When asked Monday if he'll return for his senior season in Oxford, Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly ambiguously replied, "You never know."
That comment itself isn't news -- any draft-eligible quarterback putting up the numbers that Swag has is going to at least consider the opportunity of going pro. It's in no way an indication of which way he's leaning and to be honest, Chad himself probably won't have a great idea until he gets some feedback from NFL scouts after the season.
But it is a reminder that the best Ole Miss quarterback since Eli could realistically leave after just one season in Oxford. With his SEC-leading stats, big-league arm and kinship to Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, you have to figure he's getting increasingly long looks from pro scouts. And while he's made it clear he wants to get his degree before leaving, he told The Clarion-Ledger earlier this month that he expects to graduate this coming May.
But Chad also has a few things working against him, namely his lack of D1 experience, which would be remedied with another season in Oxford. For the record, he also said this on Monday (via Scout.com):
I have matured. I think just understanding that everything does not need a reaction and there is a bigger picture than the current moment has helped me a lot. I feel I have developed as a player too. I have learned the offense and I think that is where I can be even better next year.
Why he might leave
Chad definitely has the numbers. He's thrown for 3,504 yards and 25 touchdowns -- both of which lead the SEC -- and chipped in another 353 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. He also has 12 picks, but I don't imagine those will have much of an effect on his stock. Those turnovers have been the result of decision-making (and bad luck), which NFL teams will assume can be coached up.
But pro teams scout by physical tools, not stats, and it's hard to say that Chad doesn't have the arm strength and accuracy to play at the next level. There are plenty of deep touchdown passes I could use to illustrate his cannon, but the best indication might be this laser on an out route in the season opener.
And here's another thing to consider: he'll be losing his top receiving target, his top running back and both of his starting offensive tackles. It's not unreasonable to think Kelly's numbers could take a big hit without Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil, and he may decide he wants to enter the draft on a high note.
Why he should stay
There are two main knocks against Chad as a pro quarterback prospect: 1) he's only 6'1 and 2) he only has one season's worth of D1 starting experience. Unless he hits a late growth spurt, coming back for another college season won't make him taller. It will, however, give him more experience.
Kelly threw all of 17 passes as a freshman at Clemson, then spent a season playing on easy mode at East Mississippi Community College. If he goes pro in 2016, he'll have just 13 D1 starts under his belt, none of which came in a pro-style offense. The bad decisions that led to some of those 12 picks prove that he's still raw at reading defenses.
Sure, coming back for another season of unpaid football carries the chance of a career-altering injury. At the end of the day, though, I think the benefit of having another year of experience and game tape outweighs that risk.
For the record, SB Nation's draft expert agrees.
@mynewhate Since this is his first year there, I think it would look bad to go pro.— Dan Kadar (@MockingTheDraft) October 25, 2015
What does Ole Miss do at QB if Chad leaves?
The No. 1 quarterback prospect in the country, Shea Patterson, is currently committed to Ole Miss. The ideal scenario for Hugh Freeze is to have Patterson sit behind Kelly next season, then be ready to take the reigns in 2017. But that plan obviously gets screwed up if Chad leaves early.
In that scenario, we'd be left with Ryan Buchanan, DeVante Kincade, Jason Pellerin and Patterson at the QB position. Particularly with the turnover at offensive tackle, I don't think Freeze would (or should) risk playing Patterson as a freshman, at least not until much later in the season. Given that Kincade already lost a competition to Buchanan once and reportedly came close to transferring over the summer, it's possible he jumps ship.
That would mean Ole Miss heads into next year's opener against Florida State with Ryan Buchanan behind center.