It isn't lost on senior quarterback Chad Kelly that, after being the guy who Hugh Freeze stuck his neck out for and gave a second chance to a year ago, he's now the player the Ole Miss head coach will rely on the most this season.
With the Rebels football program otherwise in disarray, waiting to find out if its self-imposed penalties—including the loss of 11 scholarships from 2015-18—will be sufficient to satisfy the NCAA, it makes Kelly's upcoming season more important than ever, starting with Monday's game against No. 4 Florida State in Orlando.
"Definitely," he said. "You have to make the best out of [the] opportunity because you only get to live it once. I'm in Oxford for another eight months, or whatever, and you want to go out with a bang.
"I want to be remembered as the greatest quarterback who ever played. You have to go out and prove it first, and then you have to go out and work hard."
While Kelly's bravado has never been in question—in fact, it was a big reason why he was dismissed from Clemson after not knowing when to stop—he now has a lot more on his side to back it up.
After helping East Mississippi win the 2014 junior college national championship, Kelly became the first quarterback in Ole Miss history last season to win five games against Top 25 teams and the first to defeat Alabama, Auburn and LSU all during the same year.
Just the third Southeastern Conference quarterback to top 4,000 passing yards in a season—Tim Couch and Johnny Manziel are the only others to accomplish the feat—he broke 14 single-season school records, including total offense (4,542 yards), completion percentage (65.1), passing efficiency (155.9), 300-yard passing games (eight) and touchdowns (41).
Those were just the beginning of his impressive numbers. According to the school, Kelly's completion percentage of 65 on throws outside of the numbers led all Power Five quarterbacks, and his 67 percent of completed passes when defenses had seven or more in the box topped the SEC. He also led the league with seven fourth-quarter passing TDs.
That clutch success has rubbed off on teammates. From junior running back Jordan Wilkins saying "Everybody feeds off of him" to senior tight end Evan Engram calling him the kind of "superstar" a team needs to win a championship, Kelly could be the SEC player who has the biggest impact on his team's season.
Still, it's a tightrope that he walks after everything he's been through, from being kicked off his high school team and his late-night arrest in Buffalo, to being on the cover of this year's Rebels media guide. Kelly knows that he can't afford to slip up, not if he wants to someday be a starting quarterback in the National Football League like his uncle Jim was for the Bills.
Moreover, as Freeze pointed out at SEC media days, Kelly "suffers from ADD, and he has, you know, it's easy for him in our system because of the way we use our verbiage for him. I think translating that into a typical NFL system could be a challenge for him."
That makes it even more important for Kelly not to give NFL teams any more reasons to spurn him. On top of the other red flags in his past, they're closely watching how well he can continue to curtail his instincts to let loose, both during and away from the game.
"In order to get to where I want to be, I have to do the right things off the field, first," he said.
"I have to just come to work every single day. That's not just on the field, but off the field because you have little kids looking up to you, your face is the face of this franchise and this university. You have to understand that every decision that you make is going to be criticized."
The same could be said of Ole Miss, which may need a big season from its quarterback more than Kelly does for himself to help heal its damaged reputation—one that will almost certainly take more hits.
Freeze described the NCAA's investigation as "a four-year colonoscopy" to CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd even before Laremy Tunsil's infamous draft night, which included a viral video of him smoking a bong and a startling press-conference admission to receiving money from coaches. In July, the NCAA expanded the probe to ask football players at other schools about Ole Miss' recruitment tactics, according to Yahoo Sports' Pat Forde.
"I think it's much more important for Ole Miss for Chad Kelly to go out and play well and not feel the pressure to live up to the standard that he set a year ago where he was such a great player in his first year of Hugh Freeze's offense, running and throwing and avoiding the disastrous play for the most part," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. "So as long as he doesn't feel like he has to push it himself or force himself out there to make plays, then I think he can have another monster year."
But the two redemption stories are undeniably intertwined at this point. Regardless of the eventual outcome—the Committee on Infractions likely won't hear the case until 2017—Ole Miss still has a season to get through while playing in a division that has produced six of the last 10 national champions.
