Growing up a Notre Dame fan, Kelly is happy he is playing for Alabama
Ryan Kelly wasn’t supposed to be playing in the national championship game.
Yet, there he was snapping the football during his team’s last offensive series, as Alabama finished off Notre Dame, 42-14, in the BCS National Championship game in Miami, Fla. Jan. 7. It was the second straight season where Bama finished as national champions.
In actuality, it wasn’t that much of a surprise that Kelly played in that game.
In fact, heading into the title game, Kelly received national attention when reporters questioned if Bama’s All-American center Barrett Jones would be able to play due to a foot injury.
It was widely reported that if Jones, who will be selected in the NFL Draft this April, couldn’t play than it was Kelly who would fill in for the Crimson Tide.
The real surprise, however, was Kelly’s unlikely journey from a 6-1, 200-pound high school sophomore to a beefed up 6-5, 285-pound senior, how a Bama coach stumbled upon him while recruiting a defensive player and how he was snubbed from his favorite childhood team.
How did Kelly end up at Alabama?
After his freshman year of high school, Kelly grew tired of playing baseball. He decided to play football and started every game on the offensive line as a sophomore – at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds.
“To be perfectly honest he didn’t start because he was great,” Lakota West head coach Larry Cox said. “He was the best we had at the time. I don’t like playing sophomores if you don’t have to, but he was a young man who went out there and played hard.”
Kelly also worked hard in the weight room and grew to 6-3, 245 pounds before his junior year, according to Cox.
“I then thought he had a chance. I didn’t know how much or at what level,” Cox said of Kelly’s chances of playing college football. “But then he comes out as a senior at 6-5, 285 pounds. He continued to grow and grow. It was real neat to watch his development.”
Others started to notice as well and it wouldn’t be long before he had offers to play at Louisville and Cincinnati, whose head coach Brian Kelly had just left the program before Ryan’s senior year.
Early on, the Lakota West offensive lineman was leaning towards UC, for multiple reasons, it was where his parents, David and Ann went to college, and it was one of the first schools to offer.
Brian Kelly, however, left Cincinnati to take over the program at the University of Notre Dame.
Suddenly, the Irish, who had been recruiting him when Charlie Weis was the head coach, appeared to be an option. Notre Dame was also Ryan’s favorite childhood team.
“His dream was to play at Notre Dame,” Cox said. “That was his first love. I mean, your name is Ryan Patrick Kelly. I couldn’t think of a better fit than playing for the Fighting Irish.”
The offer never came and the explanation did not make sense to the Lakota West coach.
“Brian Kelly had offered Ryan at UC. In fact, he was pretty highly coveted. I know they really wanted him down there and then when the switch came over, I thought it would be a no brainer because they loved Ryan,” Cox said. “He liked Notre Dame, but the coach who recruited him just said that he wasn’t tall enough.
“How tall do you want him to be? He is 6-foot-5.”
In comparison, Kelly, at 6-5, is two inches taller than the center Notre Dame started, Braxston Cave, in the title game, as well as Kyle Cook, who has started 50 games at center in the past four seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals.
“I was getting recruited when Weis was at Notre Dame, but when he left it just kind of dropped off. I don’t really know what happened with that,” Kelly said.
Kelly does, however, know how he ended up in Alabama.
On a recruiting trip to see Lakota West’s Jordan Hicks, who was one of the most coveted defensive recruits in the country, Alabama linebackers coach Sal Suneri noticed Kelly.
“They were there to look at him and I was there too,” Kelly said. “Next thing you know, Sal Suneri and I developed a relationship. I went down there a few times. I also visited Florida, Florida State, Tennessee twice and Michigan.”
Eventually, Kelly picked the Crimson Tide after piling up offers from many Division I programs. Now, he can say that he made the right choice.
“Winning back-to-back national championships has been a lifetime experience and I wouldn’t trade my college experience for anything in the world,” Kelly said.
After appearing in 10 games this past season, Kelly is the frontrunner for the starting center spot this fall when he will be a redshirt sophomore.