NORMAN — On paper, it might look like mop-up duty. There were few games last season that Caleb Kelly was healthy enough to compete in, so little action that he was able to retain that year of eligibility.
He made seven tackles in four games.
Kelly’s limited playing time now seems even more important with Oklahoma’s spring football practices at best shortened, and at worst destined to become another cancellation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Ahead of the Big 12 championship against Baylor, former OU linebacker Kenneth Murray was thrilled to have Kelly back alongside him.
“He came in and flew around for us. A guy that’s obviously a pivotal piece for us on defense, given everything he’s been through in this program,” Murray said. “He was able to come in and communicate and make the checks with me. He’s been big for us, and he’s going to continue to be big for us.”
The Sooners hoped that would be this upcoming fall, the second season playing in defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s new system.
But Kelly’s improvements, for now, must take place without structured practice amid OU’s athletic department suspension of all team activities until further notice.
Kelly’s three tackles against Baylor in the conference title game wound up being his best performance as he recovered from knee surgery.
OU used him carefully to navigate the NCAA’s four-game redshirt rule, which allowed him to play in the College Football Playoff and still return for another season.
“Huge,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said on March 10 of that experience. “If he had not been able to play those games, we’d still be going through now and potentially even into September. He’s done it. He’s gained some competition. He’s played not just in games, but big games in this scheme. Nothing but positives there.”
After OU’s loss to LSU in the Peach Bowl, Kelly began taking ownership of the defense with odds increasing that Murray would declare for the NFL Draft after his big season.
Now that Murray has officially declared, Kelly is the Sooners’ most experienced defender, having been in Norman since 2016.
He benefited from several spring practices before sports were virtually shut down across the nation.
Grinch addressed his performance after OU’s first spring practice on March 10, acknowledging there’s no quick way to get an injured player back to full strength again.
“Obviously the field today is the field today and we’ll watch film and all those things, but we were glad to get him back toward the tail end of the year,” Grinch said. “[But it’s like] Tre Norwood, to take six months off and all of the sudden be an elite college football player, that’s not how this game works. But he helped us in the end [last season]. It was good to get him out there, it was depth that was obviously necessary for us.
“It’s not as if he hasn’t played in a year.”
Grinch also pointed out the need to get Kelly in one linebacker position and keep him there. Kelly has played at several spots through the years.
All signs were positive as he regained strength last season and looked ahead to what figured to be a big year as it relates to his NFL future.
Kelly’s also optimistic about OU’s future and where Grinch’s defense is headed.
“Think from last year to this year, just how much actually changed in a year,” Kelly said following the Peach Bowl. “I mean, I’m proud of my guys. I’ve seen young guys step up through the injuries, other things. I’ve seen coaches talk about what they’re going to do, then really live it and enforce it. Just seeing what one year can do, I mean what’s two years gonna do? I’m just real excited for next year as much as I can be.”
That positivity continued after the first spring practice. With those workouts not taking place, OU must feel fortunate Kelly played as much as he did last season.
“He’s always been an aggressive leader,” Riley said. “You can tell that he feels like it’s his time to not only play his best ball but be the best leader and the best impactful that he’s ever been on this campus. He’s in a very good place right now.”