After news of Chad Kelly's season-ending injury broke on Sunday night, the immediate conversation among most Ole Miss fans was who would start in his place and whether the Rebels would still be able to make a bowl game. Lost amid the mid-season panic, however, is a period of reflection on Kelly's prolific two-year career in Oxford, and considering his immediate positive impact on the team starting in 2015, he certainly deserves one.
From the discovery of his self-titled rap song to the tip-six in Tuscaloosa, there was never a dull moment with the Rebels’ star quarterback. What began as an emergency transfer ended in one of the most decorated quarterback careers in program history. Following an arrest shortly after his signing, Kelly was determined to justify Hugh Freeze’s decision to keep him on the team, and he rewrote his story with as much swagger as Freeze would allow.
If ever there were a player to prove that you could be both lucky and outstanding at times, Chad was that player, and his legacy can’t be understated.
Freeze got solid, if maddeningly inconsistent, quarterback play from Bo Wallace, but Kelly instantly raised the bar in his debut season at Ole Miss. He broke or tied 14 school single-season records, most of them involving ridiculous totals for yards and touchdowns responsible for. Among SEC quarterbacks, his total yardage of 4,542 in 2015 is topped only by Johnny Manziel’s 2012 and 2013 output.
Through nine games of the 2016 season, he led the SEC with 2,758 passing yards and 19 touchdowns. He wasn’t quite on pace to replicate his 2015 numbers, but a lot of that had to do with him facing elite defenses early on in the season. In both seasons, he ranked among the SEC's top three in passer rating, an impressive feat considering his heavier workload. Most quarterbacks with the high volume of passing attempts he was tasked with would have experienced diminishing returns, yet he was still among the most efficient passers in all of college football.
That efficiency elevated the offense as a whole. Here’s how the Rebel offense improved beginning with Kelly's arrival in 2015.
|Rushing S&P+||Passing S&P+||Overall Offensive S&P+|
His legs certainly opened up the offense, and the same can be said for his ability to stretch the defense with the deep ball. In 2015, he was second in the nation with a deep adjusted completion rate of 53 percent. A few weeks ago, Pro Football Focus wrote that so far in 2016, 65.2 percent of his passing yards had come through the air (as opposed to after the catch), which led all Power 5 passers. He’s made difficult passes look easy his entire career, and his gaudy numbers haven’t just been a byproduct of his reliable receivers.
The narrative of Chad's inability to take care of the football followed him throughout his career, and while there is certainly some truth to that, most reasonable Ole Miss fans could tolerate the occasional drawbacks of his swagged out confidence in exchange for his production. This is the same fan base that made "Snead for Heisman" bumper stickers in the spring of ‘09, only to watch said quarterback lead the SEC with 20 interceptions the following season. We were just fine with 13 from Kelly last year.
It goes without saying that Ole Miss wouldn't have gotten to the Sugar Bowl without Chad Kelly leading the offense, and it’s not a fun exercise to ponder where this team would have finished without him. As disappointing as the 2016 campaign has been, it’s worth acknowledging how much the program owes to Kelly. Amid all the speculation that five-star recruit Shea Patterson might end up starting against Texas A&M on Saturday, let's not forget that the country's No. 1 quarterback recruit might not even be in Oxford if not for Kelly's success in 2015. Kelly did more than entertain the hell out of us for 22 games—he paved the way for future success at Ole Miss.