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Inside The Chart: Jude Perfect

Jude Perfect:  Inside the esoteric art of the onside kick with Jude Kelley – and the kickoff renaissance he’s helping lead on The Flats

By Andy Demetra (The Voice of the Yellow Jackets) | Inside Onside The Chart

This is the last time Jude Kelley would like to be written about.

He’s not embarrassed. He doesn’t shun the spotlight. He takes his spin on the media carousel with good cheer. But he knows the deal.

If he’s on the field, it means Georgia Tech is trailing late. And not even the most craven attention seeker wants that.

“The goal is for me not to go on the field,” the place kicker acknowledged.

Still, let’s reserve some praise for the Acworth, Ga. native, who earned ACC Specialist of the Week honors for a breathtaking kicking performance against Virginia. The second-year freshman may have become the first kicker in ACC history – heck, maybe any conference’s history – to win Specialist of the Week without attempting a field goal.

Kelley won it instead for his continued sorcery on onside kicks. With Georgia Tech trailing Virginia 48-34 and 0:51 remaining, Kelley executed a successful onside kick to give Tech the ball. After the Yellow Jackets scored a touchdown with 0:22 left, Kelley kicked another successful onside. Tech nearly pulled off a miraculous comeback, but a Hail Mary pass was batted down at the goal line to preserve a 48-40 Cavaliers win. Virginia suspected another onside kick earlier in the quarter, but with no Cavalier back deep, Kelley lofted a perfect sky kick into the coffin corner. The Cavaliers scrambled to recover it at their own four-yard line. Head coach Geoff Collins called it his best kick of the night.

Jude Kelley approaches the ball for one of his two successful onside kicks last Saturday at Virginia (photo: Keith Lucas)

 

“He forgot to tell me how he was going to do it. I’m standing on the sidelines like, ‘Jude!  Kick it deep!’  And he one-steps it to the 4-yard line. It’s just amazing the things he can do kicking the football, shaping the kicks,” Collins said.

“He’s a sniper,” added fellow kicker Gavin Stewart. “We always talk about it. Every time we get to do it in a game, we just know we’re going to get the ball back. It’s ridiculous. He can pick a spot, put it there, and it’s going to be perfect every time.”

Kelley and Stewart have combined on a sort of kickoff renaissance for Tech, which as recently as two years ago ranked last in the country in touchback percentage. With Stewart handling traditional kickoffs, Tech has climbed to 36th this year (24-of-37, 63.2%). The Jackets haven’t ranked that high since current Kansas City Chief Harrison Butker’s final season in 2016. Another seven of Stewart’s kickoffs have been fair caught, meaning the Jackets have only allowed six returns all season.

Touchback % – NCAA Ranking
2017: No. 124
2018: No. 102
2019: No. 130
2020: No. 92
2021: No. 36

Thirty-one of Gavin Stewart’s 37 kickoffs this season have not been returned by the opponent (photo: Keith Lucas)

 

Kickoffs have long been a source of avert-your-eyes angst for Tech fans. Heading into their homecoming showdown against Virginia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium (Noon ET, Georgia Tech Sports Network from Legends Sports), Kelley and Stewart appreciate that they’ve helped lower the collective blood pressure around The Flats.

“It’s definitely awesome. I’m proud to do it for our team. I know it definitely makes all of our lives a lot easier,” said Stewart, a Savannah, Ga., native who began his career as both a wide receiver and placekicker. After an injury at wideout last spring, he decided to focus full-time on kicking.

“Over the last couple of years we’ve had to cover and tackle a lot of kickoffs … The nice thing is, when you boom it out of the end zone like Gavin is doing, our guys have confidence,” Collins said.

But while Georgia Tech’s touchback percentage has risen under Stewart, it’s the Jackets’ percentage of recovered onside kicks that remains the most astonishing. In addition to Kelley’s back-to-back kicks against Virginia, Kelley booted a successful onside with 1:19 left against Clemson on September 18. He also went 2-for-2 in onside kicks last season (Boston College and Notre Dame).

Onside kicks are wonderful when they work, of course, but they also have a notoriously low success rate.  According to data from the football think tank The 33rd Team, onside kicks were successfully recovered by the kicking team 23.8% of the time in college football games between 2014-2020.

Kelley has had five successful onside kicks in a row dating back to last season. The odds of that happening, according to The 33rd Team’s data?

