This post originally appeared on the Hudl Blog

From MIT to Halliburton to the Las Vegas Strip, everyone’s dying to get inside the mind of Kevin Kelley. His devotion to analytics and fabled never-punt, always-onside ethos has made him one of football’s most captivating idea men.

Everybody wants a piece of Kevin Kelley.

And we do mean everybody.

It used to just be col­lege coach­es, com­ing in at first to recruit his Pulaski Academy (Ark.) play­ers but then stick­ing around to pep­per him with ques­tions. Then came the NFL head coach­es and GMs, all won­der­ing if they could bounce some ideas around with him.

Nowadays though, the queries come from all sorts of pro­fes­sion­al back­grounds — they’re not even restrict­ed to sports. There’s the pres­ti­gious Sloan Sports Analytics Conference held annu­al­ly at MIT, which he spoke at sev­er­al years ago. But there’s also CEOs and CFOs. White col­lar and blue col­lar. Halliburton. Ticketmaster. Mark Cuban. The list goes on, com­pa­nies fly­ing him in from all over the coun­try to talk to their peo­ple. The first three months of his cal­en­dar years are usu­al­ly jam-packed.

Kelley inspires every­one, from cor­po­rate thought lead­ers all over the coun­try to foot­ball coach­es at every lev­el. He even inspires our own research depart­ment here at Hudl when we under­take projects aimed at get­ting inside the coach’s mindset.

Some label him a ​“mad genius”. Others, a ​“mad sci­en­tist.” And they all want a guid­ed jour­ney through the method to his madness.

The rea­son usu­al­ly starts with the tac­tic he’s most famous for: His strat­e­gy of nev­er punt­ing, and almost always attempt­ing an onside kick after a score. And we’re not talk­ing about just a sim­ple squib-it-and-pray approach either. No, Kelley’s arse­nal of onside kicks spans the entire spec­trum, from the stan­dard to the absurd. Baltimore chops. Middle bunts. Drop kicks. Tee-less ​“copter” kicks, lay­ing the ball flat on the ground and boot­ing a nose for a knuck­le­ball effect. Soccer-style free kicks involv­ing two, some­times three, kick­ers feign­ing a boot before one of them lobs it towards the sideline.

The vari­ety at times seems lim­it­less, with fun names like ​“NBA” or ​“Jelly” or ​“MLB” to boot. And in an age where the nation’s best high school place­kick­ers are clear­ing the cross­bar from 60 yards out, Kelley’s tac­tic pri­or­i­tizes close-range accu­ra­cy over leg pow­er, no mat­ter how Herculean. Perhaps that’s why, unsat­is­fied with his crop of kick­ers at the begin­ning of the 2018 sea­son, Kelley went out and recruit­ed one from Pulaski’s girls’ soc­cer team. She flour­ished, manip­u­lat­ing the ball with a sur­gi­cal precision.

Inevitably, the con­ver­sa­tions then veer into his oth­er schools of thought that are all rein­forced by hard data. Like what fuels his ongo­ing exper­i­men­ta­tion with rug­by-style lat­er­als in his pass­ing plays. Or why he rails against the fade route, despite its pop­u­lar­i­ty in the NFL. Or how he cal­i­brates an avant-garde offen­sive play­book that nev­er ceas­es to pro­duce video-game num­bers, yet still laments that after a 94-catch sea­son from his All-American tight end last fall, ​“I prob­a­bly used him as a decoy too much.”

Sensing a pat­tern? Kelley has banked his whole career on going against the grain, on nev­er accept­ing con­ven­tion at face val­ue, and along the way has rewrit­ten the book on prob­a­bil­i­ty. There’s plen­ty of detrac­tors out there, but they can’t argue with his suc­cess — a 191 – 27-1 record and sev­en state titles since he took over Pulaski in 2003, includ­ing five titles this decade.

And it’s about far more than just that. Because more often than not, when he’s up there on stage in front of all those cor­po­rate clients, 20-slide pre­sen­ta­tion in tow, it’s about the thought process more than the thoughts themselves.

With the sur­plus of advanced video tech­nol­o­gy on the mar­ket today, some high school pro­grams will film every inch of prac­tice from a half-dozen angles, in cin­e­mat­ic qual­i­ty, com­plete with a drone fly­ing over­head. Kelley, on the oth­er hand, only films prac­tice a fourth of the time, draw­ing an anal­o­gy to his daughter’s out­ra­geous­ly tasty home­made cook­ies he craves, ​“Once I get to that sixth one, they’re not as good. As I get to the eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th, then it just sucks no mat­ter how good they are com­pared to one, two, and three.”

