Gus Malzahn, for one, thinks the former PA coach can
Over the course of 18 years at Pulaski Academy, Kevin Kelley coached numerous future Razorbacks like Hunter Henry, Hudson Henry and John David White.
Kelley also strengthened ties to a few former Razorback assistants, connections that are now coming into play as he enters the next stage of his career: coaching Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C. It’s the ultra-successful Arkansan’s first foray into Division I college football coaching, a move that the whole nation will be watching in the coming months.
Can Kelley carry over into the FCS world the success that led to nine state championships, the 12 highest single-season yardage totals in Arkansas prep history and a 216-29-1 overall record while at the helm of the Little Rock private school?
He thinks so.
“My first goal is to make the playoffs next year and win the conference, and my second year, my goal’s going to be to win the national championship,” the 51-year-old recently said on the The Buzz 103.7 FM. “People say that’s crazy and that’s dumb, but I’m just a believer that you can’t reach a goal if you don’t put it out there.”
Lofty goals, to be sure.
Especially considering that the Presbyterian Blue Hose (yes, really) play in a conference where the student-athletes don’t receive scholarships to play sports and would likely need to knock off a powerhouse with a full-scholarship roster like North Dakota State to reach the summit.
To achieve his goal of an FCS national championship by the end of 2022, Kelley knows he needs a good staff working for him. He said he’ll probably keep four to five coaches on the staff for continuity, bring over a couple of assistants from Pulaski Academy (such as his son, Zach Kelley) and make a couple of external hires.
He’s already spoken to a few PA. assistants like longtime co-defensive coordinator Jason Wyatt, Kelley recently told HitThatLine.com. For advice on how to put together a new staff for college football, Kelley has reached out to a couple of old friends.
“That’s where I’ve been relying on some other coaches too,” he said. “Two of my guys that I really like to talk to about stuff like this — I talked to Gus Malzahn yesterday and Tim Horton. They talked me through some things that I might not have any idea about.”
Tim Horton is a former Razorback who was the running backs coach of Arkansas in 2007 to 2012, a stint which included coaching Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. He’s the son of Harold Horton, who coached under Frank Broyles in the 1970s before taking over as head coach at UCA, now one of the rising FCS powers that make Kelley’s goal of winning a national title an especially hard one.
Gus Malzahn on Kevin Kelley at Presbyterian
Gus Malzahn, of course, set the gold standard for Arkansas high school coaches looking to break into the college big time.
Some of the offensive records that Kelley’s teams achieved were likely previously set by Gus Malzahn during his time at Shiloh Christian and Springdale High in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Malzahn parlayed that high school success into an offensive coordinator position at Arkansas before later becoming the head coach at Arkansas State, Auburn and Central Florida
“I’m extremely happy for my friend Kevin Kelley. I’m also very proud of him,” Malzahn recently said. “He will do a wonderful job at the college level, and this is a home-run hire for Presbyterian College. Kevin and PC are a perfect match, and I look forward to seeing Kevin light it up in the college football world.”
In an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Malzahn said of Kelley: “I’ve always had a lot of respect for how he went about his business. What always stood out to me was that he had enough courage to do what he believed in.
“That says a lot about him.”
Can Kevin Kelley’s ‘Never Punt’
Philosophy Work in the FCS?
If Kelley is ever to be seriously considered as an offensive coordinator at a major college, he will first need to prove he can adapt his unique system to work at the FBS level.
Kelley’s PA teams, for instance, onside kicked about 95 percent of the time and hardly ever punted. In fact, in the last 18 seasons, the Bruins punted a grand total of eight times. Kelley is a numbers cruncher who goes by data that shows going for it on fourth down is almost always warranted.
He fully committed to this analytics-based approach in 2007 in a game against Pine Bluff Dollarway, he recounted to the Democrat-Gazette’s Mitchell Gladstone.
“We were winning by five points with five minutes left in the game,” he recalled. “I asked my defensive coordinator, ‘Hey, if I punt it here, can you stop them?’ And it was fourth and 7, we were on our own 30 — and I’d never punt now on that.
“He goes, ‘Yeah, we’ll stop them.’ We punted and five plays later, they’re in the end zone, and we lose. I was just done with it.”
The Bruins didn’t punt again the rest of that season.
Adapting this system to the college game will be tough. Kelley knows that. He knows there are some systemic advantages he had at Pulaski Academy that he won’t have at Presbyterian.
At PA, for instance, some of his high school players had been practicing in his system since they were in fourth grade. But his college players won’t have that same luxury of multiyear onboarding.
“That’s for sure a worry,” he told Justin Acri and Wess Moore on The Buzz. “There’ll be a lot of mistakes made early. But again, trying to find the positive, by the end of the season we will be way, way, way better than we were at the beginning.”
In his introductory press conference at Presbyterian, Kelley essentially conceded that he doesn’t expect Presbyterian will come out of the gates in 2021 at anything near the same efficiency of his Pulaski Academy teams.
“One game, we might go five-for-six on fourth down; another game, we may go 0-for-six,” he said. But five for 12 isn’t a terrible percentage.”
Kelley appreciates Presbyterian leaders telling him that he can pretty much go full bore with his strategy. In the past, other colleges had contacted Kelley but told him he would need to adjust his style for college.
“They’re like, ‘You know what, if we hire a coach, we don’t want to tell him how to play football or how to coach football.’”
Kelley added, “Now, you’re kind of set in your own way. If it goes good, good for you. If it goes bad, it won’t work, and you won’t be able to stay here.”
Evin Demirel has written about Arkansas sports for multiple national outlets. He is the founder of BestofArkansasSports.com, where this piece first was published, and the author of African-American Athletes in Arkansas: Black Razorbacks, Muhammad Ali’s Tour and other Forgotten Stories.