fast. In less than half a second, he plants, jumps slightly in order to see his receiver, and then fires an errant prayer into the Tuscaloosa night sky as Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland crashes into him with more than a half a ton of force. Kelly's pass hangs for an eternity of just over two seconds before it deflects downward off receiver Laquon Treadwell's hands and caroms off the helmet of Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick's helmet into the hands of receiver Quincy Adeboyejo, who sprints to the end zone for an incredible 66-yard touchdown.

"I just prayed it was going to work," Kelly told ESPN.com this week.

Kelly, who transferred to Ole Miss earlier this year from East Mississippi Community College, has done a lot of praying in his life during moments just like that one in Bryant-Denny Stadium. He's seen that play in different forms over and over in his life.

Kelly, whose uncle and godfather is NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, has found ways through the chaos even when it seemed all his options were limited.

"That play sums my life up," Kelly said.

There's the talent to gather the ball and still get a pass off in the face of unrelenting pressure. There's the moxie to even attempt the throw, when many quarterbacks -- and his own coach -- would probably prefer he just took a sack. And there's the lucky bounce, the latest bit of good fortune for a kid who landed in a perfect spot after nearly throwing his promising career away.

* * *

There are many different levels to who Chad Kelly is.

To many outside of his close-knit, protective Ole Miss family, he's the hothead who got kicked out of Clemson for a series of incidents, including arguing with coaches over not going for it on fourth down of the spring game.

"Talent was never the issue," former Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. "I think he had a great, fierce competitive drive. Sometimes your best asset can be your biggest enemy, too."

Kelly prefers not to talk about his problems at Clemson beyond saying "I made some mistakes," but the dismissal also forced a reality check.

"I obviously had to get better at a lot of things because there was a reason I wasn't the No. 1 quarterback," Kelly said.

At his next stop at EMCC, Kelly showed the talent that made him worth taking a chance on. In 12 games, he threw for 3,906 yards with 47 touchdowns and eight interceptions, while rushing for 446 yards and four scores. He also led EMCC to the NJCAA national title.

But just days after committing to Ole Miss, he was arrested for fighting bouncers and resisting arrest outside a Buffalo, New York, nightclub in December.

"I ran into some trouble in Buffalo, not thinking correctly at times, and I almost cost myself a chance at getting back to where I wanted to be," Kelly said.

Kelly eventually pleaded guilty to a non-criminal charge of disorderly conduct and agreed to 50 hours of community service.

There's also the rapping "Swag Kelly," the persona the real Kelly wants no part of. That version was concocted in a Buffalo studio when Kelly was a senior in high school. Kelly insists he wasn't part of the song's creation, but recorded a few verses that he figured would never see the light of day. He isn't even the one rapping on the track.

But the unauthorized "Swag Kelly" created a domino effect of judgments that have followed him all the way to Oxford, as he tries to learn from his mistakes.

The Kelly that Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze and his teammates see is an ultra-competitive guy who can go from quiet to high-strung in an instant, but lays it on the line for this team.

Most importantly, he's a quarterback who fits perfectly with a head coach who took a major chance on him and quickly learned that to work with Freeze, he had to understand that it would be Freeze's word first. That's not ego with Freeze. He's happy to admit he's wrong on plays in the comforts of team meetings or his office, but in games or even practice, he doesn't have time for confrontation.

"He doesn't get the option to be right, and if he's got a problem with that, he's probably not my guy," Freeze told ESPN.com this week. "I was clear from the day I met with him: This is the way it's going to be, and if you have a problem with it, you're not the right guy for us. If you don't want that -- I'm not forcing you to do that -- but you need to know that this is non-negotiable."

So far, it's worked perfectly. Kelly has been humbled and tamed in a sense that has made him one of the nation's best quarterbacks, because there's clarity in his mentality. But there's also the exciting and, at times, terrifying side of Kelly, who has the makings of being a loose cannon with the football. The play against Alabama nearly stopped Freeze's heart, but Kelly shrugged it off.

"I'm saying, 'No, no, no, no,'" Freeze said. "That's not gonna do well most times."

Kelly came dangerously close to crossing the line on a critical touchdown pass that only a quarterback as nimble and gutsy as him could pull off. Inscribed on his right bicep is a tattoo that reads "Fear Nobody," which is perfect when you consider that's the arm he makes those dizzying throws with.

