Back when Caleb Kelly signed with the Oklahoma Sooners on National Signing Day 2016, he was considered the crown jewel of the 2016 class. Kelly was a five-star recruit out of Fresno, California who received offers from Notre Dame, USC, Texas, Ohio State, Alabama, Florida State and a litany of other programs across the country. The main reason why Kelly was so coveted was because of his size, speed, athleticism and overall versatility at the linebacker position.
Despite the immense level of talent Kelly displayed in high school, it took Kelly a little bit of time to acclimate to the college game and be able to showcase his abilities for the Sooners. The main thing that held Kelly back during the start of his freshman season in 2016 was a knee injury that held him out of most of fall camp. Once Kelly got healthy and was able to learn his assignments at outside linebacker, he was able to flourish. Kelly had his first major breakout game against Iowa State in early November last year, registering 6 tackles, 1 sack, and 1 tackle for loss. Following this strong performance, Kelly continued had a few solid outings before another outstanding performance in the Sugar Bowl against Auburn. In that game, Kelly registered a whopping 12 tackles and 1 tackle for loss.
After this breakout performance and a full offseason with Smitty under his belt(he’s now listed at 6’3”, 230), Kelly came into the 2017 season primed for greatness. Unfortunately for Kelly and the rest of the Sooner defense, he sometimes struggled to live up to the hype during the first few games of the 2017 season. Through the first six games, Kelly had fewer than six tackles in every game and wasn’t always assignment sound. Of course, that seems to have changed, as the Fresno native has done quite well since the loss to Iowa State.
Kelly had a team-leading nine tackles in the K-State game and was a big reason why the Sooner defense righted the ship in the second half, especially in terms of stopping the run. Kelly was essentially used as a spy on K-State QB Alex Delton for much of the second half and it worked in the Sooners’ favor. When Kelly is on his game and is getting into the backfield or tackling guys on the outside, the Oklahoma defense looks entirely different. Here is one notable play Kelly made against K-State:
When Kelly is locked in, he provides a significant boost to both the run defense and the pass defense. He’s good against the run because he has the strength to get off blocks and make plays on the inside while also having the speed to set the edge on the outside. This is what we saw in the second half against K-State and in the Sugar Bowl against Auburn last year. Kelly moving all over the field and chasing after running backs and opposing quarterbacks is a boon for the Oklahoma defense. When offensive lineman have to account for Kelly shedding his first blocker, that opens up lanes for the linebackers and defensive lineman to plug gaps against the run.
This same concept applies to the pass defense, which has struggled so far this year. When Kelly is able to consistently rush the passer, it frees up lanes for Obo to get after the quarterback and potentially get even more sacks. In addition to helping Obo, Kelly setting the edge like he did in the K-State game also helps the other linebackers. When Kelly sets the edge, it allows fellow linebackers Emmanuel Beal and Kenneth Murray to stay in their spots in the middle of the field and not worry about having to cover too much ground. This is where Beal and Murray thrive, as we have seen in several games this year.
On top of helping the linebackers, Kelly occasionally coming off the edge frees up space for the defensive linemen. When the offensive linemen of an opposing offense start thinking about Caleb Kelly coming off the edge, that frees up space for guys like Neville Gallimore, Amani Bledsoe, DJ Ward. Duvonta Lampkin and others to get after the quarterback or stuff the run.
Since a defense in football works like a finely-tuned machine, Caleb Kelly getting pressure on the quarterback also helps the secondary. It helps the secondary because when a quarterback is pressured and rushed on throws, the guys in the secondary do not have to cover for as long and can play more aggressively in coverage. This was on full display during the interception by Jordan Thomas in the K-State game. Although Kenneth Murray is the one that ended up hitting Alex Delton as he threw the ball, Kelly was a crucial part of the play. Kelly begins the play rushing from the left side and after faking a move outside, he cuts inside. This fake forces both the right guard and tackle further outside, leaving an open lane down the middle for Kenneth Murray to come at Alex Delton like a bat out of hell. Here is the play below:
If Kelly is able to continue to make plays like this, it will help the Sooner defense at all three levels. If Kelly is used similar to how Eric Striker was used in certain instances, he could really take off, along with the rest of the defense. Kelly is more talented than Striker and has the ability to cover guys in space as well.
Like most players, I think that confidence plays a big part for Caleb. After his strong showing against K-State, I think he will continue to play well and be an x-factor that this Oklahoma defense desperately needs. As I mentioned above, Kelly is not only key for the Sooner pass defense but also key for the Sooner run defense. Since the Sooners struggled to stop the run at times against Kansas State and Texas, Kelly is needed in both areas.
Caleb Kelly and Obo Okoronkwo coming off the edge effectively should wreak havoc for opposing offenses and allow guys like Jordan Thomas, Steven Parker, Will Johnson, and Parnell Motley to create more turnovers. Look for Kelly to get his first sack this Saturday against Texas Tech and make a couple big plays. Just like in 2016, it looks like as Caleb Kelly goes, so does this OU defense.