NORMAN, Okla. — Just getting into the College Football Playoff excited Oklahoma linebacker Caleb Kelly.
Getting to play in the Rose Bowl was the syrup on the ice cream for the California native.
“Growing up I went to those games. I was recruited by UCLA. I got to see them play USC there,” Kelly said.
But getting to play in California for the first time since his senior year at Clovis West High School in Fresno, Calif., will be even more memorable.
Kelly, the highest-rated recruit on the Sooners’ roster, traveled more than 1,400 miles to join the Sooners. He wanted to play for championships. No. 2 Oklahoma’s inclusion in the College Football Playoff validated the linebacker’s decision.
But there’s another reason why Kelly should be excited for the playoff. For the first time in more than a month, he fits perfectly into Oklahoma’s defensive needs.
Bigger the better for Kelly
Two years into his college career and Kelly isn’t an every-down player for Oklahoma’s defense. When facing Big 12 opponents, the most common offensive personnel group features four wide receivers and a running back. Tight ends and fullbacks sporadically dot many of the Sooners’ conference rivals’ rosters.
“We don’t like taking him off the field if we can help it,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “You always try to put our defense in with him in mind, for sure.”
There are no questions about where Kelly fits in the Rose Bowl. No. 3 Georgia uses tight ends more than any team Oklahoma faced during the regular season. The Bulldogs list four tight ends as co-starters in their rotation with sophomores Isaac Nauta and Charlie Woerner, junior Jackson Harris and senior Jeb Blazevich.
“I’ll be playing a lot,” Kelly said. “Their running backs are some of their best players on the entire team. You’ll see me in there a lot because of how strong their run offense is.”
If the Sooners advance to national championship game on Jan. 8, Kelly still matches up well with either No. 1 Clemson or No. 4 Alabama.
The playoff enters its fourth year on New Year’s Day. Big-boy football won out in the first three seasons. Kelly’s forte is that brand.
Caleb Kelly adjusts to the Big 12
Kelly is talented. He’s big (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) and runs like a gazelle. But those aren’t the ideal tools for matching up against spread offenses.
The Sooners still took him off the field in their five-defensive-back package this season.
Stoops didn’t limit Kelly to the base defense this season. He came off the field when the Sooners used five defensive backs. But he was usually out there when six were employed six.
Kelly rushed the quarterback at times and others used that rangy body of his to cover the middle of the field.
This was his breakout season. He’ll enter the Rose Bowl with 52 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, an interception and 2 fumble recoveries.
“I’ve seen what Caleb can do. I’ve just been waiting. Caleb, he’s a really talented guy,” defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said. “Y’all haven’t seen — he’s only scratched the surface of what he can do. Y’all haven’t seen his full potential, but it’s coming.”
Remember the Sugar Bowl
Kelly’s best game as a freshman in 2016 was the last one. Against Auburn in the Sugar Bowl, Kelly played a 5-star game leading the Sooners with 12 tackles in the 35-19 victory to close the season.
“I remember just having fun,” Kelly said. “The first drive they scored right off the bat, but after that, we were just having fun playing football.”
Playing defense in the Big 12 can look as entertaining as a visit to the emergency room to antiquated emergency room. The offense pokes and prods until it finds something broken. The ability to fix isn’t always there. The speed of the offenses doesn’t allow for on-the-fly changes.
The Bulldogs don’t operate in that mode. Big 12 offenses are like rattlesnakes. The Bulldogs are like a python. They slowly crush opponents with a blend of physical offense and defense.
Auburn played in that manner last season. The Sooners held up just fine. They looked pretty good against Ohio State earlier this season.
Kelly may not be a great fit in Oklahoma defense in October, but he appears built for what it takes to win in January.
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