OT: Kevin Kelley on The Andy Staples Show

For those who don't know, Kevin Kelley is a high school football coach in Arkansas who kicks onside kicks after every score, almost nevers punts, and often opts for 2 pt conversions over PATs. In 18 years as head coach, he's 216-29-1.

Andy Staples is lobbying for him to get the Kansas job, and had him on the show to talk about his coaching style, how he uses analytics, and all sorts of stuff:

TL;DR, this podcast is about how Coach Kelley uses analytics to make on field decision as well as influence the intangibles. I think the whole episode is a must listen, but I'll list some of his more interesting comments:

  • He always goes for 2pts on the first two TDs of the game - He's pretty confident that his team will convert at least one of the two scores, so in his mind, at worst case, it's one score game, best case, it's a two score game, and being up two scores after the opponent has only had one possession is a huge psychological advantage. After the first two drives, he goes by his chart/the score.
  • If he's torn between two calls, he looks to the other sideline and tries to get a feel for their mental state - if they look deflated, he'll almost always go for the more aggressive call.
  • Coach knows that the team is 136-5 when they recover an onside kick. He makes sure all of his kids have this stat memorized, so when they recover do an onside kick, they automatically get an enormous confidence boost.
  • Coach Kelley notices that in college football, if a team cannot gain 4 yards on the first play of a drive, their chances of scoring on that drive decrease by 40%. Thus, on the first play of each drive, he always calls a play that is expected to gain more than 4 yards (eg; a passing play instead of a run).
  • Similarly, Coach notices the impact of 20+ yard plays on winning, so he game plans around maximizing those plays on offense, and limiting them on defense.
  • He's open to an abnormal compensation structure, saying he'd sign a contract for $90k/win

I'd be thrilled if this guy a guy like this was the next VT hire. Anyways, for a ~35 min episode, this pod is packed with a ton of interesting tidbits. It's a must listen.

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I would never want this coach at VT. Sure it may work for a season, but college is a different ball game than high school just like NFL is different from college. I bet he would be figured out very quickly in college considering coaching and player talent is much better across the board. I can understand the two point conversion, but going for it on fourth and almost always going for an onside kick will kill the team if they don't get a first down or recover. I would assume Field position is much more important in college and tougher to overcome.

The interesting thing is that he doesn't have a ton of D1 talent on his roster, and routinely punches above his weight class. That said, I agree that cfb is more challenging than HS.

The thing about going for it on fourth/going for 2/kicking the onside kick is that you're adding 10+ plays per game that the defense has to play and prepare for. That's pretty significant.

Really, what I like about him is his mindset. I have no doubt that if his plan wasn't working, he'd pivot and try something new. In an industry known for stubbornness, I think getting someone who thinks outside of the box would be a huge advantage. I edited that line in the OP to better reflect my stance.

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Probably true, but have you watched much Kansas football of late? They might as well do on onside kick when they score cause they don't score much to begin with

Oh Kansas might as well try it especially if it's true how difficult it has been for them to find a coach.

His take on 20+ yards is the reason SP+ and all those metrics have some level of predictability. Bill Connelly broke it down pretty granularly on a podcast once, its a really high % chance of winning if you have more 'explosive' plays than the other team and if you match that with 'disruptive' plays on defense its almost 90% expected win.

...so that matched with his 4 yard on first down take, probably fits in college, the rest of it, I think youre right especially onside kicks...

Also, Connelly is (basically) talking about the 4 yard rule, albeit in different language, when he talks about success rate:

Success Rate
A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

50% of necessary yardage on first down is usually 5 yards, which is close to the same as 'greater than 4 yards'

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But what exactly is there to "figure out"? That's not a refutation to your point, by the way, but an honest question regarding this topic.

I think a good argument could be made that from an X's & O's standpoint, this coach is reasonably decent at game planning. His high school does not bring in D1 talent on a regular basis. He's been doing this for a long time now with the onside kicks/going on 4th/going for 2.

