By Brendan Hall
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.”
What I call it is applied analytics. That’s where I think we [as a whole] are struggling a bit.
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 pointsyards 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.
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 ESPN.com’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.
“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.”