When an opportunity presents itself to an individual, most of the time that person takes advantage of the situation. For Clemson WR Aaron Kelly, the opportunity to be a No. 1 receiver at an ACC power house program was exactly what he was looking for, and he didn’t disappoint. After two seasons of waiting in the wings, Kelly emerged as one of the top receivers in the country during his junior season and posted 88 catches for 1,081 yards and 11 touchdowns.
When the season ended, Kelly was rumored to be one of the many underclassmen to declare for the 2008 draft. But after talking with his family – the kid who sports the words “Mom” and "Dad" on his eye black – decided to return to Death Valley for his senior year.
In this Scout.com exclusive, Chris Steuber asked Kelly about his breakout junior season, the decision to stay at Clemson for his senior year, an interesting fact regarding Clemson wide receivers, and his goals for this season.
Chris Steuber: After a couple of promising seasons with Clemson as a secondary option behind Chansi Stuckey, you had the opportunity to showcase your talents as a No. 1 receiver last year. What was it like to finally enter the spotlight and prove you’re one of the elite receivers in the country?
Aaron Kelly: It was amazing. It was nice to have a great year like that because of all the hard work I put in. I don’t want to sound conceited and say that I expected it to happen, but I worked really hard and I figured I’d have a good season. Maybe not as good of a season as I had, but I was confident enough to know I was going to have a great year.
CS: Was there something you did during the off-season leading up to your junior year that made you believe you were ready to have a breakout season? Or was it a change on offense that proved to be the difference?
Kelly: I think it was the offense coming together and a little change in philosophy by the coaches. The coaches knew we had to be more balanced and we had to throw the ball more than we did the previous year. A couple of years ago, we kind of got stuck running the ball, and last year we were just more balanced. Being a balanced team created more opportunities for me and allowed me to be successful.
CS: Your decision to stay at Clemson following your junior season was a little controversial. It was speculated that you were going to enter the NFL Draft, but in the end you decided to stay at Clemson for your senior year. What went into your decision to stay?
Kelly: After a long talk with my family, my mom really wanted me to stay [at Clemson]. I really thought about it, and I wanted to get my diploma and to finish off my career here the right way. The type of team that we have now, I figured I’d come back into a great situation and have an opportunity to do something really special here at Clemson.
CS: How close were you to leaving school?
Kelly: I was really close. At one point I actually made up my mind to leave and go to the NFL. But after talking to my family more, weighing my options and looking at the whole situation, I changed my mind.
CS: I know you said after you spoke with your family about your future plans you decided to stay in school. But what round grade did the NFL advisory committee give you, and did that play more of a role in your decision?
Kelly: I received a fourth round grade; that played a bit of a role in my decision to come back. I thought it would be a higher grade, but really it was my family talking me out of it.
CS: Clemson has a rich football tradition and has produced a lot of great players over the years. But does it concern you that since 1940 only 10 Clemson receivers have been drafted into the NFL, and not one of them has enjoyed much success?
Kelly: Not really, because I’m a different person. I’m different from those guys. It doesn’t really bother me, because of the kind of players we have now and the exposure that Clemson receives. I think everything is set up for me to have a great year and to showcase my talents. It doesn’t really bother me.
CS: Does that surprise you to hear only 10 wide receivers from Clemson were drafted into the NFL since 1940?
Kelly: Yeah… yeah, that does surprise me, because of the school and the tradition we have here. That’s very surprising.
CS: There’s no doubt that you’re a tremendous athlete who has a great frame. But one aspect of your game that I’d like to see you improve is your overall strength. What have you been doing this off-season to get stronger and prepare yourself for the season?
Kelly: I’ve just been doing the same things I’ve always done. When I arrived at Clemson, I only weighed 170 pounds and now I weigh 195; pushing 200. So, I’m just going to keep working and build on that. If you watch film and watch me play, I’m not afraid, and I’ll take on big hits. I don’t think size matters; the only thing that matters is your production, and I’ve been producing.
CS: On Saturdays, you’re one of a few receivers in the country that I have to watch, and after watching you play, I’ve come to realize that you play with great game speed. However, I’m curious to find out your true straight-line speed. What’s your current 40-time?
Kelly: I never ran a 40 at Clemson; I ran a few back in high school, and I think people are going to be surprised when I run my 40. If you watch me play, and I know you have, nobody is catching me from behind. I believe that I’m fast, and when it comes time to run, I’m going to definitely surprise everyone.
CS: The NFL puts a huge emphasis in the 40-yard dash, especially from skilled position players. How much will that weigh on your mind when it’s your time to run in front of scouts?
Kelly: It’s definitely big; definitely something I’m going to work on. I’ll be ready for it. I’m not slow, I know I’m not. I’ve ran 40’s before and I ran good times. When it comes to that time, I’ll be ready. There will be a lot of emphasis on it, and I’m not worried about it because I will run a good time.
CS: You’ve had a great career thus far at Clemson and have had some standout performances; the South Carolina game last year stands out to me. But your YPC [12.1] for your career tend to cast you as a possession receiver. Do you think that’s an unfair label?
Kelly: I think it’s unfair, because a lot of what I do is because of our offense. The type of plays that we run, I don’t have a lot of chances to stretch the field, and the few chances that I had, I produced downfield. We run a lot of short routes and rely on our running game, but my statistics reflect our offense and not my ability.
CS: I guess anytime you have two dynamic running backs like James Davis and C.J. Spiller, the running game is going to be an important aspect of the offense. How do you see things playing out this year on offense, and do you envision yourself having more opportunities?
Kelly: I think we’re going to do more of what we did last year. We were pretty productive last year; hopefully we will take more shots downfield and try to attack the opposition. As a wide receiver, I hope we throw the ball. But like you said, we have those two backs and once they get rolling, we kind of give up on the passing game. I just hope we stay balanced and attack teams this year.
CS: Does it get frustrating for you when the passing game is off to a great start and you personally are having a great game, but the rushing attack has stalled and the coaches want to try to get things going on the ground, ultimately taking the ball out of the air?
Kelly: It’s frustrating; very frustrating, especially when you feel like you can beat your man, get open, but you’re not getting your opportunities. As a wide receiver, sometimes your opportunities are few and far between, so when you get the ball you have to do the best you can with it and be productive. You have to make the most of your opportunities, because you never know when it’s coming back to you.
CS: Obviously you want to build on the success you enjoyed last season statistically, but as you enter your senior season what are your goals that you hope to accomplish?
Kelly: After reading some stuff around here, I didn’t realize how close I was to all of these records. I want to get the touchdown record, because that’s one of the longest standing records here at Clemson, and the ACC receptions record. I think I need 52 catches to break the receptions record; it would be great - personally for me – to break all of those records that I’m close too.
Overall, I just want us to win the ACC and National Championship and leave a legacy here at Clemson. I want people to remember what I did here, and when my name comes up, I want to be mentioned as the best receiver that ever played at Clemson.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999.