For ex-Westview QB, Beavers play fitting part in likely swan song
Walter Mitty lives in Casey Kelly.
Unwanted by major colleges, the former Westview High quarterback thought big and wound up living out a dream.
The 6-3, 195-pound senior will play his final collegiate game Dec. 24 when he leads New Mexico into battle against Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
The Lobos are 19-12 with Kelly starting the last three years. That makes him the winningest quarterback in school history. The previous record holder? Rocky Long, his coach.
'I should have kept Casey out of the dang games,' Long jokes.
That Kelly is on a major college roster, let alone starting for a bowl team, is an upset. After being named Metro League offensive player of the year and third-team all-state as a senior at Westview in 1998, he fielded zero offers from NCAA Division I schools. Not from Oregon. Not from Oregon State. Not even from Division 1-AA Portland State.
Oh, Western Oregon and Linfield showed interest.
And Kelly, a fine first baseman, was drafted by the Colorado Rockies.
'They wanted me to go to a JC and see how I developed,' Kelly says. 'I definitely considered it, but I wanted to play college football.'
Walk-on works out
Sometimes connections pay off. Kelly's father, Rick, was once an assistant coach at Aloha under Mike Lopez. Lopez's son, Mike Jr., was a graduate assistant at Oregon State at the same time as Bronco Mendenhall, former defensive coordinator at New Mexico. Lopez Jr. got some videotape of Kelly to Mendenhall, and the Lobos wound up accepting Kelly as a walk-on.
Early in his sophomore season, Kelly became a starter, and the rest is history. This season, he has completed 142 of 262 passes for 2,191 yards and 13 TDs, with nine interceptions. He ranks third on the school career list for passing and total offense and was an honorable mention All-Mountain West Conference choice this fall.
'It has been great, more than I could have asked for coming out of high school,' Kelly says. 'Coach Long gave me a chance when nobody else would.'
And, yes, Kelly is on scholarship now.
'Casey is as important to us in our offense as any quarterback in our league was to his team,' Long says. 'He's an intelligent guy who loves to play football, a great game manager who understands defenses, checks out of bad plays and gets us into good plays. He's a quiet leader who has been all about New Mexico winning football games.'
Wins haven't come easy
That in itself is something different around Albuquerque. The Lobos have been one of the nation's most win-challenged programs since the mid-1960s, having participated in just two bowl games in the last 42 years.
One of those was last year, when the Lobos lost 27-13 to UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl.
'Last year, we went to Vegas and had a good time and celebrated our season,' Kelly says. 'This year, we know what to expect. We won't be in awe of the situation. There will be more emphasis on winning the game.'
New Mexico has a run-first, multiple-formation offense featuring sophomore tailback DonTrell Moore, who rushed for a MWC-leading 1,438 yards and 19 TDs. Kelly is the guy who steers the ship, occasionally running the option and throwing only about 20 times a game.
'It's OK,' he says. 'I've never been a big stat guy. I'd like to throw more, and I'm definitely not a running quarterback. But I think I get the job done, and what we do best is run the football.
'I have a pretty good grasp of our offense now. I can read defenses well enough to get us out of bad plays and into better ones. I think my strongest suit is the mental aspect of the game.'
Having Oregon State as a Las Vegas Bowl opponent adds an extra dose of excitement for Kelly. Early in his sophomore year, during OSU's Fiesta Bowl season, the Beavers beat New Mexico 28-20 at Albuquerque. Kelly didn't play. A couple of games later, he was the starter.
'I'm liking the fact we are playing an Oregon team,' he says. 'Everyone back home will be watching it. It's a chance for me to have a good game in front of people who know me.'
'We are in for a fight'
The OSU defense 'looks good in all areas,' he says. 'They are the kind of defense that poses a threat to us Ñ good front four, physical cornerbacks, and their middle linebacker (Richard Seigler) is a stud.'
Kelly knows what the Lobo offense must do.
'We have to establish the run,' he says. 'If we can do that, it will open up our passing game. And we need to hook up on a couple of big plays.
'We know we are in for a fight. Steven Jackson is a big-time running back. Our defense has been real strong against the run, even against good running backs, but it is going to be a challenge. If we can get a good pass rush and get at their quarterback (Derek Anderson), that's when our defense shines.'
There will be no revenge factor for Kelly, who turns 24 next month. His life and football career are in fine order. He's engaged to Kristen Byrd. He graduated with a degree in marketing last May and is working on his MBA in business. He will listen to any offers to play football beyond college, knowing that the Las Vegas Bowl probably will be his swan song.
'I have never held a grudge against schools for not recruiting me,' he says. 'I'm at the point where I can be happy with what I've accomplished, and to know not getting recruited didn't hold me back.
'Helping our team to the Las Vegas Bowl the last two years É I mean, it's a pretty big deal for New Mexico football to have that kind of success. The program is going in the right direction, and it's been neat to be a part of that.'