ATHENS, Ga. — Ole Miss senior quarterback Chad Kelly is doing the expected again this season, averaging 317.7 passing yards per game and leading the Southeastern Conference with 10 touchdown tosses.
It's the turnovers he's still trying to do without.
The nephew of NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly led the SEC last season with 310.9 passing yards per game as the Rebels raced to a 10-win season that was capped by a 48-20 throttling of Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl. The 6-foot-2, 224-pounder was hoping to reduce the 13 interceptions he threw a year ago, but he leads the league in that category with four in three games.
Kelly had his only interception in last Saturday's 48-43 loss to Alabama returned 75 yards for a touchdown by Crimson Tide defensive end Jonathan Allen, and his fumble early in the second half was returned 3 yards for a touchdown by nose guard Da'Ron Payne. He was intercepted three times in the 45-34 opening loss to Florida State in Orlando, a game the Rebels led 28-6 before unraveling.
"It stinks that I'm having to say it's my mistake again, but it's on me," Kelly said after the loss to Alabama. "I've got to understand that you've got to protect the ball, and when it's not there, tuck it in and get down."
While Kelly is focusing on trimming the mistakes as the No. 23 Rebels (1-2, 0-1) prepare to host No. 12 Georgia (3-0, 1-0), first-year Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart is losing his share of sleep over the 469 yards of total offense Kelly compiled against the Crimson Tide.
Challenging an Alabama defense regarded as the most talented in the country, Kelly completed 26 of 40 passes for 421 yards. He also rushed 13 times for 48 yards, displaying an elusiveness that helps result in those late nights of preparation.
"He's a little bit like a rodeo bull rider," Smart said. "This guy will do anything, and he's good at it. Trust me, I know from experience."
Kelly, who was dismissed from Clemson and played the 2014 season at East Mississippi Community College, introduced himself to the national scene last September in a 43-37 upset of Alabama and its defense that was coordinated by Smart. Kelly completed 18 of 33 passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns, with his riskiest throw of the night resulting in a ricochet Quincy Adeboyejo snatched for a 66-yard score.
The memory of that game remains fresh for Smart, who shook his head when asked this week how the Bulldogs could simulate Kelly in practice this week.
"You don't simulate that," Smart said. "I learned that last year. It doesn't matter. In my time in the SEC — even the embarrassment that (former Texas A&M quarterback) Johnny Manziel put me through (in 2012) and put us through at the University of Alabama — this guy's got it all.
"He can make all the throws from the pocket. He can run the ball, and he's got a moxie about him to where he'll stand in there and take a shot. He's not afraid.''
The Rebels are touchdown favorites this Saturday, but if Georgia loses, it won't be from an underestimation of the opposing quarterback.
"I followed him through junior college football, because I was a juco guy, too," senior outside linebacker Chuks Amaechi said. "I saw that no matter where he went or whatever adversity he faced, he was relentless and always wanted to win."
Said junior inside linebacker Reggie Carter: "Kelly is a terrific athlete. He's amazing with the ball in his hands. We'll have fun."
As for Kelly, this week's game is an opportunity to defeat a ranked foe after coming up short against Florida State and Alabama. One of his goals before the season was to be recognized as the best in the country, but losing three of four out of the gate would dash any remaining aspirations of that.
"We just have to stay focused, and it starts with me as a leader and taking care of the football," Kelly said. "If you don't take care of the football, you get beat. We still have a lot of season to play. We're 1-2, but we can still finish 11-2."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.