Clemson University

Clemson's glad 6-foot-5, lanky receiver chose to play football

CLEMSON -- Until this year, the grass always appeared greener on Clemson receiver Aaron Kelly's other side.

Kelly preferred to be a pitcher until age 8, when he felt left out watching his twin brother, Avery, excel as a youth league running back.

Basketball lured Kelly away from football as a high school freshman at Walton (Ga.) High School, but regret set in once Avery's games rolled around.

For his first two collegiate seasons, Kelly did what was asked as a secondary option in Clemson's offense.

It took inheriting the top spot on the Tigers' receiver totem pole for the lanky 6-foot-5, 195-pound junior to finally experience being the guy others responded to -- and for Kelly to react accordingly.

"When you get more balls thrown your way, you're more into the game and more focused," Kelly said. "When you're more in-tune with the game, it helps with everything. I didn't want to miss out on those chances."

With increased confidence and opportunity, Kelly has proven that his statistical drop-off a year ago was the flash in the pan, not his promising freshman campaign.

He leads the ACC in receiving yards per game (86.0), ranks second in catches (39) and is arguably the most indispensable piece in Clemson's offense because of the lack of additional fear-inducing targets at his position.

Perceived as primarily a jump-ball threat earlier his career, Kelly fell off the map as a sophomore, snagging just 30 receptions -- 17 fewer than the previous year -- as the Tigers failed to display a respectable passing game and rarely utilized his size near the end zone.

Senior Chansi Stuckey's departure created a vacancy for someone to benefit from the Tigers' emphasis on upgrading their vertical passing attack.

As the bracelet Clemson's receivers wear translates, Kelly seized the day from the beginning of offseason workouts. Offensive coordinator Rob Spence contended that while Kelly has not made vast improvement in any area, he can now jump a little higher, use more muscle to battle for balls and is quicker using his hands and feet to gain separation from a cornerback.

"You watch him run, it looks like Gumby -- just like spaghetti, he's so tall," coach Tommy Bowden said earlier this season. "But he's a tough guy to tackle. You wouldn't think that by looking at him. You'd think you could break him in half. But I think his bones are elastic."

They certainly have shown the flexibility to stretch.

Kelly began high school as a 5-foot-5 runt.

To be like Avery, Kelly also played running back in youth leagues until they were on the same middle school team, at which time Kelly switched to receiver.

When Kelly opted to return to football as a prep sophomore, he had grown four inches.

Five more inches tacked on during the course of the next year, boosting Kelly into a raw 6-2 varsity receiver still adjusting to his body as a junior.

By the start of his senior season, Kelly stood 6-4 and owned several Division I-AA scholarship offers despite owning fewer than 10 career catches. Wake Forest offered after the third game of the season, and Clemson followed the next week.

"When his skills caught up with his height and body, he started to make an impact," his mother, Janice, said.

All literally would have been on the up-and-up if not for the struggles of the brother who coaxed him back on the field in the first place.

Avery, a 6-2 tailback who had always enjoyed greater football successes than Kelly, had his oft-injured senior season prematurely ended by a torn ACL.

His lack of subsequent scholarship offers led Avery to sit out a year, then enroll at Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College, where he earned second-team all-conference honors as a freshman receiver.

But Avery tore the ACL again during the offseason and has rehabilitated at home this fall with the plan of enrolling at Butler (Kan.) Community College in January.

"It's tough to see him struggle and have to deal with those setbacks," Kelly said. "But I try to do well so he'll have something positive to relate to that will tell him to keep his dream alive."

The inspiration to grow up a star athletes was planted before the brothers ever played a sport.

They were frequently taken to Alabama football games to watch their cousin, Derrick Lassic, who played running back from 1989-92 and was the Sugar Bowl MVP in the Crimson Tide's national championship season.

Lassic spent weeks visiting the Kelly household in the summers and began training both cousins, because each played tailback.

He later brought along a teammate, former Alabama receiver Curtis Brown, who still works with Kelly.

Kelly owns 116 career catches, and if he maintains his 3.74 per-game career catch average through the remaining 18 regular-season games of his potential tenure, he is on pace to shatter Derrick Hamilton's school record for career catches (167).

"Aaron was starving to death last year and came back hungry," receivers coach Dabo Swinney said. "He wanted to show, 'Hey, I can be the guy.'

"He's always done what he's supposed to, but it's doing those extra things the great ones do. His intensity is better, and you put the physical work ethic with it, and his consistency has shot through the roof."