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Quacking the Roster: TE Transfer Casey Kelly

Film review from Kelly’s last three seasons at Ole Miss before transferring to Oregon

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Kelly was recruited to Ole Miss in the 2019 cycle as a low 3-star (.8333) in the 24/7 composite. He came in with a good frame for the position at 6’4” but as a converted quarterback (the younger brother of Rebels QB Chad Kelly and nephew of Hurricanes and Bills QB Jim Kelly) he was underweight for a tight end, though over the following years he’s bulked up substantially and most recently weighed in at 255 lbs.

After redshirting, Kelly was the primary backup in 2020 to senior Temple transfer Kenny Yeboah, who started first the first eight games of the covid-abbreviated season. However there wasn’t much rotation at all in head coach Lane Kiffin’s offense that year, and when Yeboah was off the field during meaningful play in those games Ole Miss would more often simply go to 10-personnel than put Kelly in. Yeboah decided to sit out the last game of the regular season game and the bowl for NFL prep (he signed with the Jets), so Kelly became the starter for those two games while trading off drives with senior TE Chase Rogers who’d transferred in from Louisiana.

In January of 2021, Kelly tore his ACL in a skiing accident and missed Spring practices and the first several weeks of the Fall season in rehab. When he returned to the field in October, there was still some rotation with Rogers and a lot more 10-personnel usage as they eased Kelly back into play, but that came to an end when Rogers in turn was injured. By week 7 and for the rest of the year, Kelly was on the field for virtually every meaningful snap in a predominantly 11-personnel offense.

Kiffin made a series of thought-provoking personnel moves prior to and during the 2022 season, about which a whole host of articles could be written. Among these and in relevant part, 4-star USC transfer Michael Trigg was brought in to become the new “starting” tight end. But while Trigg played the first drive of every game last season and had 17 receptions to Kelly’s three — and so I wouldn’t blame anyone simply looking at the stat sheet for thinking Trigg was the starter — that was only true on paper. In fact, every week Trigg would be replaced by Kelly by the second or third drive who’d then play every subsequent snap, with Trigg only coming back in for an occasional clearly planned gadget play. I don’t know why the Rebels played lip service to the notion that Trigg was their primary TE in 2022, but for all intents and purposes, Kelly was.

Ole Miss in 2022 still used mostly an 11-personnel offense (with two games’ exceptions in which they played virtually the whole thing in 10-pers), however the major change compared to 2021 wasn’t bringing Trigg in. Rather, it was that the new QB Jaxson Dart, also from USC, just didn’t want to throw to anyone but four WRs – target distribution narrowed considerably and the percentage going to TEs or RBs plummeted compared to the previous year’s QBs Matt Corral and Luke Altmyer. So Kelly’s film last year is almost entirely him blocking, or as a detached TE releasing hundreds of times only to never see the ball.

Over Kelly’s three-year career at Ole Miss in the FBS games I charted, he played attached to the offensive line on 59% of his snaps, almost all as an H-back, and detached on the remaining 41%, almost all as a Y-receiver. His assignment was some form of blocking on 54% of snaps — 77% of the time when attached, 21% when detached — and he’d be in the passing pattern on the other 46% of them (meaning he’d release from being attached 23% of the time, and on 79% of his Y-receiver snaps he was actually a receiver and not just a split-out blocker).

The two main takeaways the correlation analysis are both poor reflections on the Rebels’ playcalling choices: first, Kelly’s deployment describes a primary receiving, not just blocking, tight end, but his actual usage as a receiver was functionally a wasted spot in the offense, with a target rate under 5% of TE release plays despite no observable problems in route-running or hands from film study (for comparison, Oregon’s same rate for TEs over this time frame was 19%). Second, Kelly’s attached vs detached status telegraphed the playcall – the run:pass balance when he was an H-back or in-line was about 70/30, but when Kelly was split out at Y it dropped to 45/55, and if QB draws are excluded then it fell to 39/61 (Oregon went from 55/45 to 47/53 when in 11-pers going attached to detached over the last three years).