It's one that Kelly turned down leaving early for the NFL to play, even though he's one of just three returning offensive starters for Ole Miss, the others being Engram and senior wide receiver Quincy Adeboyejo. That's the fewest of any team in the SEC.
"There's always the dueling loyalties in college football," CBS analyst Gary Danielson said. "Football has the three-year role in which a lot of players after Year 2 know that they're good enough to play at the next level and have that time frame in which they're still playing college ball, but their loyalties are kind of mixed.
"It's a tough transition, but both sides have their needs in this thing."
At least Ole Miss fans shouldn't have to wait long to know what kind of season they're in for. The Rebels have a brutal September slate with Florida State in Orlando, Alabama and Georgia, although they get the latter two at home, and all three defenses are similar due to the Nick Saban coaching tree. Get through that unscathed and Ole Miss will be in the Top Five thinking of a berth in the College Football Playoffs, but if the Rebels go 0-3, a lot more than the season could be derailed.
Ole Miss' schedule appears to get easier in terms of opponents as it progresses, but it doesn't with the locations. The Rebels will go into the Egg Bowl against rival Mississippi State having played four of their previous six games on the road, including at Arkansas, LSU and Texas A&M.
|Chad Kelly's 2015 Targets|
|Ole Miss (*no longer on team)|
Kelly couldn't help but take a small shot at his former school, Clemson, when talking about the schedule at SEC media days, by saying he was looking forward to playing in the "real Death Valley." Mostly, though, his message was "to be the best, you have to beat the best."
That's where Kelly's goal stems from: not to just be the best in the SEC, which has few returning starting quarterbacks this fall, but the nation.
"You have to feel that way," he said. "To have confidence in yourself and your team, you have to think [you're] the best. That's what our team, from offensive linemen to running back, we have to think that we're the best players and the best team out there."
Despite Kelly's impressive debut season, he wasn't considered the league's top quarterback in 2015. Both the coaches and media voted him second-team All-SEC behind Mississippi State's Dak Prescott, who had two more years of starting on his side.
He was also second in passing efficiency (155.9 rating) to Brandon Allen of Arkansas and 13th nationally in the statistical category used to determine the annual passing champion.
Kelly acknowledges that there's room for improvement, saying he needs to get better at reading defenses and understanding situations—like taking the safe checkdown option on 3rd-and-long instead of forcing a pass downfield—and improving his footwork.
Last year, the Rebels went 10-3 and missed a golden chance to win the SEC West after knocking off eventual national champion Alabama for the second straight season. Kelly completed 18 of 33 passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns (he ran in another) and didn't have an interception against the Crimson Tide.
That was just Kelly's third start with Ole Miss, and it was before he got on a roll with his new team. Of his 13 interceptions, only one occurred during the final four games.
It's the kind of statistical trend that Kelly needs to continue.
It helped lead to him being selected preseason All-SEC by both the coaches and media, hailed nationally as a dark horse for the Heisman Trophy and even former scout Bucky Brooks of NFL.com called him a "potential star" in the NFL.
"I'm definitely a lot more confident," Kelly said, and it showed in the spring before undergoing surgery to repair a sports hernia in April (the Rebels didn't have a spring game due to stadium construction). He clearly fit the part of established veteran and enjoyed not having to learn a new offense for the first time in years.
"That's huge," said Kelly, who has been able to focus on improving the details of his game, while the other new starters have had to get comfortable with him and not the other way around.
"One thing we won't have to worry about with him is him having a feeling that he can coast," Freeze said. "It isn't his makeup."
That much is certain. Even if Ole Miss gets off to a slow start and is overwhelmed by everything it's facing, Kelly's the type who will go down swinging—or in this case, throwing. The more the Rebels win, the more he'll get the credit and praise for overcoming so much adversity, while the spotlight on the program's off-field issues will only intensify with each loss.
There's a lot at stake, but either way, Kelly will be one to watch while playing for a lot more than himself this season.
"He continues to seek how to be the type of man that he wants to be known for," Freeze said. "We refer to it as rewriting your story or writing the end of your story. It isn't about how you start but how you finish, and right now, I think he's on track to finish well."
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.