When I talked to Georgia Tech interim defensive coordinator Charles Kelly in June for the “10 things” series (at that point he was still secondary coach), I asked him about his coaching aspirations. He said, not surprisingly, that he someday wanted to be a head coach.
However, moving up the ladder wasn’t something he dwelt on.
“I believe this,” he said. “I believe if you do as good a job at the job you have, people recognize it.”
For better or worse, in the wake of the firing of defensive coordinator Al Groh, Kelly has been recognizedt The timing or circumstances aren’t great, but Kelly, the lone assistant still on staff who preceded coach Paul Johnson, has his opportunity to show what he can do as the Jackets’ interim replacement for Groh.
“It’s a chance to move forward and see how we can do,” Johnson said Monday, in response to a question about if the final six games of the regular season are an audition for defensive coaches. “I think that we can play better than we’ve played. So we’ll see.”
If Kelly can produce results, you’d have to think he’ll be considered as the full-time replacement. Keeping him as coordinator would provide stability and give Johnson the security of a known commodity in the hire. Further, Kelly is known as an excellent recruiter. It’s a long list, but defensive back Jemea Thomas and A-back Orwin Smith are two players Kelly has helped bring to campus.
Finding bright spots on the defense this season isn’t easy, but the secondary has been one of the team’s better units over the past few seasons. Cornerbacks Rod Sweeting, Louis Young and Thomas were among the top players on the defense last season.
At Tech, he’s had a hand in getting Mario Butler, Jahi Word-Daniels and Jerrard Tarrant into NFL camps. (Butler made the Dallas Cowboys practice squad as an unsigned free agent and then made the active roster last December. He played in one game this season and is now back on the practice squad.)
Tech was second in the ACC in pass defense last season at 197.6 yards per game, although the Jackets were seventh in defensive pass efficiency. (I recognize that pass defense isn’t solely the responsibility of the secondary, and sussing out where the pass rush’s impact ends and the secondary’s coverage ability begins is not a black and white matter.)
Tech had one interception for every 27.5 passes last year – the secondary had 10 of the 14 interceptions – which was fourth in the ACC.
Prior to coming to Tech, he was at Nicholls State, an FCS school, from 2002 to 2005. He was defensive coordinator the last two seasons. For whatever it’s worth, Nicholls State was second in the Southland Conference in scoring defense and first in total defense in 2005. The team was third in third-down conversion percentage, 37.6 percent.
The Colonels were third in scoring defense and second in total defense in 2004. They were sixth (last) in third-down percentage (42.2 percent).
He and the rest of the coaching staff have a pretty big job this week, not only addressing mistakes that have tripped up the defense, but also trying to steer players distracted and upset by Groh’s firing in the same direction.
Personally speaking, I’ve found him to be earnest and hard-working. It’s also very obvious that he cares a lot about his players, and I’ve gotten the sense that the feeling is mutual. Those qualities should help him in his efforts to bring the defense together.
It’s not often that career turning points arrive on a schedule. Time will tell if that’s what this is for Kelly, 45. The son of a high school football coach, Kelly grew up in Alabama and knew from a young age that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. It’s one reason why he walked on at Auburn, for the chance to play for Pat Dye. Kelly was struck by Dye’s work ethic, a lesson he no doubt is summoning this week.
“You’ve just got to persevere,” Kelly said. “There’s going to be some tough times, but you’ve just got to be level and get through them.”