OXFORD, Miss. — The only thing that's certain for Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly is that this is it. This time there won't be any more "second chances," not with his checkered past.
Like it or not, Kelly is poised to become the most interesting man, or at least the most intriguing man, in the Southeastern Conference in 2015. And while his character may be up for debate, his resume is not. When it comes to football, he's always won. High school state titles, JUCO national titles—he even won the Punt, Pass & Kick competition four times.
Don't think for a moment that he couldn't do the same with Hugh Freeze's stacked Ole Miss offense. If he can just beat out reigning backup Ryan Buchanan and dual threat DeVante Kincade to start at quarterback.
Despite all the winning, Kelly is known throughout college football as "that kid who gets in trouble." Through a roller coaster six-year stretch leading up to his arrival in Oxford, his highs and lows can only be described as extreme.
|Chad Kelly Timeline|
|Fall 2008||Suspended for seven games during freshman season at Red Lion H.S.|
|8/2009||Dismissed from Red Lion High School football team|
|11/2009||Enrolls at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute|
|Fall 2010||St. Joe's wins Monsignor Martin Association AA title, Kelly MVP of title game|
|6/2011||Commits to Clemson. Makes the Elite 11 finals|
|Fall 2011||Leads St. Joe's to another title game|
|4/13/2013||After redshirting, suffers ACL tear during Clemson spring game|
|4/12/2014||Gets in argument with coaches during Clemson spring game|
|4/14/2014||Dismissed from Clemson. A few days later is at East Mississippi C.C.|
|12/6/2014||Helps lead EMCC to undefeated season and third national title in four years|
|12/10/2014||Commits to Ole Miss, signs scholarship a week later|
|12/21/2014||Arrested after late-night incident in Buffalo, numerous charges filed|
|1/2015||Hugh Freeze announces that they are "going to give it a go," Kelly enrolls|
|3/2015||Settles legal issues, participates in mission trip to Haiti|
|Compiled by the author|
It began at Red Lion High School in Pennsylvania, where Kelly was suspended for seven games as a freshman and then kicked off the team as a sophomore for reasons that were never publicly disclosed. After moving to the Buffalo area, where there is no bigger last name in football, since his uncle Jim Kelly led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls, Kelly turned things around at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute.
Not only did Kelly became the region's top quarterback prospect since Don Majkowski (who played in the NFL from 1987 to 1996) and Ron Jaworski (1973-89), but as a junior, he was named a captain of both the football and basketball teams.
"Obviously he was a phenom," said Dennis Gilbert, the Marauders' football coach whose primary job is being a full-time police officer. "To me, the thing that set him apart was his level of competitiveness. Everything was competition to him, whether it was diagramming plays or getting water, he wanted to be the first to get water.
"He's a guy who practiced the same on Monday and played in games on Friday. It didn't matter what it was, even basketball or lacrosse, he competed like crazy."
Kelly's ultra-competitive nature has proved to be both the angel and devil on his shoulder. It helped drive him to 3,050 passing yards, 991 rushing yards and 41 total touchdowns as a high school senior, but it also led to his downfall at Clemson.
It didn't culminate until after Kelly redshirted, suffered a torn ACL in the 2013 spring game and feverishly worked to get back ahead of schedule. The spark was a decision not to go for it on fourth down during the 2014 spring game, a decision the competitive Kelly just couldn't let go. He yelled and screamed and even got into Dabo Swinney's face in front of 33,000 witnesses. Shortly after, he was dismissed from the program due to a "pattern of behavior."
A few days later, Kelly was at East Mississippi Community College, located just across the Alabama border in the small town of Scooba. It's a wrong-turn destination where there's no downtown, no luxuries and no distractions.
While running a spread offense like he did in high school, Kelly passed for 3,906 yards and 47 touchdowns, and the Lions averaged 539.1 yards, including 358.8 in the air, and 55.5 points per game. While posting an undefeated record, EMCC won by scores of 83-7 and 65-7, and the final five games of the regular season saw a combined 269-0 score.
"We threw it around a good bit," offensive coordinator Marcus Wood said. "He was a dynamic player all around. Good leader for us, did a good job. He came in with a chip on his shoulder and with a lot to prove.
"He's a very heady kid, kind of your gym rat kid. All he wants to do is study tape. He's always asking questions."
And just like that, Chad Kelly's football career was back from the dead. But for how long?
After the season, LSU, Indiana and even Alabama checked him out, but Kelly had been talking to Freeze even before unpacking in Scooba. The combination of the Rebels' pass-friendly offense and the open QB spot made Ole Miss a very attractive option for Kelly, but the clincher was the relationship that started developing with the coach.
Kelly needed a coach who could also provide fatherly influence. Freeze was up for the challenge and vowed to keep a closer eye on him off the field than on.
Kelly described their early conversations as having as much to do with life in general as ways to get the football to players like wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and tight end Evan Engram. The coach and quarterback watch film—a lot of film—but also attend church and Bible study together.
"We both had faith in God, first of all," Kelly said. "He's pushing me on and off the field a tremendous amount. I'm just so thankful that he gave me an opportunity."
However, true to his tumultuous past, Kelly almost blew that opportunity less than two weeks after he signed to play with Freeze, when he was arrested following a 3 a.m. altercation at a downtown Buffalo bar and restaurant, according to the Buffalo News' Joseph Popiolkowski. He faced numerous charges after allegedly punching a bouncer and scuffling with police.
Kelly didn't provide any details about what his subsequent conversation with Freeze was like, only describing it as an extremely uncomfortable phone call. But when they hung up, the coach still stood behind the transfer. Freeze told Houston Sports Zone he and Kelly would "give it a go together." Kelly enrolled in January and eventually accepted a plea agreement to a non-criminal charge of disorderly conduct and 50 hours of community service.
"I've been through a lot, that I have," Kelly said about what he's learned. "You have to approach every day and try and get better on and off the field. You need to keep looking forward, don't ever look back."
So far, he's done just that.
At the urging of his coach, Kelly went on Freeze's now annual spring break mission trip to Haiti, where they and numerous other people in the Ole Miss program helped build a reservoir to provide clean drinking water for thousands of people.
Kelly also put real effort into his classes instead of just getting by, and described his offseason routine as watching film, working out, watching more film, studying and then watching even more film.
"All I can tell you is to this point I cannot be more pleased," Freeze said as training camp opened earlier this month. "The guy had a 4.0 GPA this summer, a 3.6 in the spring. One of the strength staff's favorite kids, finishes first in every drill.
"He's just like a lot of us, he's made some mistakes in the past and he's ready to move beyond them. I think he deserves that opportunity now."
Yet the coach wasn't going to just hand Kelly the starting job. It took Buchanan a year to start getting comfortable in Freeze's spread scheme, and only then did he win the job as Bo Wallace's backup last season. Just the pre-snap reads alone can take a long time to get down.
"Honestly there are about three or four things that happen in about a second, and sometimes right as I get the ball it happens in a heartbeat," said Buchanan, who ended the spring with a slight lead in the quarterback chase.
"It's who is more consistent and more comfortable [who will win the job]. It's being able to move the ball and not take the negative plays."
The opportunity is there for the taking. It's now on Kelly to earn the starting job and write the happy ending to his redemption saga.
"I'm ready to go," Kelly said.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.