Charles Kelly thought he was recruiting. In fact, he was interviewing for his job.
In the weeks after Paul Johnson was hired to replace Chan Gailey as coach of Georgia Tech in Dec. 2007, Gailey’s assistants stayed on to coach in the bowl game. Their futures at Tech were, at best, uncertain. In some cases, their commitment to keep recruiting reflected that.
Kelly, then Tech’s special-teams coordinator, kept up with phone calls and accompanied Johnson on home visits. After one visit, Johnson told Kelly that he wanted to be up front with him that he wasn’t necessarily going to be retained.
“And I will never forget,” Johnson said. “He told me, he said, ‘My dad taught me a long time ago, if you’re taking a man’s money, then you should work. I’m still taking their money, so I should work.’”
Kelly’s actions and response helped secure himself a spot on Johnson’s staff. Through his continued work, he has earned an opportunity to make the best of a bad situation and perhaps advance his career. For the remainder of the season, Kelly will serve as Tech’s interim defensive coordinator in the place of Al Groh, fired Monday.
“I’m going to do the job as hard as I can,” said Kelly, who grew up in Ozark, Ala., the son of a high school football coach.
Kelly, who comes across as earnest and team-oriented, assumes leadership of a listing ship. Tech has lost its past three games and given up 42, 49 and 47 points, becoming the first Tech team ever to allow 40 or more points in three consecutive games. Out of 120 FBS teams, the Yellow Jackets are ranked 89th in the country in scoring defense (30.2 points per game), 90th in total defense (431.0 yards per game) and 103rd in defensive third-down conversion percentage (47.8 percent).
His answer is to reduce the scheme, put players in position to succeed and practice with energy.
“The biggest thing we’ve tried to instill is, Hey, listen: What you do on Saturday are the habits that you develop during the week,” Kelly said.
The Jackets also figure to tweak the 3-4 scheme to a style more suited to the players’ s strengths and use more players than Groh had. Coaches also plan to run more full-speed drills to sharpen players’ tackling, a weak spot. Kelly, who has been a defensive coordinator at the FCS level at Nicholls State and Jacksonville State, will rely on the input of fellow defensive assistants Andy McCollum, Joe Speed and David Walkosky, the special-teams coordinator who is taking on the defensive line.
“He’s got us involved and we’re committed to him,” Walkosky said. “It’s really a ‘we’ thing.”
Kelly, 45, has made the work ethic he learned from his father Lavon and from Auburn coaching great Pat Dye, whom Kelly played for as a walk-on, a point of emphasis with his players.
“He made me a better player by never letting me get comfortable, always pushing me to do better,” former safety Rashaad Reid said.
Mario Butler, who played cornerback for Kelly and is on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, said that besides insufficient effort, mental mistakes also drive Kelly up a wall.
“It wasn’t really nice, I can say that,” said Butler, asked how Kelly reacted to mental errors.
An intolerance for not executing assignments properly – and better yet, a method for avoiding them altogether – would do the Jackets well. Under Groh, players repeatedly lined up out of position and were unable to run the defense correctly. In last Saturday’s 47-31 loss to Clemson, Groh’s last, Johnson said he thought there were 47 missed assignments. Under Kelly’s direction, Tech will simplify its scheme to keep players from being slowed by having to think through their assignments.
Kelly’s players swear by him, not only for his coaching ability but for how he has developed relationships with them away from the game.
“I think he’ll do a great job,” Butler said. “I think the guys are going to respond well and play hard for him.”
Kelly will have the opportunity to win the full-time job, though, once again, there are no guarantees. And, like the last time, the only angle Kelly is playing is the one his father taught him.
“Honestly, what I’ve tried to do is focus on Georgia Tech and those players,” he said. “I think if you work and do your job, do everything you can, work as hard as you can, I can live with the results.”
(I think this should conclude Charles Kelly week.)
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