The confounding thing about Kelly’s film at Ole Miss is that, other than eight games of his redshirt freshman year in 2020 when the Rebels had Yeboah, he’s been by far their best all-around tight end over his entire time in Oxford. His most effective role is as a possession receiver on RPOs, getting extra yardage after the catch, and in the redzone – and yet this has been how they used him the least, and over time the staff even made personnel moves to minimize that role further, which is why I suspect he hit the portal. Here’s a representative sample of what Kelly can do in these situations:

(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)

  1. :00 – We’re having dessert first because this TD toss off play action is the finale to a lot of meat-and-potatoes counter run plays, where the line goes one way but Kelly as the H-back crosses under the formation to lead block for the back going the other. That freezes the backer and he lets Kelly run right past him, and he uses his height for a nice easy snag.
  2. :19 – Kelly’s set far enough back here you might call him a fullback in an offset-I instead of an H-back. At any rate he’s just faster than the backer in man getting through the wash, has the flexibility to turn his torso back around to catch and secure the ball, then make a dive for the endzone.
  3. :38 – The bluff block on the backer here is really well executed, he gets just enough into that ILB’s personal space to convince him it’s going to be a run just before slipping into the seam, getting downfield, and running over the safety for a nice gain.
  4. :46 – Here’s another bluff but on a different kind of RPO, Kelly makes a nice move to get the ILB to bite on the run fake and then splits the safeties who are compressed in the redzone.

The other successful type of route that the Rebels were willing to throw Kelly the ball on was the unglamorous but effective quick hitch, where he’d just run a few yards, stop, show his numbers, and then plow through however many defenders he could. He’s never going to run the length of the field this way, but Kelly picked up a 1st down virtually every time they connected on this play and it was baffling to me watching the film that it wasn’t on tape three or four times a game. Some examples:

  1. :00 – One of the longer routes on my tally sheet, the safeties just kept bailing so Kelly took the extra grass. Nice work securing the ball right before the backer hits him.
  2. :15 – Good adjustment of the arm angle by the QB here dodging the blitzers. It creates a big throwing lane and nobody but DBs to bring Kelly down, which requires a pile of them hopping on his back.
  3. :24 – Bit of a funny angle because of the DL getting past the LG, so the ball is at Kelly’s facemask instead of his numbers. Still, good soft hands, secured before he turns, hits some guys for more.
  4. :32 – This ball has to be hot because it’s to the boundary and the backer is pretty close, but not a problem for Kelly, and he makes the turn away from him to keep the ball safe – note the backer trying to slip his arm in to pull the ball away, but Kelly won’t let him.

There’s something of a mixed bag in throws to the flat, which is the only other group of throws the Ole Miss would let Kelly in on. Several are successful for the same reason the seam and stop routes are – Kelly’s a pretty good possession receiver who secures the ball well through contact – but others require a level of execution from the rest of the offense that I didn’t think characterized this team well. I’d like to see more diversity in the kinds of routes Kelly is targeted on before coming to overall conclusions about him as a pass-catcher and route-runner, but from what I have seen the primary thing he’s been asked to do is show toughness, and he has:

  1. :00 – This is Kelly’s first career catch. Smooth release from his H-back alignment into the flat, catch and turn with a secure ball, survives contact for extra yardage – it’s all there from week 4 of his redshirt freshman season, even though he’s still a bit skinny on this clip.
  2. :08 – Here Kelly starts out on the far side of the formation, motions under into this bootleg, bluffs the OLB like he’s supposed to … but unlike every other flood concept play design which is run with 12-pers so the defender is occupied, when Kiffin was drawing this up he seems to have forgotten that there’s nothing keeping him from leveling the low read. Fortunately Kelly recovers his balance and secures the catch.
  3. :17 – There’s only this and one more on my tally sheet in three years in terms of drops (for the other one the film is weird, the ball just magically isn’t in his hands anymore). The QB is rushing the throw so it’s a little off target high and away, and Kelly’s turning a bit early before securing it because it’s 3rd and short, to the boundary with multiple defenders coming for him so he’s only got a split second before getting hit. Still should have brought it in but it’s far from egregious.
  4. :23 – I’m not a big fan of this play design, it’s effectively four over two to the boundary and there’s no way a competent defense should allow a short throw to even be open, much less convert 2nd & 12. But you’re not playing Georgia every week in the SEC.