Courtesy of Sheldon Smith
Pulaski needed a boost to its unique kicking game last season. So Kelley recruited one off the school’s girls soccer team.

Friday nights at the Kelley house­hold includes catered food for his coach­ing staff, most of who will stay until the crack of dawn, lap­tops in tow, extract­ing data and curat­ing scout­ing reports. He then con­tin­ues the X-and-O’s med­ley the next day at what he calls ​“Buffalo Wild Wings on steroids, but with local food.” But when it comes to the off­sea­son eval­u­a­tion, he prefers to oper­ate alone.

“Golly, I’m just so hands-on-y, it’s like a sci­ence exper­i­ment — you don’t want to taint it. You know what I’m say­ing?” Kelley laughs.

Kelley, the 2016 USA Today National High School Coach of the Year, first began toy­ing with his punt-less strat­e­gy when he took over as Pulaski’s head coach in 2003. But he went all in on no punts in 2007, when the Bruins reached the Class 5A quar­ter­fi­nals. Over the last 12 sea­sons, they have only punt­ed eight times total, with half of those 12 sea­sons fea­tur­ing no punts at all. Their last punt of any kind was in 2017.

When it comes to kick­offs, Kelley gen­er­al­ly abides by his own ​“Rule of 21”. If the Bruins are lead­ing or trail­ing by three scores or less, oppo­nents can prob­a­bly expect an onside kick of ency­clo­pe­dic diver­si­ty, rang­ing from the stan­dard to the bizarre.

Like so many of his oth­er unortho­dox deci­sions, this wild­ly unique pathos of no punts and aggres­sive­ly kick­ing onsides derives from sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis that sug­gest­ed foot­ball coach­es gen­er­al­ly under­val­ue pos­ses­sion. Kelley also sees this as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to fine-tune oth­er parts of their game — in oth­er words, those 20 min­utes spent every week on punts could be re-allo­cat­ed to 20 min­utes spent on an offen­sive play that makes all the dif­fer­ence on Friday night.

“What I call it is applied ana­lyt­ics. That’s where I think we [as a whole] are strug­gling a bit,” Kelley said. ​“They can look at the num­ber and go, ​‘you should or shouldn’t in this moment.’ But they’re not look­ing for what I call the ​‘but­ter­fly effect’ of how it makes every­thing else you do in prac­tice and dur­ing the week lead­ing up to it, and that kin­da stuff.”

Kelley relates his curios­i­ty to a word search puz­zle (and, per­haps coin­ci­den­tal­ly, he still prefers pen-and-paper over spread­sheets). When he peels back the ana­lyt­ics to eval­u­ate some­thing, he’s look­ing for two or three things in par­tic­u­lar. But then, five or six oth­er ideas come to mind dur­ing the process, and so he starts eval­u­at­ing those too, each side of the brain per­pet­u­al­ly feed­ing the other.

And some­times, what he uncov­ers defies his own con­ven­tions. Evaluating last year’s offense, for instance, a pass­ing play he didn’t think much of because it nev­er scored was actu­al­ly 16-of-17 on the year for 210 yards. Meanwhile, a run­ning play he thought was a home run because of the two long scores it pro­duced, was actu­al­ly his worst run­ning play — out­side of those two gains, it most­ly went for neg­a­tive or no gain. Now that run is out of the 2019 play­book. The human con­di­tion, Kelley says, caus­es us to remem­ber the explo­sive moments over the steady ones, cloud­ing out eval­u­a­tions as a result. That’s why he feels he needs to go so deep with his data.

What all that research leads to is an adren­a­line rush of an offense, one that is often among the nation’s high­est-scor­ing. Over the last five sea­sons, the Bruins have aver­aged 50.3 points, 563.8 yards, and an absurd 8.2 points per play. This break­neck style stems from a belief that even one big-yardage play has a dra­mat­ic effect on scor­ing chances, a hypoth­e­sis that was con­firmed once again this off­sea­son when he real­ized near­ly 88 per­cent of his dri­ves in 2018 that fea­tured a play of 20-plus yards end­ed in a touch­down. Over that same peri­od, Kelley also found that his team was five times less like­ly to score on a dri­ve if it com­mit­ted even one penal­ty. That means three yards and a cloud of dust is far from ideal.