Approximately 0.076%.  That’s seven one-hundredths of one percent.

So for a specialty kick that so rarely works, what makes Kelley the undisputed, odds-defying master of the craft? Not only has he made three flawless onside kicks this year, not a single one of them touched an opposing player. Kelley hasn’t needed a deflection, or a fumble, or a scramble, or some other chaos to achieve his result. All three of his kicks landed directly into the hands of a Georgia Tech special-teamer.  Perhaps he can take us behind the curtain and explain the esoteric art of a kick so few of us can execute, let alone understand.

Juanyeh Thomas recovers Jude Kelley’s second successful onside kick last Saturday at Virginia (photo: Keith Lucas)

 

Actually, Kelley is pretty nonchalant about it.

“A lot of it is luck, right? Getting a good bounce. But I’ve found there is a way to be consistent with it, and at least give them a shot. That’s all you can do,” he said.

When pressed, though, Kelley thinks a few factors may explain his knack for it.  Like most college kickers, he played a lot of soccer growing up, from age three all the way through his senior year at Allatoona High School. He inherited his love of the sport from his Dad, who grew up in Coventry, England, and moved to Tennessee as an exchange student for his final year of high school. Kelley mostly played attacking midfielder, which he believes gave him the ball control and feel that translates well to onside kicking.

(Yes, Jude is named after The Beatles song “Hey Jude.” If he was a girl, his parents would have named him Lucy after “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.”)

Kelley took up place kicking as a freshman at Allatoona, where he developed into one of the best kickers in Cobb County history. Yet he admits he had relatively little exposure to onside kicking when he arrived at Georgia Tech. He studied video of a few kickers early in his career, but said he mostly developed his own technique by feel.

“I did a lot of tampering with ball placement and where to kick it and where to get it to land. I’ve kind of figured out a couple different things to make it bounce differently,” he said, adding that he can now get the ball to bounce three or four different ways. He’s beta testing a couple more versions, but hasn’t used them in a game yet.

VIDEO: Student-Athletes Weekly Media Availability (Djimon Brooks, Gavin Stewart, Jude Kelley and Jahmyr Gibbs)

“We’ve got some cool schemes based around his talents,” Collins said. “There are still some things we have left in our bag of tricks.”

Kelley also says he’s not necessarily aiming for a specific player on Georgia Tech’s “hands” team. When he lines up, he’s more focused on the feel off the foot.

“It’s kind of like a golf shot,” he explained. “I just try to focus on what I want the ball to do and where I want to do it.”

Just like a golfer, he also studies the greens. Before each game, Kelley says he checks the playing surface to see how a ball reacts to it. If it’s a softer surface like Bobby Dodd Stadium, or a firmer surface like Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, he knows to adjust the angle or strength of his swing.

Yet Kelley insists he doesn’t practice onside kicks an inordinate amount. The bulk of his work during the week remains on field goals, where he continues to compete with Stewart and grad transfer Brent Cimaglia. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, he says, “I just kind of screw around and try some different things, to see if there are any different possibilities.” The Jackets practice their onside kicks as a special teams unit on Fridays.

“The crazy thing about Jude is that his best kicks come in the game,” said wide receiver Malachi Carter, who caught two of Kelley’s successful attempts this season – at Clemson and the first onside against Virginia. “It’s way better on game day than at practice. His accuracy is out of this world in the game.”

And that may reveal the other secret behind Kelley’s remarkable string of onside kicks.

“I’m surprisingly calm for them. Which is a good thing. It’s not really something that you get a lot of practice in in pressure situations,” Kelley says.

“The confidence in himself when the game is on the line and it’s time to do it, he can still execute, which is a hard skill to master. And he’s got it,” Collins added.

So for all the talk of mechanics and technique, maybe it’s as simple as that. When he nestles the ball on the tee, Kelley has the calmness and feel to strike the ball the way he wants. He doesn’t let the moment get too big for him. He has an intuitive sense of how to calibrate his swing based on the field conditions and firmness of the ball. He knows he has athletic teammates who can recover the ball when it’s suspended in midair (“You put it up there and they’ll go grab it”). Most of all, he has the confidence to pull it off.

It may not be sorcery, but the secret to Jude Kelley’s success could be every bit as intangible.

Now if you don’t mind, he’d rather not show it again.

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