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How sweet it is as Chad Kelly leads Ole Miss into Sugar Bowl

When his University of Mississippi teammates burst onto the field before each of his first nine games, Chad Kelly remained in the back, among the last to exit the tunnel.

Kelly preferred to soak in the moment as a starting quarterback in the Southeastern Conference, especially after a season in junior college and the Clemson catastrophe.

As Kelly emerged as an SEC force and the season entered November, he moved to the front of the pack.

Instead of experiencing the game, Kelly decided it was time to make everyone experience him.

As has been the case the past three games, expect Kelly to be the first one out of the tunnel Friday night, when No. 16 Ole Miss plays No. 13 Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl.

“It’s a mentality,” Kelly told The Buffalo News three weeks ago inside the Rebels’ team meeting room. “If you’re the quarterback and want to be the best on the field, you’ve got to act like it.

“You’ve got to bring it. You’ve got to make sure people feel the energy you’re trying to bring to the game.”

Ole Miss is a 7½-point favorite. Oklahoma State won its first 10 games before losing to Baylor and Oklahoma. Over its past five games, Oklahoma State has surrendered 642 yards, 663 yards, 411 yards, 700 yards and 524 yards.

Those are delicious numbers for Ole Miss’ record-breaking quarterback − only the sixth player in SEC history to gain at least 4,000 total yards − on a prime-time stage.

Kelly and those close to him have predicted he’ll return to Ole Miss for his senior season. But family and friends also wonder if a blockbuster performance in the Superdome will encourage the St. Joe’s grad to enter the next NFL Draft.

“If he has a spectacular game ...” said his father, Kevin Kelly, mulling whether to finish the sentence during a recent interview at the family’s Wheatfield home. “There’s so many NFL teams that need quarterbacks.

“Would I like him to come out this year? Not really. I’d like him to stay so he can learn more and be way ahead as an NFL rookie in 2017 compared to next year. We enjoy Ole Miss. We enjoy the people there, not just the football games.”

Kelly’s pregame ritual is to sprint the length of the field as fast as he can, a bullet from the tunnel. When he reaches the end zone he will say a prayer and look upward for the late grandmother who helped pay his way to St. Joe’s, for a dead teammate at his previous high school in Pennsylvania and for the cousin who never had the chance to play football.

Hunter Kelly, legendary Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly’s only son, was 8 when he died from a nervous-system disease in 2005.

“I pray that they will all look down on me and that they’ll be with me,” Chad Kelly said.

Since his pregame mentality became more authoritative, Ole Miss lost in overtime to Arkansas, crushed No. 15 Louisiana State and beat No. 21 Mississippi State. They were three of Ole Miss’ four highest-scoring SEC games.

In those three games, Kelly completed 65 percent of his passes for 884 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions. He ran for 265 yards and six touchdowns. He hadn’t rushed for more than 40 yards previously, but went off for 110 yards, 81 yards and 71 yards.

Kelly’s season-ending surge was spectacular, but his first nine games weren’t too shabby either. Ole Miss also defeated No. 2 Alabama and Auburn on the road and No. 15 Texas A&M at home.

Ole Miss never before had beaten Alabama, Auburn and Louisiana State in the same season and hasn’t been to the Sugar Bowl in 45 years.

“The biggest question this year for Ole Miss was how good Chad would be,” said ESPN analyst Mack Brown, winner of the 2005 national title at Texas. “They had really good players, but he had not really played at this level.

“He did everything right. He led the team. He was tough. He made plays with his feet in critical situations.

“A large majority of the success Ole Miss had this year was because of Chad Kelly.”

Kelly’s checkered tenure at Clemson is well-documented. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney ejected him from the program in 2014. Kelly hit the reset button last season and amassed video-game numbers at East Mississippi Community College.

Kelly accepted a scholarship from Ole Miss. Days later, coach Hugh Freeze stuck with him − albeit with a zero-tolerance policy − after Kelly’s highly publicized arrest in downtown Buffalo.

“I don’t think you can say enough about Coach Freeze, the kind of person he is, the kind of coach he is, the kind of leader he is,” said Archie Manning, the last Ole Miss quarterback to play in the Sugar Bowl. “There’s no doubt he’s had a good influence on Chad.

“But the credit goes to Chad. Whatever anybody’s put in his ear, he had to do it. He had to go out and live it, and he did. It’s been a good fall.”

The Mannings are the first family of Oxford, Miss. The Olivia and Archie Manning Performance Center is the Rebels’ practice facility.

The Grill at 1810 is the dining hall. The 18 refers to Archie’s retired number; the campus speed limit is 18 mph. The 10 belongs to Archie’s son, two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning.

Kelly broke four of Archie’s and Eli’s single-season school records. With another game left, Kelly is on pace to set 10 more.

Kelly led the SEC with 3,740 passing yards and 4,167 yards of total offense. He ranked second with 27 touchdowns. His 10 rushing touchdowns were tied for sixth. Only running backs had more.

He ranked first in the SEC and ninth nationally in “points responsible,” with an average of 18.5 points passing and running.

“He’s so dangerous,” Brown said, “that if you cover everybody, and even if you keep him in the pocket, he can still run and make athletic plays.”

Brown said Kelly’s elusiveness reminds him of two players Brown coached to the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award: 2006 third overall draft pick Vince Young and 2010 third-round pick Colt McCoy.

“If he gets out of the pocket,” Brown said, “he’s more dangerous because he has the innate ability to act like he’s running, pull defenders from the linebacker area or the secondary and then throw the ball over their heads.

“Out of the pocket, he becomes a dual threat and is nearly impossible to stop.”

That also stems from Kelly’s emergent demeanor.

The same attitude that compels Kelly to pass his teammates in the tunnel and be first onto the field seems to avail itself during the games.

Monday, at a Sugar Bowl news conference, Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said of Kelly: “His intention is ‘I’m going to keep running. You’re going to have to keep me down.’ ”