Clemson Football Game Program Feature: Aaron Kelly

Clemson Football Game Program Feature: Aaron Kelly

Oct. 16, 2008

Anyone who has seen Aaron Kelly perform on the gridiron will realize that he is a competitive person. But for Kelly, his competitiveness comes more naturally than most. Kelly and his twin brother Avery have been competing most of their lives, both on and off the football field. And in doing so, they have helped to make each other better in the process.

Kelly began playing football at the age of seven and played running back all the way until high school. He and his brother shared the position, though Kelly admitted that he usually came up on the short end of that stick.

“I was good at running back, but my brother was better, so he got the ball most of the time,” Kelly confessed.

When Kelly arrived at Walton High School in Marietta, GA, he opted not to play football during his freshman year in order to focus on basketball. He had a change of heart, however, and returned to the field the following year.

“I didn’t even play football my freshman year…I just wanted to play basketball,” remembered Kelly, who stands 6’5″. “Then I watched my brother play, so I wanted to play again. My sophomore year, I played on the junior varsity team. Then my junior year, I made varsity but I didn’t really play that much. I played a lot my senior year.”

Kelly switched to the wide receiver position as a sophomore in high school. “My brothers are the reason I play football at all, and Avery is the reason I got back into football in high school,” he continued. “We’ve always been competitors, so I’ve always wanted to be better than him. That’s probably the biggest reason I moved to wide receiver, because he was better than me at running back, so I had to go somewhere where I could play.”

Avery will be the first to admit that the competition was tough. “Whenever we played each other, it was always really competitive, like the rivalry between Clemson and South Carolina. Even though we were competitive with each other, in the end, it made us both better, because we are both good athletes and we pushed each other to the limit.”

After moving to wideout, Kelly began to collect some impressive stats, including 55 receptions for 955 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior at Walton High. He lettered in both basketball and football, where he received all-state, all-county, and Cobb County Player-of-the-Year honors.

The Kelly family is the epitome of unity, as they have supported each other throughout the years. They are fixtures in Death Valley during football season, supporting Kelly in every game. He shows his appreciation for his parents by writing “Mom” and “Dad” on his eye-black.

“I am very close to my family,” Kelly added. “They come to all the home games and the away games that are not too far away. They’ve been coming to my games ever since I was little, through all of these years. They’re my support system.”

Coming from a very close-knit family left Kelly with an easy decision to make when it came time to pick a college. “I liked Clemson because it wasn’t that far from home, but it wasn’t too close. And when I visited here, they threw the ball a lot, which I liked because I play receiver. I visited Duke and Wake Forest and schools like that, but they didn’t throw the ball enough.”

Wide Receivers Coach Dabo Swinney has coached Kelly throughout his career in Tigertown and remembers well the Kelly of five years ago. “He was 165 pounds when he got here and looked like he might get broken in two if somebody breathed on him. But he’s about 190 pounds now and he’s gotten stronger. He’s still kind of a wiry guy, but his toughness has improved tremendously along with that physical improvement. Fundamentally and technique-wise, he’s come light-years.”

After red-shirting in 2004, Kelly made his debut in a Tiger uniform in 2005, when he played at least 29 snaps and had at least two catches in every game, though he started only four games. He had his best game of the year versus Temple with seven receptions for 155 yards and a touchdown.

Perhaps the most exciting moment of his red-shirt freshman year came in the home game versus #16 Florida State, where his diving catch in the endzone was reviewed and eventually ruled a touchdown. He ended the season second on the team in receptions (47) and receiving yards (575). His 47 receptions were second-most in Tiger history for a freshman, while his reception yards were just 110 yards short of the Clemson record as well. He was also named to the ACC All-Freshman team by Sporting News. Having had such a productive red-shirt freshman campaign, Kelly was ready to continue his developing role for the Tiger offense.

Though the 2006 season brought a less productive year statistically for #80, he improved immensely as a football player. As one of Kelly’s main evaluators, Swinney was impressed by the progress that Kelly showed, though it may not have been apparent to the untrained eye.

“That’s the one negative about this position; it’s one of those things where nobody really notices you until you do something bad…or you do something really good,” stated his position coach. “His sophomore year, he actually played much better than he did as a freshman. That’s when he had all the accolades and caught a lot of balls. As a sophomore, he didn’t have as many opportunities to make plays because we ran the ball so well. I was proud of him, because I really thought he improved a ton that year.”

In 2006, Kelly started five games and played 468 snaps. He recorded his first touchdown of 2006 in the season-opener versus Florida Atlantic and played his best game at Wake Forest, where he not only had five receptions for 91 yards, he caught a touchdown to tie the score in the fourth quarter and stage a come-from-behind win. He was the second-leading receiver on the team (behind Chansi Stuckey) for the second year in a row. He added his third touchdown of the season in the Music City Bowl against Kentucky.

