Caleb Kelly knew the questions he was about to be asked because he’s been listening carefully to reporters the past few months.
Oklahoma’s senior linebacker has worked as a student with OU Nightly, a broadcast media branch within the journalism school, while rehabilitating himself from preseason surgery.
Kelly has held a camera, learned about various equipment and been part of media scrums focused on his teammates and coaches. He’ll continue doing so Monday when OU holds its weekly press conference, this one ahead of a big game at Oklahoma State.
The difference now is he’s playing again.
"You guys will ask me, how does it feel being out there? First thing, I'd say, it's just good to be with my teammates for sure,” Kelly said, laughing just before he teed up another question for himself.
Saturday against TCU, Kelly he entered his first game since last season’s Orange Bowl, playing weakside linebacker. He recorded just one tackle but was on the field for the Horned Frogs’ final two offensive plays.
He’s a patient man to a degree, he said.
“I’m definitely a jealous guy. I love when my teammates make plays and I love celebrating with them, but I always want to make the play. That’s just my nature,” Kelly said. “I’ve definitely been jealous this whole year. I had that ‘Caleb’s Clicker’ show [for SoonerSports.com], where I get to highlight them and show them love and I’m like, OK, now I’ve seen all, I’ve got to make [a play].”
OU’s defense has enjoyed a resurgent year after its 2018 struggles. Virtually all of the Sooners’ numbers have increased. Kelly has missed most of the transition from Mike Stoops to Alex Grinch because of the lower-body injury he suffered last spring.
The TCU game would have been his senior day if not for that setback. Now he’s in an interesting position — he can play in three games the rest of this season and retain another year of eligibility. But OU could play a maximum of four games if it’s able to reach the national championship.
OU has been tailoring Kelly’s rehab so that he returns to full strength, while being mindful of how he could help the Sooners late in the season and benefit from the redshirt rule.
Kelly traveled to the Baylor game Nov. 16 and likely would have played, he said, had a targeting call against linebacker DaShaun White been upheld.
He didn’t speculate how his coaches will approach playing him moving forward. But Kelly said he will return for another year if he doesn’t exceed the four-game mark the NCAA allows.
And if he’s faced with having to play five games, thus ending his collegiate career, with the last contest being the national title in New Orleans?
“I can’t tell you. I go week by week,” Kelly said. “Missing a national championship … I don’t know. I’ve been here four years and been one game away the last two. That’s definitely something I would love to play in. But also one game for the rest of my career. A real hard decision.”
Those choices will sort themselves out depending on whether OU makes the College Football Playoff at all — Alabama, Utah and Georgia are expected to still be ahead in the rankings when they’re released Tuesday.
But the Sooners (10-1, 7-1 Big 12) can use Kelly to position themselves for a jump into the group of four semifinal teams if the chips fall their way.
In addition to 24 career starts, he’s had a knack for game-changing plays late in the season. In 2017, his scoop-and-score against TCU in the Big 12 title game helped drive home OU’s victory there. A year ago, he sacked and stripped West Virginia quarterback Will Grier and returned it 10 yards for a touchdown to help the Sooners reach the conference championship.
“I don't know the exact rep count but I sure liked having him out there,” Grinch said. “I know the group was excited for him. And then, it's an unusual situation to have your first work week in Week 11, senior night in the stadium and all those things. So, he's a guy that will continue to progress on our defense, continue to get more reps. That helps our linebacker room. And subsequently, it helps our defense. I'm thrilled for him, excited for us. You'll see more of those as we move forward.”
It wasn’t a perfect debut by any means. Kelly admitted there was rust, and joked about how he might have been partially to blame for TCU quarterback Max Duggan’s 62-yard run in the first half.
“That first play, by the way, the quarterback, the long run — that was a tricky play. I'm not gonna say it wasn't my fault, but I'm not gonna say it was my fault,” Kelly said. “All my family back home was messing with me, telling me that, oh, you looked slow on that one. I was like, well, OK, [still] getting the kinks out and everything.”
OU at Oklahoma State
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Place: Boone Pickens Stadium | Stillwater
Rankings/records: CFP No. 9/AP No. 7 OU (10-7, 7-1 Big 12); CFP No. 21/AP No. 21 OSU (8-3, 5-3 Big 12)
Line: OU (-14.5)
Radio: KRXO-FM 107.7