McGrane: Kelly Takes Seat at Head of the Class
Aug. 9, 2017
2017 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: Kelly Takes Seat at Head of the Class
Class is in session and Kameron Kelly has the floor, his audience of one sitting with mouth agape, head spinning, notebook filling, nodding in acquiescence as though everything makes perfect sense.
He’s talking about rolling coverages, about corner blitzes and disguised blitzes, about knowing when to take chances and knowing when to play it safe, about leaving a quarterback’s mind so addled that, in the end, the only remaining option is to throw it up for grabs.
Or, in the case of his audience of one, to surrender in utter bewilderment.
It’s somewhere around his detailed recounting of cornerback Damontae Kazee coming off the corner, linebacker Jay Henderson coming up the middle and cornerback Ron Smith subsequently returning an errant throw for a touchdown that I wonder what Kameron Kelly does for fun.
“Watch film,” he says.
In 2016, no team in the nation intercepted more passes (26) than San Diego State. It was like throwing a football into a black hole, like shooting in the dark. There were Aztecs everywhere, with 11 players giving the impression that surely there couldn’t have been fewer than 100.
Along with seniors Kazee, Malik Smith and Na’im McGee, as well as junior Trey Lomax, Kelly was part of a secondary with a combined 10 years of starting experience. They were inseparable on the field and off, a ball-hawking, bone-rattling band of brothers who could read each other’s minds with nary a glance.
Kazee, a fifth-round draft pick of the Falcons who is fast making his presence known in Atlanta, was the fiery leader at cornerback. Smith, attempting to secure a spot with the Houston Texans, and McGee were the stalwarts at safety, ever on the prowl for wayward passes, unsuspecting running backs and unfortunate receivers. Lomax, as one of the defense’s two “Warriors,” had largely been a starter since his redshirt freshman season.
Kelly, also positioned as a Warrior, said that confidence among the five was so high that risk was often met with reward.
“There were times when we were in coverages where Damontae wouldn’t even do his assignment,” Kelly said. “He would just play off of instinct. But we had that kind of trust in each other where he knew that if he messed up that we were going to be behind him. We had that type of chemistry. It was just great to watch, because a lot of the positions we have in our defense are pretty much the same, you’re just in a different spot. If you know one of the positions (in the secondary), you know them all.
“We had been playing together for so long that we would be able to disguise (coverages) longer, make quarterbacks believe we were in one (coverage) and at the last second get back into the coverage that we were originally in.”
It was a bond that, along with then sophomore Parker Baldwin, the defense’s “Aztec” who ranked third on the team in tackles despite not starting the first five games, produced 18 interceptions. Kazee, the Mountain West’s two-time Defensive Player of the Year, collected a team-high seven interceptions while Kelly had five, including two in SDSU’s 34-10 stampede of Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Kelly, viewed by head coach Rocky Long as the team’s best safety in coverage, approached Long about the possibility of moving to cornerback last spring but was asked to wait until 2017 because of the complexity involved in the transition.
When the Aztecs open against UC Davis on Sept, 2, Kelly will officially inherit the cornerback spot previously manned by Kazee. He’ll be opposite Smith, who turned in three interceptions last year in the midst of a sparkling redshirt freshman season.
“I told (Kelly) last spring that I was glad he wanted to make the move (to cornerback), but I also told him he was crazy,” said defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales, who also serves as the team’s safeties coach. “It’s not as easy to go from safety to corner as it is from corner to safety. You’re on an island out there, you’re in a whole different area than what you’re used to. I told him I thought we had two (cornerbacks) who were good enough and that I thought it would be a disservice to them and to himself to move from safety.
“When we moved him to corner this spring, he looked like a fish out of water for the first few days. It was good for him to realize how hard it is, but it also gave him the drive to work that much harder and get that much better. And about a week in, he started to get the feel of it and he got used to it. Of course, during those four or five days when you’re getting used to things in the spring, you can’t do that for four or five games during the season, because those mistakes translate into touchdowns that you can’t overcome.