"You never know when it's gonna come to you," star receiver Treadwell said. "With him back there, even on a scramble, he's looking to make a play [with his arm], regardless of the circumstances."

"I just try to throw it as hard as I can," Kelly added. "I always thought in order to make it to the NFL, you had to make every throw on the field."

Kelly lives on the edge as a quarterback, but Freeze has found a way to control it as best he can. So far, it hasn't come back to haunt him. Freeze wants him to toe the line without blindly flailing the ball around too much.

"There is a balance because you can't take that out of some kids, and you really don't want to," Freeze said. "He's just got to be smart with it."

* * *

Kelly's incredibly competitive side was born at a young age. His mother, Charlene, remembers taking him to Buffalo Bills games when he was 2 years old and then watching him quickly take to athletics. His first passion was soccer, but he soon fell in love with baseball, basketball, lacrosse, roller hockey, swimming and, of course, football.

And he had to win everything.

Diagnosed with ADHD, Kelly couldn't sit still, which was a burden at times, but also mixed perfectly with his affinity for competition. When things got stressful or Kelly was restless, sports were his outlet, and an intense competitive nature fueled his happiness at an early age.

There's the 4-year-old Kelly feverishly racing on his bike and crashing into the garage wall. At 5, he turned his first skiing trip into a victory when he won a slalom race on his first venture down the slopes.

Starting at age 8, Kelly dominated youth punt, pass and kick competitions. He won four age-group championships in the five years he competed, each year setting records that still stand today.

"He just wanted to be the best he could be," Charlene said. "It was just in him. He was just an athlete from the very beginning."

Kelly had to be, with his pedigree. And while Kelly loved competition and found his place in sports, his named carried enormous pressure that churned the wheels of chaos.

"I didn't want people to say, 'Oh, there's Jim Kelly's nephew, he sucks,'" Kelly said.

So much was expected from a kid whose life was nothing like his uncle's. His parents weren't wealthy and worked long hours.

Kelly's mother is still a longtime school teacher who drives an hour and a half each way every day from Buffalo to her school in Rochester, New York. His father, Kevin, is a local grocery store manager, something Kelly said he was teased about when he was younger.

"That was motivation for me every day to one day support my own family, just like my uncle Jim supported his family," Kelly said.

* * *

There's a fieriness about Kelly that is unmistakable, but there's also a softer side he usually hides. It's the side that still gets choked up when discussing the loss of his grandmother Peggy, who passed away after a battle with cancer in March on the same day he left on a mission trip to Haiti with Freeze and teammates. There's the kid "too scared" to be seen on campus at Clemson who wore a hoodie to class for an entire year. There's the big brother whom 14-year-old Casey calls his hero and who wasn't too busy after the win over Alabama to FaceTime with his family in the locker room.

The many faces of Chad Kelly have been seen over the years, but it's the one in Oxford that Freeze hopes will stick. He can mold this one and win with this one. And Kelly has finally found trust in Freeze and with Ole Miss' program. He's found the success that past coaches expected and outside coaches decided not to take a chance on. Along with that 43-37 win over Alabama, Kelly leads the SEC with 1,219 passing yards and has 10 touchdowns with an 85.3 total QBR. He slayed the crimson giant, and now has the third-ranked Rebels (4-0, 2-0 SEC) back in the SEC and playoff hunt with October looming, starting with a date in The Swamp on Saturday against Florida (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).

There are still questions about how Kelly will handle adversity at Ole Miss. Will he revert to previous form when the Rebels lose a game? Walk-on quarterback and longtime friend Drew Davis knows there's hesitation to crown Kelly as a star because of his past, but he thinks Ole Miss has helped exorcise those demons.

"What he's been through, he's endured," Davis said. "He's been able to overcome it and stay positive even when his back was against the wall. Even when everyone wanted to turn on him, he kept a level head and did his business when nobody was watching him."

Kelly is sifting through the chaos, using talent, guts and a little bit of luck to create his own path.

"I want to make my own name," he said. "I want to be myself. I want [people] to be able to say, 'That's Chad Kelly,' not 'Jim Kelly's nephew.'"