Kevin Kelley’s biggest fear on the football field is getting shut out. He remembers getting shut out in 2005 while at Pulaski Academy in Arkansas, and it still haunts him.
“I was so miserable,” Kelley said. “It was like I got beat in chess in five moves.”
He said until his team scores, he can’t relax on the sideline. Well, in his first collegiate game as head coach of Presbyterian, it only took 2:11 for the Blue Hose to score, and they didn’t stop there. Kelley’s innovative new system resulted in a program-record 84 points in his very first game as the Blue Hose took down St. Andrews, 84-43.
Much has been written about Kelley’s unique approach to football. Barely ever punting, almost always onside kicking, almost always going for the 2-point conversion and a lot of trick plays on offense. It worked at the high school level, with Kelley winning nine state championships in 18 years at Pulaski. Many were curious to see how that approach would work at the college level, and Kelley made a statement with an 84-point outburst, even if, he said, it wasn’t his intention.
“I don’t think I was trying to make a point,” Kelley said after his college debut. “I was just wanting it to [work] so people would have a reason to buy in.
“Some people were excited about something different coming, but I don’t think they were sure that it was going to be any good. That said, what I wanted to do was give them a reason to think, ‘OK, that might be good. Now maybe I want to buy into that, maybe I want to come watch.’”
Kelley wanted to show his own players that his system could work in a game situation. It’s a radical shift from the way most of them are used to playing football, and he hopes the success on the field gets them to buy in even further to his methods.
“There was still some, ‘Coach, here’s the way I’ve always done it in high school and college,’ and I’m like ‘Guys, I know but now we’re gonna do it this way,’” Kelley said. “But they’ve never seen [my] way work. So now that they’ve seen it work, it’s a lot easier to get them to buy into it, practice it that way and practice a little harder.”
The team has already started to embrace his style of coaching. Ren Hefley, who threw for 538 yards and set a FCS record with 10 passing touchdowns, was the beneficiary of Kelley’s unique offense.
“I love it,” Hefley said. “Especially as a quarterback, how can you not? If he wants to throw it every down, I’m for it. Why not?”
Hefley said that Kelley was still installing new plays and new variants of plays right before the game and even on the sideline during the game.
“He’s just making stuff up out there sometimes,” Hefley said with a laugh.
He said playing in that type of offense helps knock off any nerves because you’re so caught up in the complexity of the trick plays and different motions that you can’t overthink, you just do it.
Jalyn Witcher, who played for Kelley at Pulaski, had 5 catches for 156 yards and 3 touchdowns in his first college game. He said he was impressed with the way the team executed Kelley’s complex offense in its first game using it. Witcher has seen Kelley’s system work in the past and has fully bought into his coach’s philosophy.
“You could be the slowest person on the field, and you could start because as long as you give 100 percent effort, it doesn’t matter,” Witcher said. “That’s his biggest philosophy. It’s always been his philosophy, and it makes you a better player. Who doesn’t want to go hard on every play?”
Witcher said the most points his team scored in high school was 86, so it was not uncharted territory for a Kelley team to hang a crooked number on an opponent. Kelley said he didn’t expect to put up 84 points in his 1st college game, but considering his teams at Pulaski usually averaged over 50 points per game with 12-minute quarters and a running clock in blowouts, he knew it was possible to put up a lot of points with 12 more minutes of game time.
The Kelley era began in appropriate fashion when the Blue Hose recovered an onside kick to begin the game. It was the definition of performing as advertised.
“I think there were some people that were a little skeptical and wanted to see how it looked in reality,” Hefley said, “but you guys saw the reaction on the sideline. As soon as we got the 1st onside, I think everybody was like, ‘Ok, I see why we’re doing this.’”
Now, Presbyterian didn’t recover another onside kick the rest of the way, so that 1st one could be written off as beginner’s luck. But Kelley will not be deterred. He said he wants to introduce more onside kicks into the mix and have the team execute them better next week.
That’s what makes Kelley so fascinating. He is fully committed to his own unique style. He wants to make his opponents play his type of game because his teams will always have the advantage in those games. If Kelley continues to have success, it’s very possible that more coaches will start to emulate his style, something he hopes doesn’t happen because it will then eliminate his advantage.
“We started going for it on 4th down back in 2003 before ‘moneyball’ was a thing and before analytics was even known in sports,” Kelley said. “Over time, it seems like more people, slowly but surely, are going for it on 4th down … I don’t really want anybody to do it because we have an advantage, in my opinion. If it happens, it happens, but I hope it happens slowly because I’m getting old so maybe it will start when I’m out of the game and don’t have an advantage anymore.”
It’s easy to overreact to a big win over an NAIA opponent. The Blue Hose were never in danger of losing the game. We will have to see how the Kelley system works against tougher opponents like Campbell and Davidson later in the season.
The first game in the Kelley era proved one thing: Win or lose, Presbyterian football will be entertaining and worth tuning in to watch. It’s a style of football brand-new to the college game, and it isn’t anywhere else.
At least for now.