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Football: Defensive Coordinator Candidates - Florida State Defensive Coordinator Charles Kelly

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The former GT assistant and Florida State DC could be a nice fit

NCAA Football: Louisville at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

(Note: The original version of this article said that Charles Kelly is a free agent, but that was inaccurate—for the moment, he is still an FSU employee, and new FSU coach Willie Taggart has not yet named his defensive coordinator. Taggart has approached candidates for the job, but it's possible that he ultimately retains Kelly.)

Next up on the list of defensive coordinator candidates is a familiar name: Charles Kelly, who served as an assistant coach at Tech from 2006-12 and has spent the last four years as Florida State’s DC.

History

During a coaching career that has spanned over 20 years, Kelly has bounced around quite a bit—both between schools and between different roles at each stop. Along the way, though, he has spent time as the defensive coordinator at every stop: FCS Jacksonville State (1997-98), Division II Henderson State (1999), FCS Nicholls State (2004-05), Georgia Tech (2012), and Florida State (2014-17). Tracking down info on Kelly’s defenses at the FCS and D-II level from over a decade ago is a bit of a chore, to say the least, but there’s plenty to be gleaned from his brief stint at Tech and his four-year tenure at FSU.

Kelly took the reins for Tech in 2012 after Al Groh was fired. It’s easy to remember Kelly’s brief tenure fondly, mainly thanks to his last two games as DC, in which the Jackets shut out FSU in the second half of the ACC Championship Game and then held USC to just one score in the Sun Bowl. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. BYU and UNC ran up 411 and 497 yards against Tech, respectively. Georgia moved the ball with ease, averaging 7.7 points per play en route to 42 points, and they slowed down only after pulling their starters in the second half. All that said, Kelly marked a step up from his predecessor, ditching Groh’s overly complex 3-4 system for a hybrid front that relied on simpler calls, and the players responded well.

After a year as FSU’s secondary coach, Kelly was promoted to DC to replace the departed Jeremy Pruitt. He faced an unenviable task: replicating the performance of Pruitt’s legendary 2013 defense, which allowed just 281 yards and a nation-best 12.1 points per game. FSU slid from top three nationally in yards and points per game to 50th and 63rd in those stats, morphing from an elite unit into merely an average one. The biggest difference was up front, where FSU regressed in both run containment and pass rushing. The Seminoles were middle-of-the-pack in tackles for loss in 2014 and went from being top-20 in sacks to being in the bottom 20 in the same category.

Much of that can be chalked up to personnel losses, as FSU had to replace five of their six leading tacklers from a year ago, including a ballhawking safety (Lamarcus Joyner) and one of the nation’s most disruptive interior linemen (Timmy Jernigan). And the Seminoles played well enough to go undefeated and win the ACC... before coming apart at the seams in a Rose Bowl loss to Oregon. All in all, it wasn’t a good look for Kelly in his first year.

Things improved, at least on paper. Here are some general stats for Kelly’s defenses during his tenure as DC in Tallahassee:

FSU Defensive Stats under Charles Kelly

Year Yards Allowed / Game Nat. Rank Points Allowed / Game Nat. Rank Third Down Rate Nat. Rank Overall Havoc Rate Nat. Rank
Year Yards Allowed / Game Nat. Rank Points Allowed / Game Nat. Rank Third Down Rate Nat. Rank Overall Havoc Rate Nat. Rank
2014 396.9 63 25.6 50 43.9% 106 15.7% 66
2015 336.9 19 17.5 13 39.2% 66 15.1% 80
2016 349.1 22 25.0 44 33.9% 17 18.5% 20
2017 337.0 25 21.9 33 36.8% 47 18.3% 31

Kelly has never fielded a bad defense at FSU; the 2014 unit came the closest to that description, and yet that defense was merely average with a poor pass rush. His units improved from year to year, and the havoc rate increased from where it was in 2014 and 2015, putting FSU in the top quarter of the nation for the past two seasons. That said, simply being above average would never be enough at a school with a recent national title, a demanding fanbase, and perpetually strong recruiting classes.

On top of that, Kelly’s defenses suffered a couple bizarre collapses in recent years—particularly the 63-20 loss to Louisville in 2016 and this season’s 35-3 drubbing at the hands of Boston College. Kelly had plenty of talent on the field but he could not produce a truly elite defense in his tenure, and the handful of ugly losses made his tenure look worse than perhaps it was.