“He came to me at the end of spring and said to me, ‘Now I understand why you guys didn’t let me move (to cornerback) last year.’ He’s a very mature, very prideful young man. He’s really taken on the role of a defensive leader with Damontae being gone. The one thing that other guys respect is a guy who has played well, and he’s got the statistics to back it up.”
Kelly ranked third in the Mountain West last season and tied for 31st nationally with an average of 0.36 interceptions per game. Considered one the team’s best athletes, he has 96 tackles and seven interceptions to go along nine pass breakups over the past two seasons.
“I’ve got to be a lot more technical (playing corner), and I feel like paying attention to the little things has helped me become a better player,” he said. “When I played safety, it was easy for me to get high in my backpedal and get lazy and be standing straight up. If you do that as a corner, you’re not only going to get exposed, you’re going to get your team scored on. You’ve got to literally be locked in for every single play.
“Coach (Tony) White (the team’s cornerbacks coach) has taught me a lot about using my eyes, because your eyes are going to move where your body takes you. If I’m looking at the quarterback, and he’s not throwing a quick slant, I’ve got to immediately get my eyes on the receiver. When I played safety, my eyes roamed all over. I would sometimes find myself just looking at the ball and get caught out of position. Moving to corner has helped me become a more disciplined player.”
One who perhaps now, more than ever, can respect the performance of Kazee, who finished as the all-time interception leader at SDSU with 17.
“He told me, ‘You have the athletic ability. If you listen to Coach White, and you do what he tells you to do, you can be a great player,’ ” Kelly said. “This is coming from a guy who went to the Senior Bowl and is now with the (Atlanta) Falcons, so I’ve really been paying attention to Coach White.
“With Damontae, he was always going 110 miles an hour, whether it was eating lunch or in the locker room. He was always flying to the ball, which put him in position to make a lot more plays. There were times when a quarterback would throw the ball thinking no one would get to it, but Damontae would get a pick because he was always sprinting to the ball. If he didn’t get the pick, he was in position to tip the ball or maybe force a fumble. I’ve learned not only to use my athletic ability, but not to let the play come to you. Go make a play. Nobody (in the secondary) thinks we can just get on the field and go through the motions. We’re all very focused on continuing what we’ve accomplished in the past and, hopefully, we can get even more interceptions this year.”
But not before Kelly, ever the student of the game, resumes his lecture and provides a quick rundown on his 2017 comrades in arms:
On Smith: “Ron is a really smart guy, and that’s really the way he earned playing time. He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s always in the right position. He knows the play and he doesn’t make mental mistakes.”
On sophomore Warrior Trenton Thompson: “He got his feet wet last year and he’s a real good athlete. He’s bigger (6-2) than Malik (Smith) was, and I think all it’s going to take is that first game for him to get in a groove. The guys that came before us all want us to be better than they were, and I think that’s the kind of potential that Trenton has.”
On Lomax: “He has the most experience of any of us. As far as football IQ, he probably has one of the highest on the team. Trey can be playing in the flat, but if he sees run he’s almost always right. He can be in the backfield before the ball is even handed off. I’ve seen him do it. I don’t know how he does it, but he’s almost always in the perfect position. It’s great having someone behind me like at safety, because I always know that Trey is going to be in position over the top.”
On Baldwin: “Parker, at the Aztec position, is really a linebacker who can move like a defensive back. That’s exactly what that position has to be, and he fills holes almost like (former SDSU linebacker) Calvin Munson did. He’s getting bigger, he’s getting stronger, he’s getting faster and he’s getting more confidence. Confidence can really change somebody’s entire playing style.”
Particularly when they’re playing to win the hearts of a city absent an NFL entry for the first time in 56 years.
“Hopefully, people are going to see that San Diego State football is serious, and that with the Chargers gone, this is a team that the city can rally around and become one of the biggest college football towns in the nation,” Kelly said. “When we came here as freshmen, a lot of us talked about how the city didn’t really have a football team to rally around, one that would win championships for them. We want to serve as the motivation for the community, for children and for football fans.”