50.3 Points / 563.8 Yards / 8.2 Points per Play

So what is ide­al? A fast-paced attack pred­i­cat­ed on spac­ing and built around plays with the high­est like­li­hood of going for 20 yards. That means more rhythm pass­es that max­i­mize receivers’ chances to pile up yards after the catch. Pulaski cap­i­tal­izes on inter­me­di­ate throws between the hash­es, deploy­ing mov­ing tar­gets into the space between the line­back­ers and safeties. Not only are they a high­er com­ple­tion per­cent­age, they’re also an eas­i­er throw for quar­ter­backs to make, as opposed to ones out­side the num­bers towards the side­line. Those low­er-per­cent­age throws require place­ment into a tight win­dow that even the best high school QBs can strug­gle with, and often end with the receiv­er walk­ing out of bounds after the catch.

Kelley also uses a lot of easy-to-install plays that his research has found to be prac­ti­cal­ly unstop­pable. Rubs and mesh­es. But also throw­back screens. Second and third-lev­el RPOs. And of course, one of the most unstop­pable run­ning plays of all-time — the counter trey.

Curiosity, and the con­trar­i­an mind­set that comes with it, led Kelley to an even more rad­i­cal dis­cov­ery in recent years. Using num­bers from’s col­lege foot­ball data­base, he found that when two play­ers touched the ball on a play, their chances of going for 20 yards hov­ered around 10 per­cent. But when three play­ers touched the ball, that like­li­hood dou­bled.

Of all things, the most sure­fire way to this goal was actually…a hook-and-ladder?

This dis­cov­ery led to Kelley’s most rad­i­cal idea to date: installing rug­by-style lat­er­als on the back end of pass­ing plays, a twist on one of football’s most cel­e­brat­ed trick plays. When the play calls for it, down­field receivers will forego block­ing and instead trail the ball-catch­er, yelling out when there’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to lat­er­al the ball backwards.

In 2015, his first sea­son with the exper­i­ment, Pulaski con­vert­ed 30 suc­cess­ful lat­er­als. Last sea­son, with All-American tight end Hudson Henry’s brutish 6-foot-5 frame box­ing out, the Bruins con­vert­ed eight, with the sure-hand­ed future Arkansas Razorback hav­ing a hand in all of them.

So where does this curios­i­ty come from? Is it born out of neces­si­ty? Does it stem from a desire to stay one step ahead of the competition?

Kelley says it comes from the will to win — and, sub­se­quent­ly, the will­ing­ness to do what­ev­er it takes to win.

“People like to say the ques­tion is do you want it more — no, every­body wants it the same,” he says. ​“But did every­body want it the same when they were prac­tic­ing and com­ing up with what they were going to do in the game? Did they want it enough to try some­thing dif­fer­ent, not know­ing the out­come — not punt­ing, onside kicks, pitch­ing the ball around? To me the big dif­fer­ence is tru­ly will­ing to win at the risk of sac­ri­fic­ing your ego, at the risk of peo­ple boo­ing you, deal­ing with social media, deal­ing with the media in a neg­a­tive way.

To me the big dif­fer­ence is tru­ly will­ing to win at the risk of sac­ri­fic­ing your ego

“So I do think it comes down to my will­ing­ness, I’m will­ing to do all these things that I real­ly think give us a bet­ter chance to win, but at the risk of sac­ri­fic­ing all those neg­a­tives, along with, if it fails mis­er­ably. A lot of peo­ple just aren’t.”

Never before in the his­to­ry of our game has so much advanced data been so read­i­ly avail­able at even the most grass­roots lev­els. And it’s not going away any time soon. If any­thing, we’ve just begun to scratch the sur­face, a point Kelley ham­mers when asked about what’s under­val­ued in today’s intense cli­mate of analytics.

“I think that as we go along, it’s still real­ly new in the his­to­ry of things. Data analy­sis is still real­ly young, and I think we’re going to explore bet­ter ways to use it, and there’s a mil­lion things out there that we’re just get­ting start­ed on that we can do,” he says. ​“And so I think the under­val­ue is, in the end, we think we know too much, and when you do, that slows down growth. It slows down par­a­digm shifts. It slows down everything.”