TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – David Kelly is one of the most dynamic personalities on the Florida State practice fields, carrying both a soft voice that delivers instruction and an echoing yell that doles out praise and criticism alike.
He’s hard to miss, especially in the grey, soaking-wet sweat suit he wears to practice every day.
Kelly, Florida State’s receivers coach, said Wednesday that he’s “enjoying the world” out of his new job – back on the field coaching after a year spent in an administrative role under coach Willie Taggart at Oregon.
And Kelly laughs when he tells the story of how it nearly didn’t happen.
Turns out that a year away from the sidelines agreed with Kelly. And that his season spent as Oregon’s assistant AD for football recruiting operations had created a new passion: finding top-quality recruits and building a championship-caliber roster.
That’s the role that Kelly had envisioned for himself when he joined Taggart’s staff at Florida State in January.
And it’s the role he thought he was serving earlier this year, when he and Taggart were flying to Seattle to visit Tre’Shaun Harrison, now a freshman receiver on the Florida State football team.
“All of a sudden, (Taggart) hits me with, ‘DK, you know a little about wide receiver. Why don’t you coach it?’” Kelly said.
“I looked around, and – I have to be honest – I tried to get out of it initially. But Willie Taggart being Willie Taggart, and the respect I have for him … That’s why he’s such a good recruiter. He finally convinced me after about 30 seconds.”
And anyway, Taggart had a point.
In a coaching career that spans more than 25 years, Kelly has served on staffs at Georgia, Georgia Tech, LSU, Stanford, Duke and Central Florida.
He won a state title as a high school coach in Atlanta, and even had a stint in the Canadian Football League.
“He’s coached a bunch of players in a million different systems,” FSU offensive coordinator Walt Bell said. “He knows all the ways to do it. He’s just a wealth of knowledge.”
That knowledge was on display Wednesday as Kelly worked with Harrison – yes, the same Harrison that led to his taking this job in the first place – on Wednesday morning.
One moment, Kelly was praising Harrison for a nice catch he made over the middle of the field, then in the same breath reminding him to get the ball secured next to his chest – with the point of the football beneath his wrist – before a defender could pop it loose.
Later, Kelly gave Harrison tips on fielding punts and told him how the spin of the ball as it drops toward the ground can tell a return man which way it will go.
Maybe that’s something he learned while coaching in that cold Canadian air.
“My whole goal was to assist Willie Taggart in building a championship roster,” Kelly said. “That’s why, initially, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get back on the field or not. …
“Then, all of a sudden, after the first day of spring, I said, ‘Whoa, I like this again!’ And now I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”
Perhaps Kelly’s time in Canada also explains the otherwise unexplainable: How he manages to wear sweats despite temperatures that climb toward 100 degrees every day.
Kelly isn’t quite sure why he does it. “This is all I’ve ever worn,” he says. But the more he sees how others deal with the heat, the more he feels like he might be on to something.
“The funny thing about it is somebody will walk by me and they’re sweating bullets,” he said with a smile. “And they say to me, (you) must be hot. And I’m not sweating at all! And I say, ‘You may want to follow what I’m doing.’”
Freshmen join the party: Accelerating his initial timeline by a day, Taggart opted to have his freshman class join his veterans for Wednesday morning’s practice. And it might be no coincidence that, with the full team together, Taggart started to push the tempo for the first time this fall, too.
In perhaps the latest sign that the Seminoles are keeping things simple, a number of freshmen, in only their third practices as college football players, made obvious impacts.
Harrison and cornerback A.J. Lytton picked up where they left off with the veterans on Tuesday, while receiver D’Marcus Adams, defensive back Isaiah Bolden and running back Anthony Grant all looked good in spurts.
Offense coming together: An increase in tempo also meant an increase in production for the Seminoles’ offense, which had its most successful day after two practices of mostly defensive dominance. One particularly encouraging sequence saw Jacques Patrick break through for a long run, then Tre McKitty lose his coverage downfield for a long touchdown pass on back-to-back plays.
Wednesday also suggested that Florida State’s running backs are going to be a handful in the passing game. A portion of practice was spent putting backs against linebackers in 1-on-1 situations and, as expected, the running backs put on a show. Amir Rasul got things started with a beautiful, deep touchdown catch down the sideline, while Khalan Laborn a few moments later went long for a TD of his own – punctuated by a standing backflip in the end zone.
Defense still does its thing: While the offense showed signs of life, Florida State’s defenders still imposed their will on much of the proceedings. And when the offense did make a mistake, the likes of Brian Burns, Levonta Taylor and Stanford Samuels III were usually there to make it pay in a big way. While there was some dispute on the FSU defense’s overall turnover count for the day, the coaches and players could all agree that it was high enough.
Samuels, Taylor and freshly-minted linebacker Zaquandre White all grabbed interceptions, while all three quarterbacks – Deondre Francois, James Blackman and Bailey Hockman – had to take at least one lap around the fields after committing a turnover.
Speaking of the defense, DeCalon Brooks has thus far shown himself to be no one-hit wonder after a strong spring. The redshirt freshman linebacker has been a mainstay in the first-team defense, plays with an obvious edge in practice and recently drew praise from Taggart for his technique in pass coverage.
White makes a move: Zaquandre White has a new home in the linebackers’ room, and the math behind the switch is pretty simple: Find a position group with a surplus of talent (in this case, FSU’s running backs), scan for an elite-level athlete buried in the depth chart (White) and see if there’s another place where he might be better utilized.
A former four-star prospect from Fort Myers, White has both a big talent and a big personality. But with Cam Akers, Jacques Patrick, Laborn and Rasul all vying for touches, the road to playing time seemed awfully long.
Enter Taggart, who has long insisted that he wants to find ways to get his best players on the field. That, along with an obvious need at linebacker – the Seminoles lost three starters from a year ago and have two veterans working their way back from injuries – made the decision to move White a fairly easy one.
Besides, at 6-foot, 210 pounds, White isn’t all that far away from a linebacker’s build. (Emmett Rice is listed at 6-2, 208.) And his offensive instincts might have served him well Wednesday, as he looked quick and smooth in pass coverage drills, maintaining tight coverage on one sideline throw and later picking off a pass.
Clearing the notebook: Receiver Tamorrion Terry returned to practice after missing Tuesday’s session with a sprained calf. … Another cool coaching moment: After watching one of his quarterbacks throw a pass that ended with Levonta Taylor high-stepping into the end zone, Bell immediately approached the quarterback, put his hand on his helmet and calmly offered some encouragement. Bell didn’t so much as raise his voice, and the QB bounced back to make a number of nice throws by the end of practice. … It’s becoming more and more common to see offensive and defensive players huddled up after a drill, breaking down what happened during previous plays. The competition between offense and defense is both loud and fierce, but it’s a good reminder that they’re all working toward the same goal … Neat moment for the McDonald family when freshman tight end Camren McDonald hauled in a pass from one of Florida State’s newest walk-on quarterbacks: his brother Nolan McDonald. … An ESPN camera crew was on-hand Wednesday and had Taggart mic’ed up during practice. Look for the segment to air later this month.
Up next: The Seminoles will put on shoulder pads for the first time and will introduce “thudding” into practice. Or, as Taggart likes to put it, some “clack-a-lacking.”