Kelly Has Speed To Burn And Lots To Learn

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Virginia sophomore receiver Tavares Kelly looks for more yardage during a recent Cavalier practice (Photo courtesy UVA Media Relations).

Mention sophomore wide receiver Tavares Kelly to Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins and his eyes begin to light up with the thought of the possibilities.

“Something’s got to be wrong with [Kelly’s] ankles,” Perkins smiles.

Kelly will tell you that his ankles are just fine, they’re just jackrabbit flexible to go along with his quicksilver speed. Everyone knows that Kelly is fast, but he’s more than that.

“I don’t know how he cuts on a dime like he does,” Perkins explained. “Full speed, cuts on a dime.”

Kelly, a 5-foot-8, 160-pound speedster out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (St. Thomas Aquinas) showed flashes of brilliance and his all-out speed as a true freshman who played in all 13 of UVA’s games last season. He caught only 10 passes for 121 yards, and also worked some as a punt returner (his longest return was 43 yards).

For the rookie, it wasn’t a matter of talent but rather a matter of knowledge. He admittedly didn’t know what he was doing after making the transition from high-school football to college. Around midseason he sat down with the coaches and essentially had to relearn his position.

Heading into his second year, Kelly believes he can have more of an impact in a Virginia offense that is full of opportunities for someone in its receiving corps to step up and fill the void of departed record-setting Olamide Zaccheaus (93 receptions, 1,058 yards, 9 TDs).

Kelly had an epiphany during one game last season, one that changed his direction as a struggling receiver.

“I tried to shake someone but he still beat me to the spot because he was in zone coverage and I was trying to beat him in man,” Kelly said after a recent training camp practice. “That’s all I really knew in high school.”

All Kelly had to do at St. Thomas Aquinas was use his amazing speed to beat defenders to a spot, something he did with regularity. It didn’t take him long to figure out that college ball would require much more against quick and experienced defensive backs.

“That game is when I learned there was more to the game than beating someone physically,” Kelly said. “I sat down with Coach (Marques) Hagans (UVA’s receivers coach) and he showed me how to read coverages. I took time by myself and learned how to do it, and from that point it became easier to get myself open instead of trying to beat somebody with my will.”

Once Kelly understood that, he spent the entire offseason, spring and summer studying coverages, learning how to recognize disguised coverages designed to throw off opposing receivers and quarterbacks. He will enter this season with a much better understanding of how to get open on the collegiate level.

A strong contribution from Kelly will be important to an offense that needs its skilled players to emerge early. With both the leading receiver and big-play maker Zaccheaus and leading rusher Jordan Ellis now in NFL camps, opportunities abound.

There’s a number of receivers hoping to be difference-makers, including Kelly, seniors Joe Reed, Hasise Dubois and Ben Hogg, juniors Terrell Jana and De’Vante Cross, and sophomore Ugo Obasi, along with several talented true freshmen.

“I think Tavares is willing to submit himself to the process,” said Hagans, a former UVA multi-talented star and an NFL veteran at wide receiver. “He’s working hard. He wants to be a student of the game. I see growth in him and just humbling himself to be coached and to be retaught the position. I think it’s slowly starting to pay off for him and hopefully he’ll have a big year.”

Hagans believes that Kelly has the ability to plant and change direction with some of the best he’s seen. Part of that is because Kelly has a low center of gravity, which complements his speed.

“So now the thing we have to challenge him on is to rely on his craft and details and let the speed and cuts add to his game, but not be the sole focus,” Hagans said. “One of the things I’ve challenged him to do is be better at catching the ball with his hands, something he’s been working on over the summer. I’m anxious to see how it all comes together for him.”

Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said he is expecting more consistency and production out of the South Florida receiver this season, something that Kelly wants to deliver.

“I want to do anything it takes to help my team win,” Kelly said. “If I have to make big plays, then I want to make big plays. If I have to make little plays, then I’ll make little plays. If I have to sit on the sidelines, I’ll sit on the sidelines. That’s the kind of guy I want to be to help my team win.”

No one believes that Kelly sitting on the sidelines will help the Cavaliers win. The more he is on the field, the better. With his speed, he is a constant threat no matter if it’s a deep route or a short catch-and-run situation. 

Perkins worked with all the receivers over the summer to develop chemistry and the more he watched Kelly, the more he fell in love with the Floridians’ speed.

“Last year, if you would have asked me who the fastest player on the team was, I may have said me,” Perkins grinned. “Now, TK definitely has a different level of speed.”

Kelly laughed when he heard Perkins’ response to the speed question, but even Kelly claims he’s not really sure what his top speed really is.

“I’ve never met my ceiling,” Kelly said. “I’d have to say I’m pretty decent.”

Another gear?

“If I need to go get the ball to get a touchdown, I’m going to get it.”

Kelly said he hit that gear twice, once last year when he was trying to chase down a Richmond defender who had intercepted a Virginia pass. Then again on a touchdown reception in the spring game when he smoked everyone.

He realizes that it requires more than just the speed. He watched a lot of film with Perkins over the summer, breaking down coverages, learning when to use his speed versus different types of coverages, learning how to get open instead of just using speed to come free.

There’s also the connection between passer and catcher, where they have to know what one another is thinking and how to adjust to the quarterback’s strengths.

“Bryce has a cannon,” Kelly said. “I underestimated him before. Seeing him throwing me a pass one day in a regular workout, I was running full speed and he still overthrew me. That was crazy.”

Kelly has come to appreciate not only Perkins’ arm but his football IQ and his decision-making ability, not to mention Perkins’ own athleticism that makes him one of the most dangerous QBs in the country this season.

Kelly has also benefited from working with “Gold Feet” football camp in South Florida, instruction from former collegiate and current NFL athletes that emphasize drills to improve athleticism and fundamentals.

He said that is where he learned how to cut so efficiently, and in some instances learned the hard way.

“It was hard work every day,” Kelly said. “You’re going against NFL players, competing, but learning while competing. They’re real cool dudes. I was working in an off-the-line drill and this guy got me good, jammed me. I didn’t like it, but the next time I came up against him, he said he knew what I was trying to do and knew how to stop me. I had to learn to open my ears instead of my mouth. I had to listen and apply.”

There are a lot of numbers up for grabs for this receiving corps and Kelly could be a factor if he’s solid on using lessons learned to take advantage of his speed.

As Hagans said, it’s a process, one that Kelly is going to have to master in order to become the lethal threat that everyone wants to see.


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