Chad Kelly has impressed scouts with his play at East Mississippi Community College. (East Mississippi Community College)
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The first day in Mississippi must have been the longest. Imagine being Chad Kelly, who about a month earlier was competing for the starting quarterback position at Clemson and in May awakened to the reality he would spend his next season playing for a community college.

Kelly did nothing small. He was a big kid with a big arm, a big-time quarterback with big-time pedigree who had earned a scholarship to a big-time school in a big-time conference. After getting kicked off the team, he found himself in Scooba, Miss. (pop. 717), and playing for East Mississippi CC.

It was small-time, the antithesis of Clemson. EMCC’s home base, Sullivan-Windham Field, seats about 5,000. Most games are played on Thursday nights so as not to clash with high school and major college schedules.

“It’s humbling, but there were events that occurred,” Kelly said. “You have to get past it and forget about it and just learn from it. It stinks that everything happened, the way that it happened. But there are other opportunities out there. Everything happens for a reason. But I would love to still be at Clemson.”

The main thing is Kelly is back on the field, barking out signals and dominating the way he did in high school when he played for St. Joe’s. He’s been knocked down a few pegs after his experience at Clemson. The goal now is putting the pieces back together and rebuilding a once-promising career.

Say what you will about Kelly, but he never was short on ability. In three lopsided victories this season, he picked apart defenses for 299.7 yards per game while completing 69.9 percent of his passes. He had 11 touchdowns and no interceptions going into East Mississippi CC’s game Thursday, a 65-7 romp over Northeast Mississippi CC.

Football has become fun again.

“I just wanted to play,” he said. “It’s all I wanted to do.”

Kelly, a sophomore and the only player on the roster from north of Tennessee, learned on the first day of practice that East Mississippi wasn’t some ordinary junior college. The roster is decorated with former Division I players and others who had D-I talent but failed to meet academic requirements.

The Lions are the reigning national champions and the top-ranked junior college team in the nation. Three teams in their conference are ranked among the top 10 nationally, including a Copiah-Lincoln team that Kelly torched for three TDs in a blowout victory two weeks ago.

OK, so it’s not Clemson. Florida State isn’t on the schedule. But East Mississippi is considered a launching pad to Division I. Tight end Bobby Collins, a fourth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills from North Alabama in 1999, attended EMCC. So did running back Antowain Smith, the Bills’ first-round selection from Houston in 1997. Running back LaGarrette Blount, signed by the Steelers during free agency this year, went from EMCC to Oregon to the pros.

East Mississippi draws dozens of scouts to every game, and the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Kelly will likely lure more if he keeps playing the way he did in the first three games. So far, his coaches can’t say enough about him.

“He’s been great,” EMCC quarterbacks coach Scott Gasper said. “He’s everything we thought he was going to be and more. We anticipated him playing really well, and he hasn’t let us down.

“Is it a humbling experience for Chad? I didn’t think it was a humbling experience for him to come here. I think it’s a hunger, to prove to everybody that he was the player that everybody thought he was supposed to be. He stepped in and took over like it was his team.”

If Kelly learned anything from his time at Clemson, it was how one split-second decision could alter the course of his life. He’s convinced he would still be with the Tigers if he hit the Bang 8, the deep receiver in the end zone, rather than the receiver running the shorter wheel route, during the spring game.

His failure to throw the touchdown led to him throwing an interception on the next play, his emotions getting the better of him on the sideline, an argument with coaches and ultimately his departure. Kelly’s exit was shocking, but less so when examining the warning signs.

Kelly had lost trust in his coaches after believing they lied to him about playing time shortly after he showed up on campus. He played sparingly last season, and his relationship with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney simmered after the season. His frustration mounted during spring workouts.

Finally, bad blood boiled over. His version sounded like a massive breakdown in communication, but who knows? Perhaps he had other problems before the coach sent him packing. Or maybe Kelly had a higher opinion of his play and potential than his coaches did. Or perhaps it was a combination of many things, some unrelated to football.

In no time, he was gone.

“I did everything I was asked to do,” Kelly said. And in the next breath: “I easily could have approached the situation different.”

Public reaction was fast and firm. Kelly was portrayed in South Carolina as a cocky kid and a bad teammate who didn’t get along with Cole Stoudt, the son of former Steelers quarterback Cliff Stoudt and the apparent starter. Others suggested Kelly was a talented player with a poor attitude.

For what it’s worth, he was friendly and respectful on the telephone this week. He made a point to answer each question by saying, “yes, sir” and “no, sir.” There also was a sense that he was still angry over how his career ended with Clemson.

“It wasn’t for anything that Coach preached about,” Kelly said. “He preached about going to class, doing the right thing. … I never missed one class, but yet I was kicked off the team when there were kids missing 20 classes a semester. It was weird how he put his standards higher for me.”

Making matters worse, his downfall happened with his family already in crisis. Jim Kelly, his uncle, was battling cancer. Recent examinations showed Jim Kelly is cancer-free, but at the time it wasn’t clear if he would survive. Chad’s problems were the last thing his family needed.

Now, it’s all about recovery.

Chad has many of Uncle Jim’s qualities. Neither has ever been accused of being short on confidence. Chad possesses a cannon arm, a high football IQ and fierce competitiveness common in his DNA. He also showed he was mentally tough, Kelly tough, after his life was turned upside down.

The goal now is returning to D-I. He did not want to discuss which schools were interested in him, or vice versa, but he reportedly made an unofficial visit to Alabama. He was contemplating a visit to Florida State on his own. No matter where he lands, he’s looking for an opportunity to compete for the starting job. He should have plenty of options if he continues playing well.

Years from now, he may realize that the dark days at Clemson were necessary, that they forced him to mature and made him a humble person and a hungry player. Perhaps his season at a small Mississippi community college will accelerate his growth. Maybe his worst nightmare will contribute to a dream come true.

He’s learning as much the hard way.

But at least he’s learning.

“I’ve learned to keep a lot of stuff to myself,” he said. “I’ve learned to keep your mouth shut even when something bad is going on. You never know how someone is going to take something you say. You have to bite the bullet. You know, the less you say, the more they wonder.”

email: bgleason@buffnews.com

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