If Kelly can bring Tech’s defense up to the level where he’s had FSU playing the last few years, it would be a major step forward for the Jackets. He’d be attempting to do so with a much less talented set of players, but it’s not out of the question that a guy who has been an awkward fit at FSU could turn out to be a good hire for Tech.

Scheme and Fit

When he took over for Groh at Tech, Kelly didn’t upend the scheme completely. He shifted from purely 3-4 looks to more of a hybrid scheme in which a fourth player, typically Jeremiah Attaochu, would often be up on the line as an edge rusher. He rarely used nickel and dime packages, but this was mainly due to Tech’s lack of depth in the secondary (the third corner was D.J. White, a true freshman at the time).

Kelly has used a mix of 4-2-5 and 4-3 alignments at FSU, leaning more heavily on the 4-2-5 due to the prevalence of spread offenses in the ACC and in FBS football in general. In other words, the scheme would likely remain similar to what Roof ran if Kelly were brought back, though perhaps with more frequent and varied blitzes.

That said, while Roof stuck almost religiously to vanilla formations, Kelly has shown some creativity in how he lines up his personnel. One article from FSU’s 247Sports affiliate discusses how he used some unique looks to put star safety Derwin James in position to make plays in the backfield in 2015. Tech does have a versatile and experienced safety in senior A.J. Gray, and it’s not out of the question that Kelly would mix things up to put Gray in position to disrupt run plays or get after the quarterback.

Overall, the defense would look pretty similar on paper with Kelly at the helm, but it’s worth looking at how the personnel could shake out next fall:

Projected 4-2-5 Starting Lineup

Position Name Year
Position Name Year
WDE Anree Saint-Amour Sr.
DT Desmond Branch R-Sr.
DT Brandon Adams Jr.
SDE Antwan Owens So.
LB Brant Mitchell Sr.
LB Bruce Jordan-Swilling So.
BCB Lamont Simmons R-Sr.
FCB Ajani Kerr R-So.
FS Christian Campbell R-Jr.
SS A.J. Gray Sr.
NB Jalen Johnson R-Sr.

Most positions without a returning starter have an heir apparent, but the SDE position is a big question mark. Defensive end in general is thin behind Saint-Amour; senior Tyler Merriweather is the only other player with any notable experience, and he has seen relatively little playing time. If Kelly favors size on the line, he could look to move either Branch or Owens outside to help with setting the edge against the run. Tech held up well against the run in 2014 after Roof moved defensive tackle Patrick Gamble to SDE, and it could be worth pursuing something similar for next season.

Recruiting

FSU hauled in several top recruiting classes during Kelly’s tenure, and based on 247Sports’ list of players for whom he was the primary recruiter, he seems to have been instrumental in securing several of their top recent signees. Perhaps the biggest name was five-star defensive end Josh Sweat, who went on to become a disruptive pass rusher for the Seminoles for the past three seasons. Kelly helped to bring in a swath of five-star and four-star recruits; most were from Florida, but he also secured a handful of signees from Washington D.C. and Virginia, one of whom was Sweat.

The counterpoint is that while at FSU, Kelly had access to more resources and personnel for recruiting and a stronger pitch (at least from the “you will make it to the NFL” side of things). Looking back at his tenure at Tech, the only four-star recruit he is reported to have signed for Tech was offensive tackle Nick Claytor. He signed plenty of three-star recruits who went on to become impact players, though, including A-back Orwin Smith and defensive backs Jamal Golden and Jemea Thomas. Should Kelly return to Tech, the best-case scenario would be that he routinely brings in high-three-star players while opening up new pipelines for the Tech staff in northern Florida.

Conclusion

Kelly would make sense in a few ways. He’s a seasoned coordinator who produced good (though not great) defenses during a four-year stint at a top ACC school. He’s familiar with Paul Johnson and would return to the staff with more experience and new recruiting relationships in Florida, a state that Tech recruits heavily. His stint as DC at Tech was too short to draw any major conclusions about how he would fare here, but while his time at FSU has been a mixed bag, his defenses have shown improvement over time in a few key areas.

Bringing back Charles Kelly wouldn’t be the most exciting hire, and it’s hard to imagine that he would turn Tech’s defense into a high-flying top-10 unit nationally. But he’s capable of improving Tech’s performance on the field and in recruiting, and after the unit’s up-and-down performance over the last few years, that would be a step in the right direction.