In this transfer-heavy era, stories about an athlete finding success at a second (or third or fourth or…) collegiate stop are abundant. Accordingly, not all of them garner the same amount of notice.
It wasn’t necessarily “SportsCenter” fare, for instance, when Southeastern Louisiana quarterback Cole Kelley recently nabbed the Walter Payton Award, the most prestigious individual award for smaller college football programs that used to make up Division I-AA.
The expat Razorback quarterback, occasionally dogged for his inaccuracy at Arkansas, completed just shy of 70 percent of his passes for a nation-leading 2,662 yards in the FCS’ unconventional spring season.
Turns out, Cole Kelley is fond of his time in Fayetteville. Considering the compulsion of some to take a parting shot or two as they leave, Kelley’s high-road approach in a recent interview with Pig Trail Nation was refreshing.
“I grew a lot at the University of Arkansas.”
Cole Kelley’s Instantaneous Rise and Fall in Fayetteville
Bret Bielema’s last SEC victory in 2017 at Oxford, Mississippi, almost didn’t happen.
One play, in fact, might’ve cost him his job on that very day — and Kelley was right in the center.
On October 28, Arkansas trailed 31-7 after an early onslaught from the Rebels; Kelley, having earned an audition thanks to injuries to Austin Allen, found himself in a tough place.
But in truly Bielemian fashion (yes, I’m copyrighting that, and it’s not flattery), Kelley “never yielded” in leading two quick scoring drives to end the half. His nine-yard touchdown pass to Cheyenne O’Grady was his third of the day. The deficit shrunk to 31-28, and suddenly Kelley had a new hero vibe in the works.
Then, “The Dribble” happened.
On fourth-and-1, Kelley didn’t just fall forward for the needed yard as the Hogs drove for a potential go-ahead score. No, the ensuing play-action design left the gangly quarterback instead appearing to mimic a low-dribble of the ball on the turf.
Kelley righted himself and lofted a dud of a throw over the middle, nowhere near Jeremy Patton.
Announcers marveled. Fans laughed or cursed.
Kelley later threw a terrible interception, too, but redeemed himself in the end.
His leadership on the game-winning field goal drive had the Hogs ultimately singing the fight song to their exhausted fans after the 38-37 win.
For a week, fans loved that moxie and mentality, even if there was always something fundamentally awkward about him.
Immediately thereafter, Kelley returned to Earth (3-10 with a pick in a blowout loss to LSU) then damn near below it (a DWI arrest the next day).
The sequence of events the rest of 2017 played out predictably, with Kelley suspended and Bielema dumped for SMU coach Chad Morris.
Chad Morris’ Hiring Cemented Cole Kelley’s Exit
Morris inherited Kelley and Ty Storey for the 2018 season; Connor Noland also figured in the mix along with longshot newcomer John Stephen Jones.
Needless to say, Hog fans were skeptical of what kind of production they’d get.
Kelley started the uninspired opening win, but Storey was a bit more dynamic and earned the next starting nod. In the second game at Colorado State, however, Storey fizzled and Morris summoned Kelley for help.
The sophomore obliged.
Kelley threw a gorgeous touchdown pass to LaMichael Pettway in the third quarter, then found T.J. Hammonds for a 64-yard score on a short toss as the Hogs built a seemingly insurmountable 27-9 lead. For all the doubt and shakiness, Morris at least threatened to start his Hog coaching career with a 2-0 record.
But again, Kelley found himself at the center of a controversial fourth-and-short. This time, the coach simply took the ball out of his hands entirely.
Kelley’s scalding start against the Rams evidently didn’t curry enough favor with Morris. At midfield, with the Hogs still up 27-17 and Kelley still presumably being the same 79 inches tall as he had been in the media guide, Hammer-Down turned into Stall-Mode.
You know the rest. Arkansas gagged away that game and the Morris era seemed to have ended already, a whopping 120 minutes of game action down. Kelley was listless and ineffective in a four-pick blowout loss to North Texas the next week, finding the bench again for good.
He threw only 11 more passes as a Razorback before announcing his exit shortly after the 2-10, 0-8 stinker of a season wrapped.
Back Home, Cole Kelley Finds His Rhythm
In some ways, Kelley never quite made sense at Arkansas.
The Louisiana native had high three-star status in most recruiting services and reached four stars on ESPN. Kentucky and Oklahoma State were among the offering schools, along with regional universities of some prominence (Tulane, Southern Miss, and Louisana).
At Southeastern Louisiana, he was a part-timer in his first year for the Lions, but as the 2019 season wore on, Kelley earned reps with steady play. He completed 69 of his 93 throws with a 10-2 TD-INT ratio, showing discipline and accuracy he hadn’t been coached yet.
With COVID-19 pushing the FCS Lions into a spring season, Kelley thrived in spite of the layoff. Entrenched as the Lions’ starter, he threw 18 touchdowns against only four interceptions, and accounted for seven rushing and even two receiving scores.
He led the country with a rather astounding 2,600-plus passing yards in the truncated, seven-game campaign. Southeastern Louisiana has also emerged as a winning program the past two seasons after being 4-7 the season prior to Kelley’s arrival.
And he’ll be back in the fall, when seasonal structure and play resumes in a pre-pandemic way.
Cole Kelley will turn 24 during his fifth and final year, now accomplished and more mature. His cocksure style and fearless approach to scrambling might make him an outlier NFL prospect in 2022.
“I try to look at adversity as an opportunity,” Kelley told Pig Trail Nation.
“You can’t quit, you just gotta keep going.”
A Fitting Epilogue for the Chad Morris Era
Bret Bielema at least implemented Kelley as a gadget player; Chad Morris more or less disregarded him as a viable option.
The on- and off-field gaffes being what they were, Kelley nonetheless performed well at times. And he truly embodied the phrase “caught in transition.”
Those wanting to believe Morris had a lick of acumen mocked the departures of Kelley and Storey, who elected to move on to Western Kentucky for his final year. Morris smugly entered 2019 seemingly of the mind that it would be a far better year with newer, flashier transfers like Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel onboard.
Morris then spent several weeks that same autumn proving what the problem truly was. Hicks and Starkel struggled mightily too, and Storey and Kelley almost certainly felt some validation.
Especially on November 9.
That’s when Ty Storey led the Hilltoppers to a rout of the Hogs before a nearly-vacant Razorback Stadium. Due south in Conway, Kelley had a five-touchdown effort in the Lions’ 34-0 rout of then-No. 6 Central Arkansas.
The following Monday, Storey won Sun Belt Player of the Week and Kelley earned the FCS STATS National Player of the Week distinction. And Hunter Yurachek fired Chad Morris.
Things have looked up ever since.