The most frequent octant of Kelly’s usage, about a third of his snaps, was run blocking while attached to the formation. It’s also where his best blocking grades were, with about a 15% error rate on my tally sheet over the FBS games I charted spanning three seasons. That’s just about average for a Power-5 tight end in my experience, with room for improvement in terms of getting low into contact and playing with appropriate leverage, but a good head for his assignments and excellent size for the position. Some run-blocking examples:

  1. :00 – This split-zone run should be familiar to Oregon fans, with Kelly as the H-back inserting as the lead blocker through the A-gap to get to the second level and take on the backer. Some good extra effort here, making up for typically questionable play from the center and RG.
  2. :17 – Kelly’s detached on this designed outside run (it’s not an RPO, that’s a total fake) and immediately engages the overhang backer. Good sustained block here with leverage, working him to the sideline.
  3. :28 – I have over a hundred similar plays to this on my tally sheet, Kelly slicing against the end man on the line to keep the gap open. Here the back in short yardage is struggling in his one-on-one against the DB so Kelly runs into the scrum to help get him over.
  4. :35 – Another weird play design, usually an outside handoff goes the opposite way of the fake sweep so it faces fewer defenders. The ILB naturally comes around on it so Kelly takes him on to open the C-gap, then sustains the block downfield.

The biggest area of concern I have for Kelly is in pass protection. First, his film is pretty limited in this octant, only about an eighth of his snaps, which means I just don’t have much to go by. (It’s also possible that the reason the staff kept detaching him for pass plays is that they thought it was net-advantageous to pull a defender out of the box rather than have Kelly try and block him.) Second, it’s the area where pure technique matters most, and having done film study on both sides of the ball for Kiffin’s team I think attention to detail in this aspect of player development is generally lacking. Third, there are some really bad reps on my tally sheet for Kelly in pass pro – not overly frequent, his error rate here is 17% which is below average but would still fit in fine in the Pac-12 – but when he blows it badly it’s a really alarming play. Here’s a representative sample:

  1. :00 – Solid work here on the DE, then handing him off to the LT so he can pick up the green dog and give the QB a clean pocket.
  2. :09 – Kelly’s the in-line TE here instead of the H-back, somewhat rare (only about 9% of his snaps). There’s nothing surprising about having to take on the OLB here, he just doesn’t have his feet set well and he doesn’t re-anchor well after taking the initial contact too high and winds up flailing a lot. Still, he does effectively wall the defender off.
  3. :19 – I have three other reps on my tally sheet that look like this one, where Kelly is just put on roller skates. 255 lbs is a good size for a TE but it’s at least 40 lbs underweight for an offensive lineman; Kelly can’t take a full-sized DE straight on like this. His technique to deflect and escort him around the pocket instead needs work.
  4. :33 – This is better footwork to keep moving with the end, but like most of Kelly’s successful pass pro reps he’s got another guy ready to help out, like the back or a tackle.

Besides his size, Kelly’s other standout physical quality is that he moves very well – quick, darting feet instead of plodding ones like I see in a lot of heavier tight ends who get pigeon-holed as blockers. Of course I have hundreds of plays of him running completely fruitless passing routes, including lots of deep routes where he disappears off the screen entirely, but there were only three such targets in his entire career – one when the defense completely forgot about him so there’s no defender’s footspeed to compare to, and the other two had DPI penalties – so that film isn’t enough to be representative and thus worth showing. Instead I think this quality can be illustrated through downfield and wide run blocking plays, on which Kelly does have some technique issues regarding playing with proper leverage but no issue at all in arriving with proper speed:

  1. :00 – Here’s one of the counter plays alluded to on the very first clip in this article. Kelly’s really selling it going with the back’s initial big counter step before reversing and running the long way on his toes to seal that backer.
  2. :08 – Oregon fans should recognize this RPO triple option play; Kelly is the toss option if the safety goes for the QB. Kelly recognizes he’s staying put in coverage instead, so he turns and starts blocking him for the QB to run to the pylon.
  3. :22 – On this play Ole Miss is in 12-pers, with Kelly in-line and Trigg as the H-back. They’re both running out wide to block ahead of this sweep play; Kelly gets to his backer and knocks him 15 yards off the screen while Trigg misses the corner who makes the play.
  4. :31 – Kelly releases to run a stop route yet again, keeps widening to present his numbers in a clean throwing lane as the QB breaks the pocket, then as it becomes clear it’s going to be a scramble, finds somebody to hit to open up a 1st down run.