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Kelly ready to lead

OXFORD, Miss. — Chad Kelly's immaturity at Clemson cost him. He's the first to admit it and regrets his behavior.

But he's also a firm believer that things happen for a reason, and he wouldn't trade places with any quarterback in the country right now, not even his former Clemson teammate and one of the front-runners for the 2016 Heisman Trophy, Deshaun Watson.

"God acts in mysterious ways, and I could have acted a lot better there and maybe things would have been different," said Kelly, who's coming off a record-setting season at Ole Miss. "It was just me being young and immature. I'm a totally different person now. It would have been crazy if we were on the same team, but that's not the way things worked out.

"I just know this is where I'm supposed to be."

The SEC has been a haven for second-chance quarterbacks during the years. At Auburn, Cam Newton won a national championship in 2010, and Nick Marshall played for one in 2013. Zach Mettenberger became the only quarterback in LSU history to throw for 2,500 yards or more in back-to-back seasons in 2012 and 2013. And most recently, Jake Coker found a new home at Alabama after it didn't work out for him at Florida State, and he helped the Crimson Tide win its fourth national championship in the past seven years.

"I think we've been a good fit for Chad, and he's been a good fit for us," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said.

Good enough that Kelly returns for his senior season as the premier quarterback in the SEC, and if he continues to improve as much as people at Ole Miss think he will, he could easily jump into the Heisman Trophy conversation.

As a junior, after transferring from East Mississippi Community College, Kelly put up Heisman-like numbers. He finished with more yards of total offense (4,542) than anybody in SEC history not named Johnny Manziel, and his 41 total touchdowns tied for seventh in league history.

Chad Kelly had a lot to celebrate down the stretch with Ole Miss last year, but he's looking for more in 2016. Matt Bush/USA TODAY Sports

And down the stretch a year ago, Kelly was off-the-charts good. In the Rebels' last four games, he racked up 1,524 yards of total offense, accounted for 17 touchdowns and threw just one interception. Most importantly, he led the Rebels to 10 wins and their first Sugar Bowl victory in 46 years.

"It was great to do some of the things we did last year and beat some of the teams we beat, but nobody's satisfied," said Kelly, who became the first quarterback to lead Ole Miss to victories against Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the same season. "I think everybody on our team realizes that we have the talent to be great. We have the coaching. We have the players. We have everything we need. We just have to go out and do it and do it every single week and not have any slips."

It was a slip that almost cost Kelly his second chance at Ole Miss. Soon after committing to the Rebels in December 2014, he was arrested at a downtown Buffalo, New York, nightclub following an altercation with bouncers. He was also charged with resisting arrest. He eventually agreed to a non-criminal charge of disorderly conduct and had to complete 50 hours of community service.

Kelly was already carrying some baggage. He was booted from Clemson's team for what coach Dabo Swinney said was conduct detrimental to the program. Freeze had a tough decision to make but stuck with Kelly and has seen him grow as a person and player since.

"It's hard to put into words the miles he's come, and I'm not just talking about as a player," Freeze said. "Most of it has been off the field, his responsibility, accountability and just being a team guy. These kids love playing with him, and he's such a competitor.

"What he did the last four or five games last year is going to be hard to top. He broke all kinds of records and didn't get the attention other quarterbacks got, but we think there's a lot more out there for him. He's been great in the classroom. He's shown a lot of maturity. We've had zero issues with him. And the more reps you get in this league, the better you're going to be."

Kelly knows he'll have to be better, not only as a quarterback but also as a leader. It's a role he's embraced and one that's not entirely new to him. He could sense after the 43-37 win at Alabama last season that his teammates were starting to rally around him even though he'd been on campus for only eight months.

"I think that opened up a lot of people's eyes that, 'Hey, we might have a leader here, and let's keep on rolling and see where we can go,'" Kelly said of his four-touchdown performance against the Crimson Tide.

The Rebels may have to lean on him even more this coming season, and that's fine with Kelly, who added that anybody who underestimates the Rebels' receiving corps just because Laquon Treadwell is gone will be sorry.

"Everybody's watching when you're the quarterback. The other players see how much you want it," Kelly said. "That's what I love the most about being a quarterback. Everybody looks to you to make a play. They look to you to say something that's going to spark the team. I take full pride in that every single day."

Chad Kelly showed his toughness against Alabama last year, helping the Rebels beat the Crimson Tide for the second consecutive season. AP Photo/Butch Dill

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Kelly arrived at Ole Miss with a little bit of a gunslinger reputation. He wasn't afraid to aim big, and occasionally, he would miss big. He threw 13 interceptions last season, but most of those came in the first part of the season. He threw only three in his final five games.

One of the things the Ole Miss staff did during the second half of the season was turn Kelly loose running. He finished with 500 rushing yards, including 10 rushing touchdowns, and was especially adept at creating something out of nothing and keeping plays alive.

"We kind of changed the way we prepared with him, and he really took care of the ball," Freeze said. "That's when we really started letting him use his legs, which correlated to his turnovers going down. Early in the year, we didn't stress that a lot and wanted to keep him healthy. But once he got comfortable, it helped him not to force as many throws when running was also a prime option."

Kelly said there's no doubt in his mind that the Rebels will produce even more on offense in 2016 because of his knowledge of the playbook and his comfort level in the pocket. With the Rebels losing both starting tackles, including Laremy Tunsil, he said it's important the offensive line develops the right kind of chemistry, but it helps that several younger players got playing time last season when Tunsil was serving his seven-game suspension. Plus, incoming freshman Greg Little was the No. 1-ranked tackle prospect in the country.

"The thing we all know is that you can't take a day off … in anything," Kelly said. "If you do, the next thing you know, it can all be taken away from you just like that. Look how close it was to happening to me. I know people still have questions about me. They still have questions about Ole Miss, whether we belong. With that feeling, you keep a chip on your shoulder that you want to prove to people that we are the best.

"That's what makes it even sweeter when you beat all those teams."

And make good on second chances.

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