In the off season, Kelly made up his mind to become the go-to guy of 2007. Stuckey had been that player during the previous two seasons as a back-to-back all-conference player, but with Stuckey’s graduation and selection by the New York Jets in the 2007 NFL draft, the spot was available for anyone who wanted to take it…and Kelly decided he wanted it.

“I wanted to be that guy, so that even if we didn’t throw the ball that much, when we did throw it, I would get the ball,” Kelly said. “So I just took it as a challenge to motivate myself to become the go-to guy, so I could get more balls the next year.”

Spring of 2007 showed Kelly’s all-around improvement. Swinney challenged him to “take it to the next level,” and Kelly took that challenge to heart.

“He went to work and showed that he was capable of leading this football team,” Swinney said. “He became very consistent and was playing harder, had his motor running all the time, wasn’t taking plays off, and was playing without the ball as well as he was with the ball. And then he worked his tail off in the weight room in the off season and was really working on the little things at the position. He came back with a different mindset.”

The 2007 season marked a career year for #80. He started every game and totaled 1,081 receiving yards, including a career-high 174 yards against #14 Virginia Tech, where he also added a touchdown. Kelly had three multiple-touchdown games in 2007 (Central Michigan, Duke, Wake Forest), all of which were wins.

The South Carolina win was a great way to end the regular season for Kelly, who claimed the way the Tigers won made it the most memorable game of 2007. He had four catches for 70 yards on the final drive, which set up the winning field goal by Mark Buchholz as time ran out. The coaches named Kelly offensive MVP of that game, as he had 134 receiving yards, his third 100-yard receiving game of 2007.

Kelly added even more accolades to his résumé a season ago. He was named First-Team All-ACC and was an honorable mention All-American by Pro Football Weekly. He established Tiger season records with 88 catches and 11 receiving touchdowns, and he led the ACC in receiving yards per game and receiving touchdowns. He also set the school single-season record for receptions and was only three yards away from setting another record with his 1,081 receiving yards.

Kelly is now Clemson’s career leader in receptions (193) and needs 24 to set the all-time ACC record. He needs just three touchdown catches to establish a Tiger career record as well.

Avery, who played football at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas, is one of the people who has witnessed Kelly’s improvement on the gridiron. “He’s matured more as a person, which has translated on the field. He’s grown up more. When we were younger, I saw his body change a lot, but since we’ve been apart, I haven’t seen him, and the stuff he has learned has made him pretty good.

“I used to be the better one out of the two, but I don’t know now,” Avery joked.

Another witness to his development is teammate and fellow wide receiver Jacoby Ford. “He has developed into a very consistent player. As far as his attitude towards the game, he loves it. He’s a playmaker…he makes plays whenever he can. People think he’s just tall and skinny, but he’s pretty strong.

“People underestimate his speed,” continued Ford, who has learned from Kelly in the past three years. “He knows what to do, so I just listen. I become the student and he becomes the teacher.”

With the 2008 season underway, Kelly has been back to work. Compared to his teams in the past, this year’s group of Tigers has a special vibe according to the fifth-year senior.

“We have good camaraderie this year. I’ve been through a lot with many players on this team, and I’ve been a leader this year. The guys are really together.”

So far in 2008, his numbers include seven receptions for 94 yards against N.C. State and seven catches for 75 yards versus Maryland. In all, he has totaled a team-high 28 catches for 262 yards this season.

Since deciding to return for his senior season, Kelly has time to set even more records. Earning his diploma was his main reason for staying.

“I talked to my parents a lot, and I wanted to get my diploma,” added Kelly. “I only have nine hours left, so I wanted to come back and finish off the right way.”

After earning his degree in management in December, he plans to take a shot at playing in the NFL and eventually start his own business. After the progress he has made at Clemson, both goals are certainly attainable.

Ford supports his goal of playing in the NFL. “I know he will go out there and give it his all. I expect to see Aaron playing on Sundays after taking what he’s learned at Clemson and applying it to the next level.”

Tiger fans can be sure that Kelly is not done yet. He has undoubtedly evolved into a complete player in his time at Clemson, and rightfully so considering the hard work and dedication he has applied to the wide receiver position.

Perhaps Avery summed it up best. “I am proud of him and the success he’s had. He’s carried himself well and has been able to stay humble. I’m proud of who he is on and off the field.”

And for Aaron, the praise does not come any higher than that.

Katrina Eddie, a junior from Sacramento, CA, is a student assistant in the Clemson Sports Information Office.