His knee bent, but not resolve

College football: If he can sidestep the operating table, Chris Kelley says he has a good shot to win the job as Maryland's starting quarterback.

College Football

April 24, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - If Chris Kelley stays healthy and finds some sort of consistency, he'll be Maryland's starting quarterback - nothing less than he has ever expected from his playing career here.

If that happens, however, the glory he envisioned in 2000 as a Seneca Valley senior - when he signed a letter of intent to play for the university - will come in a different context.

Kelley will have to master a complex offense as opposed to breezing through a simple one. He would take on a role as the custodian of an improved program, not the savior of a mediocre one.

And Kelley will do it wearing a wrap that extends from his left thigh to his ankle, helping to protect a knee that has undergone three operations in 21 months. He blew the knee out first in an all-star football game weeks before his freshman year, then again a year later in a surf accident while vacationing in Ocean City.

Even after returning to the team last season, he had his knee cleaned out not long before this spring's practice sessions, during which he's running No. 1 on the depth chart ahead of Scott McBrien and Orlando Evans. The knee doesn't offer a full explanation for why he hasn't taken a snap in a real game since 1999, but the injuries certainly ensured it.

"I still have the same attitude - wanting to lead this team," Kelley said. "The only difference is that this is the first opportunity I've gotten."

Kelley spurned far better football programs in favor of the then-downtrodden Terrapins. He had accounted for 2,923 total yards and 45 touchdowns in his senior season at Seneca Valley, but turned down a Nebraska scholarship and its opportunity to become another widget so that he might make an impact at Maryland.

Kelley was considered a viable candidate to start at quarterback as a freshman on a team that had no incumbent at the position. That ended when he spun while attempting to wriggle free from a defender in the Super 44 all-star game in July 2000 and fully tore an anterior cruciate ligament.

Hope returned the next spring with a healed knee and with Ralph Friedgen replacing Ron Vanderlinden as head coach. Aside from a shaky spring-game performance, Kelley played well enough to project as a possible backup to Shaun Hill in the fall - if he didn't overtake Hill for the starting job.

"I don't think [Hill's] lead is unsurpassable," Friedgen said then. "I think Chris Kelley is making a move on him. For having only 13 practices in his college career, I'm pretty impressed with his poise. He doesn't know everything yet, but he has great vision. He just seems to make plays."

But then came the family vacation. Friedgen liked what he had heard of Kelley's effort in summer workouts and gave the OK for a trip to the beach in late July 2001. Kelley tried riding a wave on a bodyboard, got his legs tangled up, and the once-repaired left knee was swollen by nightfall.

This time, it was only a partial tear of the ACL, but it still meant waiting.

"It sucked to be back where I started," Kelley said. "I had to work twice as hard just to get it back where it was."

The Maryland staff initially wanted him to apply for a medical redshirt season, but Kelley wanted his career delayed no more than necessary. And with a daily morning regimen of lunges, squats, calf raises, leg presses and sprints, he began practicing with the team by mid-October.

Two days into practice this spring, he got hit for the first time in a long time during a goal-line drill. Offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe cringed, but Kelley got up. "It felt good," Kelley said. "I never want to show weakness. I wanted to hop back up and show everyone I'm fine."

In the time that Kelley's Rip Van Winkle football life has taken an extended nap, the landscape around it has changed drastically. Kelley said he would have liked to challenge for the starting position in August, but Hill played well enough under the system of Friedgen and Taaffe to make such aspirations futile.

In practices, not only do Friedgen and Taaffe ask their quarterbacks to master, mistake-free, nearly a thousand mind-numbing combinations of plays and formations, but also demand they remain cool in the face of defenses that blitz from all angles.

The coaches would like to see Kelley's throwing improve. It's mechanical. It's not always accurate. But they like his willingness to take a hit and his speed to elude defenders. During one scrimmage, he used these qualities to bust open a 50-yard run.

"I like his intensity and competitiveness. He almost plays with a linebacker mentality," Taaffe said. "He's strong, he has good speed and he's handling the option very well."

Maryland no longer needs its next starting quarterback to uplift it from 10 straight non-bowl seasons, but to simply ensure it doesn't slip too far from last season's 10-2 finish that ended with an Atlantic Coast Conference title and an Orange Bowl appearance.

"This is the way it turned out," said Kelley, who finds himself in a truly competitive situation for the first time, with McBrien and Evans. "In high school, it was just me. Here, you have to do the job every day or you're not going to be the guy. I plan on doing that the rest of the spring."

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