MADISON, Wis. — Contrary to popular belief, Brendan Kelly was not a member of Barry Alvarez’s team during his first coaching stint. He was not on the field when Ron Dayne won a Heisman Trophy, nor was he around for the press conference to announce Bret Bielema’s hiring as Wisconsin’s new football coach.
It merely seems as though Kelly, a sixth-year defensive lineman at Wisconsin, has been on campus that long.
“I get jokes probably every day,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s spring practice. “Today I was wearing a shirt that said 1993 on it. Everybody was like, ‘Oh is that your freshman year? There are jokes that I used to play the first time Alvarez was coaching, that I played with some of the older coaches on the team. It’s just complete lies. I get jokes that I’m like 30. ‘Are you older than coach?’ No, guys. I’m 22. Come on.”
Added Badgers defensive tackle Beau Allen: “We all give him crap for that all the time. We’ll be like, ‘BK, what was it like playing with Ron Dayne?’ He’s definitely kind of like the grandpa. He takes it well, though.”
Kelly has absorbed plenty of flak from teammates for his perceived old age. But his knowledge of both the game and Wisconsin’s program also makes him an invaluable asset to those around him. He is one of just two sixth-year seniors on the roster — quarterback Curt Phillips is the other — and has appeared in 36 games with 14 starts.
He’s also about to be called upon to take on an even bigger role in the Badgers’ defense. This fall, Kelly will move from defensive end to outside linebacker as part of first-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 scheme, which could better cater to Kelly’s skill set.
Kelly, a 6-foot-6, 250-pounder from Eden Prairie, Minn., won’t have to worry about matching up against massive offensive linemen that outweigh him by 50 pounds, as he did in Wisconsin’s 4-3 defense in past years. Now, he can focus on speed and agility.
“You definitely train much different,” he said. “I was training my whole career here to get down in a 3-point stance every play and going against someone every single play. Now it’s like I’m going to be in space. It’s not so much I’ve got to get in the weight room, I’ve got to squat this, I’ve got to bench this. It’s more like how are my movement skills? How are my reaction skills? What’s my eye training like? Every little aspect you can get to be more athletic. I love it.”
Kelly certainly has put the time in this spring to learn Aranda’s plan. The only thing missing right now is Kelly actually participating in practice drills. He underwent a minor surgical procedure on his left hip during the offseason and is sitting out spring practice as a precaution.
Aranda, who hasn’t been able to watch Kelly practice, still believes Kelly has the football intelligence to pick up the scheme and will be a difference-maker on defense. Kelly has spent hours this spring watching game film and asking questions of the coaches.
“He’s a perfect fit for it,” Aranda said. “Great pass rusher. He’s got great length and he can play with his hands very well. He can set the edge of the defense. He is agile enough to be able to drop into coverage with tight ends and backs in the flat. So he is everything that we want in that regard. He just needs to get on with it and get into it.”
Over the course of his lengthy college career, Kelly has sustained a litany of injuries. He broke his hand in 2008 and played just three games during his freshman season. He suffered from groin injuries that nagged him for two seasons after that. The problems began during fall camp in 2009 when it was originally thought he had pulled his groin. Kelly attempted to play through the pain and appeared in eight games. But it was later discovered that he had torn four muscles off his pelvis and had to undergo three surgeries over two seasons.
Kelly said he considered himself thankful to have endured minimal injuries the past two seasons. He missed three games last season because of a hamstring injury, but he has played in 25 games since 2012. Because of his injury history, Kelly has reason to show maturity in not rushing back to action now, and he credited first-year head coach Gary Andersen for protecting the team’s seniors.
“It’s one of those things where it’s like we know what we have in you,” Kelly said. “Your investment will pay off in the fall. Just take your time now to rest. Sometimes you want to be like, ‘Coach, just put me in. I want to show you what I’ve got to prove something to the new coaches.’ They’re mature enough to understand that, ‘Hey we know what we’ve got.’ They do a great job of that.”
In his career, Kelly has registered 73 tackles, including 11 tackles for loss and eight sacks. He remains confident his final season will be the most productive of his career.
Not bad for an old man recovering from yet another football injury.
“This is my first spring I’ve ever missed,” Kelly said. “Usually, I’ll miss a fall. Better to miss a spring and play the fall, right? I’m on the right track there.”