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COLUMN: Play time for Kelly is over

Chad Kelly is Ole Miss’ quarterback. He’s been Ole Miss’ quarterback.

Well, sort of.

The instant Kelly signed his national letter of intent with Ole Miss back in December, the former Clemson quarterback with the NFL bloodlines became the most talented signal caller on the roster. He was immediately the favorite to be Bo Wallace’s replacement — nobody recruits junior college players to sit the bench — and stayed ahead of the competition with Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade throughout fall camp.

Head coach Hugh Freeze never came out and said point-blank that Kelly was the guy. He insisted Kelly had done enough to earn a start in the season opener but that the battle to be the permanent starter would continue.

But Saturday essentially ended that talk, and it forced Freeze to say what’s been obvious for about 10 months.

“He’s the starter,” Freeze said after Ole Miss’ clobbering of Fresno State. “I expect that to continue.”

Kelly has barely broken a sweat these first two weeks.

After Saturday’s 20 of 25, 346-yard, four-touchdown performance, Kelly brought his completion percentage to 73 percent for the season. He’s passed for 557 yards, six touchdowns and an interception on a perfectly placed ball that bounced off Laquon Treadwell’s hands and right into the belly of a UT-Martin defender last week.

And he’s accumulated those stats in essentially three quarters of action each week.

He’s camped out in the pocket as the UT-Martins and Fresno States of the world barely mustered any semblance of a pass rush against the Rebels’ offensive line, surveying the field and using arm strength that hasn’t been seen around here in quite some time to deliver darts all over the field.

Four of his scoring tosses have gone for at least 44 yards. His shortest toss to the end zone went 14 yards to Cody Core on Saturday.

Four of his touchdown passes have come in the first quarter, and all of them have come by halftime as Ole Miss got a quick start on their expected routs and poured it on from there. All eight possessions Kelly led Saturday resulted in points.

But play time is over for Kelly.

Ole Miss’ new quarterback will get his first taste of life in the Southeastern Conference in about as hostile an environment as you’ll find in the country when the Rebels travel to Bryant-Denny Stadium to take on Alabama.

Kelly’s pure arm talent along with better-than-advertised mobility can give almost any defense problems, but the last two Saturdays of sitting in the pocket for an hour and comfortably picking defense apart with little resistance are over.

To borrow a baseball reference, Kelly’s going from the minors to the majors, which will be difficult enough against Nick Saban’s defense. Add the deafening roar of more than 100,000 screaming fans, and Kelly’s decision-making will be tested like it never has before.

Kelly’s only part of the offensive solution if the Rebels want to get their first win in Tuscaloosa since 1988. He’ll need help from a Laremy Tunsil-less line and a running game that, like Kelly, is just as unproven when it comes to squaring off against SEC defenses.

But there will be times the Rebels will need their new quarterback to make plays with things moving 100 miles an hour around him.

The real tests begin now.

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