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OU football: 'Coach' Caleb Kelly embraces role, contributes to Sooners while sidelined with injury

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Junior linebacker Caleb Kelly comes out of the tunnel before the Big 12 Championship game Dec. 1.

Lee Morris couldn't help but laugh when he heard Caleb Kelly's new nickname.

Kelly, a senior linebacker who was a presumed starter at the weak side linebacker position, has been sidelined for much of the year with a knee injury he sustained in April.

Since the injury, he's taken on a new moniker: "Coach Kelly."

"Coach Kelly, huh? That's new to me," said Morris, a redshirt senior wide receiver. "I'm just proud to see Caleb be back out there ... This is what OU is all about — facing adversity and whatever comes at you and just learning from it, improving and becoming successful after."

The linebacker group gave Kelly the nickname due to the leadership role he's taken since the injury, but the roots of it start long before Kelly enrolled at Oklahoma in June 2015, before he was a five-star recruit and even before he was a teenager.

In fact, Kelly's coach-like playing style and infectious leadership could be seen when he took the fields at Lincoln Elementary School in Fresno, California. 

"He always had that coach vibe and leader vibe that made people just gravitate toward him," said Bryan Wilcots, who has been Kelly's friend since fourth grade and was eventually his teammate at Clovis West High School. "Even when we were in fifth grade and played on our school's team, the sixth graders would always look at Caleb as the leader, so this Coach Kelly vibe has always been there."

As he grew older, Kelly's profile and stardom grew, and he eventually became one of the nation's most highly touted linebacker prospects. But the Fresno native always carried an irresistible attitude and gravitas that always drew his teammates to follow his lead.

When he was a junior in high school, his Clovis West Golden Eagles were coming off a 5-7 season with a first-year head coach. He was voted a team captain by his peers, and Wilcots said Kelly regularly gave rousing speeches to motivate the team.

"Right before playoffs, we had a players-only meeting, and he just gave us a speech about how we had the most talent in the area and how it was our chance to make a run," Wilcots said. "After that speech, we rallied together and had one of the best practices that I can remember from high school."

Kelly led his team to the California Interscholastic Federation-Central Section quarterfinals that year, and he took his talents to Norman just two years later. 

In his three years with the Sooners, Kelly has seen ups and downs. In his first two seasons, he flashed his elite talent and established himself as the potential future of the defense. In his junior year, Kelly lost his starting job in fall camp to Curtis Bolton and saw inconsistent playing time for much of the year. 

While injuries are never something players want to face, Kelly's came at a particularly inopportune time for him and the Sooners. With Bolton graduating, the starting spot appeared to be his again. Along with that, first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch was hired in January and was tapped to rebuild a struggling defense, a process in which Kelly's talent, experience and leadership could have been crucial. 

The nickname is something the players can laugh about, but it's not entirely a joke. His relentless optimism, maturity and football IQ that he's tried to instill in his teammates over the course of the past seven months proved valuable as the team adjusted to Grinch's new scheme.

"The whole Coach Kelly thing is the real deal," sophomore linebacker DaShaun White said. "He was a coach to us all, probably me the most. He was in our ear, and he made it an effort to know this defense in and out to help us. Anytime we were confused, he knew what we had to do."

Kelly has thrived in his role as a pseudo graduate assistant coach, but Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said during the bye week that he was fully cleared and returning to practice.

Although he's traded his shorts and T-shirts for full pads and a helmet, his return to the field on Saturdays is still up in the air. Both Riley and Grinch have said that being cleared to practice and being cleared to play are different, and neither have given a concrete timeline of when he'll be back on the field on Saturdays.

"He's a guy that's been out of football for a long time, and I think he'd tell you the same," Grinch said. "I think he's working his tail off, and he's a guy that, as we're going through the remaining weeks, there's a role for him and somehow, some way, he can help us."

It's unclear exactly what that role for Kelly will be in the final weeks of the Sooners' season. With the NCAA's new redshirt rule, Kelly could play in four games and still return for the 2020 season, when he'd presumably be one of the defense's leaders. 

"He's kind of taking the injury day by day right now," Wilcots said. "He wants to come back, but he understands that it all depends on how the season plays out, and he's just going to do what he can to contribute."

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