Clearly the odds would decrease playing that way in a decent FBS conference, but even then I think he would have success. Chip Kelly did the same thing over and over and over again and had Oregon in the conversation for years.

In the pros not so much, simply put because NFL kickers are so much better, field position is key, and most coaches that take the blame get fired quickly (always go back to a great Gregg Easterbrook Tuesday Morning Quarterback column before ESPN jumped the shark). It's easier for an NFL coach to take the "safe" way out and then blame the players for not executing after the fact.

Coaches like Chip Kelly...they get figured out at the NFL level, because they are a one trick pony. As an Eagles fan even I knew what the 1st down plays would look like.

I don't know if "We are going to line up and run 4 good offensive plays, and you have to stop us from getting 10 yards in those plays" is necessarily a system that automatically gets figured out. If anything, it makes it harder on a defense, if done with good game planning.

I think it comes down to two things:

  • Is it harder to convert a 4th down CFB than HS?
  • Is it harder to recover a onside kick in CFB than HS?

For the first bullet, I think it's easier than ever to convert a fourth down. Given that the advent of the RPO, and the fact that the illegal man downfield rule is barely enforced, offenses have a huge advantage these days.

The second bullet is the big question IMO.

  • Assuming that the kicking team would be practicing onside kicks way more than normal, how much better could they get at recovering it?
  • Also, does the threat of an onside kick open more opportunities for an unreturned kick - eg; if a team comes out, kicks two onside kicks in a row, then, on their third kick, launches it deep, could that throw off the receiving team and help the kicking team get some great field position?
  • Additionally, if you know your opponent is going to onside kick multiple times a game, I assume that your team is going to spend a lot of time practicing that, and that time takes away from other practice, so are their indirect effects of frequent onside kicking?

TLDR - we can't be sure about any of this until someone does it at the P5 level. I need to see this.

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I would agree that converting a 4th down would seem to have a higher success rate than recovering an onside kick (let alone multiple onside kicks)

But the coach even said he does an onside kick the first two times, and then goes back to the situation and game to decide on doing it after that.

It's not just recovering the onside kick that factors into the "should I onside kick it"

High school kicks off from the 40 yard line. A touch back is the 35 yard line. So a failed onside kick is -15 yards. In college it is -30 yards.

It is basically:
Your teams chance of scoring from the 50 * chance of onside > opponent chance of scoring from 50 - opponents chance of scoring from 65.

Somewhere you factor in your chance of scoring from the 65+ (depends on opponents kicker too) and percentage of kickoff returns and your kickers leg but I'm too busy to figure out the exact equation.

Those numbers all change in college.

P.S. I would expect Kevin Kelley to calculate all that based on what I've read about him in the past.

I did not know about that KO/yardage difference between the two.

Agree with your last point, Kelley seems like the kind of coach that would account for/know those percentages and adjust accordingly.

Yeah, years ago when I was reading about this it really made you think every high school coach is an idiot for not doing it. The difference in high schools was almost nothing. I believe those 15 yards added less than 1 pt expected. So you could onside kick 7 times, recover one and come out on top.

Hasn't Bill C proven with actual numbers that everything Kelley does at the high school level holds true statistically at the college level? He basically took the guess work out of it over the last 15 years.


But Bill Cs win expectancy numbers are also more based on success of those plays/strategy that Kelly uses to "game" the system, correct? What if those plays don't hit the same success rate that he gets in high school. People keep saying he doesn't get D1 players, but not many high schools get D1 quality players across the board other than IMG and private schools. I would argue that high school is much easier to succeed on those plays/his strategy and overcome failures in his strategy.

I would agree with that. Just saying I think Bill's numbers on success at the college level at least somewhat support the approach based on success rate.


Coach Kelley notices that in college football, if a team cannot gain 4 yards on the first play of a drive, their chances of scoring on that drive decrease by 40%. Thus, on the first play of each drive, he always calls a play that is expected to gain more than 4 yards (eg; a passing play instead of a run).

I imagine that really opens the QB draw a couple times a game on first down.