MOBILE, Ala. – Chad Kelly has considered the alternate path.
He has wondered what it would have been like if he had entered the NFL Draft after his 2015 season.
He has envisioned the different route, one that would have allowed him to steer clear of the painful results of Ole Miss’ whoopee cushion experience in 2016.
This past fall, reality presented a rockier road for the former Rebels quarterback. Ole Miss finished 5-7, its worst season since coach Hugh Freeze arrived before the 2012 campaign. Kelly threw for 2,758 yards with 19 touchdowns and 9 interceptions before he sustained a season-ending torn ACL and a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee against Georgia Southern on Nov. 5.
Instead of ending his college career with an exclamation point, Kelly left a giant question mark that should make some NFL scouts scratch their heads.
“You can never get too high, and you can never get too low,” Kelly told SEC Country on Tuesday. “You’ve got to stay even-keeled throughout the whole process, no matter if it’s good or bad. Just stay focused and keep working hard.”
There’s hard work required of Kelly these days. He’s taking part in the pre-Senior Bowl interview process with representatives from NFL teams, but he’s not playing in the all-star game Saturday because of his health situation. He’s doing all the mental tasks needed to make the most of his time near curious eyes representing the next level, but he can’t showcase his skill on the field.
It’s easy to look at Kelly here, with the hustle and bustle of the opening moments of his new life before him, and wonder about the path that never was.
What if he left college after throwing for an SEC-best 4,042 yards with 31 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in the 2015 season?
What if he rode off into a giant, orange Oxford sunset after leading Ole Miss to a victory over Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl that capped a memorable 10-3 year?
What if the terrible messes of 2016 never happened?
“It definitely went through my mind,” Kelly said, when asked if he regretted coming back to Ole Miss for his senior season.
“It was a learning experience. I think we went through adversity more times than not, it seemed like. But we kept coming to practice every single day. We wanted to get better and work hard. And things didn’t go the way we planned it throughout the season, but everybody still stuck together.”
Let’s not get carried away. It was simple to make the argument after the 2015 season that another year in college would serve Kelly well. He threw for just 58 yards with Clemson as a freshman in 2013 before he played a year at East Mississippi Community College in 2014. Most expected more greatness for Kelly near The Grove prior to his NFL leap.
But knowing how Kelly’s Ole Miss story ended, it’s tempting to wonder if he would have been better served striking while his iron was hottest. The search for silver linings is well underway.
“Everything happens for a reason,” former Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram said. “He decided to come back for a reason, and everything that has happened to him now has happened for a reason. It’s going to make him a better person. So I don’t know if there’s any regret in him. I could tell in his work ethic, I could tell this past season how bad he wanted to be great. But everything happens for a reason, and I think he understands that.”
What’s next for Kelly? That puzzle remains to be solved.
Most NFL Draft gurus label the quarterback as a possible late-round pick. Recently, NFL Media’s Daniel Jeremiah wrote a piece in which an NFL executive was highlighted who said Kelly could become the next Dak Prescott.
In some ways, an under-the-radar rise as a professional would be well-deserved positive karma after Kelly experienced a front-and-center crash this past season. He would have no complaints if his rookie year included the same Cinderella charm that Prescott enjoyed with the Dallas Cowboys.
“He had a great, fantastic year this year, so that’s a great comparison,” Kelly said. “But I’m just trying to be the best player that I can be on the field and off the field every single day.”
Added Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson, who’s coaching Kelly’s team in the Senior Bowl: “He’s engaged, he’s in the meetings, he’s around. And I think (that’s) important as he continues to rehab and get better.
“We’ll go back and do our due diligence on him (before the NFL Draft). But everything he has done, he’ll be evaluated just like every other player moving forward. We understand where he’s coming from. We understand the injury part of it. We’ll give him an opportunity to show who he is.”
Kelly showed so much in 2015, a time that offered wonder about his future. More than a year later, his tomorrow includes much more fog.
Yet that doesn’t stop him from believing in big possibilities. When asked to describe his best-case scenario for the upcoming year, his vision was bright.
“I’m on a team,” Kelly said, “and I’m helping my team win in whatever capacity that is – whether it’s on the field or on the bench.”
Sure, it’s tempting to consider what could have been.
But what might be on the way has a chance to produce the best memory of all.