NORMAN — Caleb Kelly came to Oklahoma as a five-star recruit, one of those almost-can’t-miss prospects who was going to help alter the destiny of the Sooners’ defense.
And Kelly’s big breakout game in 2016 came at the end of his freshman season in the Sugar Bowl against Auburn, a big, strong, no-nonsense SEC troublemaker that was supposed to push Kelly and the Sooners around for 60 minutes in the Superdome, but instead found itself overwhelmed by an OU defense that was fast and furious and plenty physical.
Fast forward three years and Kelly has never quite lived up to the promise and potential he displayed that night in New Orleans. He had a middling sophomore year, had offseason shoulder surgery, changed positions and then never quite gained a foothold this season as the Sooners’ starting weakside linebacker, losing the preseason competition with senior Curtis Bolton and playing only sparingly all season.
He even considered invoking the new redshirt rule, whereby he could play no more than four games and still retain a full season of eligibility for later. There were also rumors he was considering a transfer.
Now, however, things finally may be coming full circle for Caleb Kelly. The Sooners are back in the postseason against an SEC bully — this time it’s Alabama in the Orange Bowl, step one of the College Football Playoff — and Kelly is playing once more like a five-star prospect.
It’s Christmas, but this is no Christmas miracle. Kelly’s resurgence has been equal parts attitude, work ethic and perseverance.
“A lot of guys may have packed it in and a lot of guys might have not handled it as well as Caleb has,” coach Lincoln Riley said. “He’s fought back and he’s been able to contribute for us.”
Kelly was a spot player his freshman season out of Fresno, California, then delivered a career-high 12 tackles in the Sugar Bowl. But last season, as a full-time starter, he averaged just over four tackles per game. This season, OU’s schematic changes and Bolton’s emergence derailed Kelly’s career arc.
But Kelly never felt sorry for himself or made excuses. Instead, he recognizes what has happened, why it happened and thinks he has a pretty good understanding of how to change it.
“All the way from the Sugar Bowl all the way until now,” Kelly said, “there’s always been … that’s something (Ogbonnia Okoronkwo) always used to tell me: ‘You always show flashes, but I want you to do it all the time. Have those flash plays all the time, every week. Be consistent.’
“I think just in learning, just in playing this game every year and every week, your mindset going into a game can be so different. When I stress and I think, ‘Oh, I gotta make a play. Oh, I gotta make a play,’ usually that’s when the plays don’t come. When I’m thinking too much. When I’m trying to do too much. When I have the turnovers, that’s just me doing my job, making plays and God does the rest kind of thing.”
That attitude showed up the second half of this season as Kelly let go the idea of redshirting and just started playing football. As the OU defense evolved following Mike Stoops’ firing, Kelly switched back from weakside linebacker to strongside and has blossomed again.
After a slow start, Kelly had two quarterback sacks in the Baylor game (one a bone-crunching hit on Charlie Brewer), saw spot duty against Texas and Kansas State and then was moved into the starting lineup on the strong side for the last four games, contributing 33 total tackles against Oklahoma State, Kansas, West Virginia and Texas.
In Morgantown, he made a career-high 14 tackles and delivered the play of the game — and the Sooners’ defensive play of the year — when he sacked WVU quarterback Will Grier, stripped the football, scooped it up and returned it 10 yards for a second-quarter touchdown. It was the kind of play OU’s defense has been desperate for all year, and it might be the kind of play only Kelly is capable of — the exact kind of play he produced in last year’s Big 12 Championship Game against TCU.
“The past couple games playing at Sam, I’ve been out there kind of stress free, just having fun again,” Kelly said. “I’ve been playing well and trying to be more consistent with it.”
“After we made the change (of coordinators) midseason,” Riley said, “one of the plans was to get him on the field more. He’s been a team player. He’s played explosive for us.”
And all the while, whether he’s sacking quarterbacks or sitting the sideline, Kelly’s attitude has been indefatigable. Being benched never doused his passion for life. That played a huge part in his return to prominence.
Shortly after the season began, Kelly was named to the prestigious American Football Coaches Association AllState Good Works Team. Only 22 players are recognized nationwide by the AFCA, and only 11 players from the Football Bowl Subdivision are so accorded. The AFCA rewards players who make a significant difference in their community, and Kelly’s inclusion on this year’s team is the Sooners’ first this decade.
(Jacob Gutierrez (2006), Nic Harris (2007), Gerald McCoy (2008) and Quinton Carter (2010) previously earned Good Works Team accolades for OU.)
“I grew up like that,” Kelly said, explaining that former Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr (now with the Oakland Raiders) spoke at his junior high and left an impression on him. “I wanted to do that. I want to be good at football but I want to speak to kids, I want to talk about the Lord and I want to do all that.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities doing it coming up here right away. One of the first people I met was Jeremy Tims, the FCA Chaplain and our team chaplain. So just doing that, it makes me feel good, but I just like seeing what the kids do and how they interact with us.”
Kelly’s proclivity for giving of his own time knows no bounds. He quickly became a regular on the Sooners for Haiti mission trips, and he’s been even more involved around Norman — particularly when discussing his faith.
“There’s those kids that are like, ‘Oh you’re a football player,’ ” he said. “But then there’s those kids like, ‘What makes you so cool?’ I just enjoy really talking to the kids and hanging out with them. I’ve spoken to every level, elementary, junior high and high school — and even at a couples retreat one time. I do enjoy kids the most just because they are the future. And I know, that’s kind of cliché to say, but they really (are).
“There’s so many different kids and so many opportunities you can make with them, so I just love hanging out with them and instilling that Jesus died on the cross and He’s your savior and you get to heaven and be with Him. Starting that at a young age, I think that’s really awesome.”
Kelly also has been brutally honest with himself about his playing situation. When asked recently how much the offseason shoulder injury set him back in the pursuit of learning a new position, his answer offered the kind of uprightness that today’s athlete tends to avoid.
“I think with the injury, we just kind of said that just so people weren’t pressing me too much,” he said. “But I think Buzzy (Bolton) just flat-out won the position role. I think that’s why I wasn’t playing so much early. I don’t think it was about the shoulder. My shoulder’s been fine all year. Since fall camp they were just saying that to kind of save my image, but Buzzy just won flat-out. That’s why I haven’t played so much in the front half of the season.”
It’s that kind of blunt self-awareness that has allowed Kelly to return to the field with a clear head and an open heart.
“Just having my faith and having my people around me who support me and really mean it when they support me — I can lean on them and they can lean on me — I think that’s just what I needed,” Kelly said. “Kind of finding that and kind of going through that has really made me stronger, made me a better football player mentally. I think it can help me going forward for sure.”
“I’m proud of how he, in some ways, has battled back,” Riley said. “You take a guy like him that had been a good player for us the last few years, we move him inside and probably move him in there thinking that, chances are, he’s going to start. He has to earn it like everybody else, and then Bolton wins that job.
“I think he’s just now getting back settled in and comfortable on the outside.”
Don’t be surprised if Caleb Kelly — now fully healthy both mentally and physically — is once again an impact playmaker on Saturday night against the Crimson Tide. As Auburn learned three years ago, Kelly has the kind of athletic ability that can produce game-changing plays against a physical SEC offense.
“I do think I’m in a better place mentally,” he said. “I’ve been through everything pretty much now. I’ve gotten injured. I’ve had a surgery now. I’ve been a second-string player now. These are all first-times in my entire life. Having that happen to me, I feel like it helps me going forward. You can get through anything.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.