Aaron Kelly's dropped TD pass cost Clemson a trip to the ACC championship game and possibly a BCS Bowl invitation.
No matter how many passes he catches on his way to possibly becoming the most prolific receiver in Atlantic Coast Conference history, Clemson senior Aaron Kelly always will hear questions about one ball that slipped through his hands.
Kelly dropped a potential game-winning touchdown pass in November in the final minute of a 20-17 loss to Boston College. His inability to hang onto the ball cost Clemson an ACC Atlantic Division title and a potential shot at its first BCS invitation.
The misplay tarnished an otherwise brilliant season in which Kelly caught 88 passes for 1,081 yards, three yards shy of the school record set by Rod Gardner in 1999. Kelly is only 51 catches away from the conference record for career receptions, so he sees no reason to brood over one of the few plays he failed to make.
"You have to put it behind you," Kelly said. "That's what I've done."
While it's tough to imagine a receiver can make this type of mistake without letting it affect his confidence, Kelly has reason to believe he can beat the odds. After all, he's done it before.
During his senior season at Marietta (Ga.) Walton High, Kelly was playing in a regional championship game when he beat man-to-man coverage and found himself wide open behind the secondary before dropping a certain touchdown pass.
BEST IN THE LEAGUE
Clemson wide receiver Aaron Kelly has an excellent opportunity to close his career with the most catches in ACC history and has a remote chance of setting the league's career mark for receiving yards. Here's a look at the top 10 in both categories. We've also included Kelly's career statistics at the bottom of each chart, though he currently doesn't rank in the top 10 in either.
1. Desmond Clark
2. Billy McMullen
3. Peter Warrick
4. Jerricho Cotchery
5. Kelly Campbell
6. Jermaine Lewis
7. Torry Holt
8. Clarkston Hines
9. Ricky Proehl
10. Geroy Simon
1. Peter Warrick
2. Torry Holt
3. Clarkston Hines
4. Jerricho Cotchery
5. Billy McMullen
6. Ricky Proehl
7. Jermaine Lewis
8. Calvin Johnson
9. E.G. Green
10. Kelly Campbell
"I literally watched three SEC coaches walk out of the stadium after he dropped it," Walton coach Ed Dudley said. "It was their mistake."
Sure enough, Kelly scored a touchdown later that night in a Walton victory and delivered an exceptional performance in the next round. He continued his penchant for quickly erasing his mistakes when he followed up that Boston College game last season with a huge effort the following week against archrival South Carolina (nine catches for 134 yards).
Chalk it up as one more example of how Kelly has proved skeptics wrong since he arrived in high school as an undersized player who looked absolutely nothing like a major-college prospect. Those coaches who walked out of the stadium that night in Georgia missed out on signing a two-star prospect who has blossomed into an All-America candidate.
"I've always had people doubt me the whole time," Kelly said. "Even in high school, people have always said I was too small. When I got here, I was too skinny. People have always doubted me."
The skeptics had good reason for their concern.
Kelly says he was 5 feet 5 when he first arrived in high school, Dudley remembers him measuring in at about 5-8 and 120 pounds. Dudley credits Walton offensive coordinator Tripp Allen for seeing enough potential in the youngster to talk him into coming out for football.
Whatever his height and weight, Kelly didn't have nearly enough size to stand out initially.
"I didn't even notice him," Dudley recalled. "I'm a head coach and have 120 guys out there. He wasn't a blip on the radar screen. If he'd turned sideways, I'm sure I wouldn't have noticed him because he was so skinny."
Kelly had to figure he'd eventually get a little taller because his dad is 6 feet and his mother is 5-6, but nobody could have expected him to sprout as much as he did. Once Kelly finally started growing, he never stopped.
The same guy who initially was shorter than most of his high school teammates now stands 6-5. And even as he grew taller, Kelly never was awkward or gangly and instead maintained his fluid athleticism that came from playing high school basketball.
"He just shot up, almost overnight," said Kelly's mother, Janice. "As a matter of fact, he was always complaining that his knees were hurting. It was literal growing pains he went through."
Kelly hasn't endured any growing pains since arriving at Clemson. He has caught at least 30 passes in each of his first three seasons and figures to leave campus as the most productive receiver in school history.
Last season, he joined Gardner and Derrick Hamilton as the only Clemson receivers to have 1,000-yard seasons. He enters his senior year with 16 career touchdowns, which puts him two shy of the 57-year-old school record owned by former tight end Glenn Smith.
Kelly almost didn't give himself a chance to break those records. He seriously considered entering the NFL Draft instead of returning for his senior season.
"It was very tempting," he said. "It's something you dream about since you're a little kid. I had a great opportunity to go."
Kelly took his family to lunch and told them he planned to turn pro. He later discussed his decision again in a two-hour phone call with his mother, who tried to talk him into going back to school.
"He actually said to me, 'I'm not changing my mind,' " Janice Kelly said. "At that point, I thought he wasn't changing his mind."
Kelly's change of heart came later. First he called his mom and said he'd decided to stay in school after all. Then he told the media, which already had reported that he probably was on his way to the NFL.
He changed his mind in part because he wanted to earn his business management degree, but the opportunity to break so many records and win a conference championship also appealed to him.
Kelly's 165 career catches put him well within range of ACC career leader Desmond Clark, who caught 216 passes for Wake Forest from 1995-98. Kelly has 2,011 career receiving yards, 1,506 short of the conference career record set by Florida State's Peter Warrick from 1996-99.
"It's something you can tell your kids about," Kelly said. "Stuff like that you can hang your hat on. To leave behind a legacy would be pretty cool."
KING OF CLEMSON
Aaron Kelly probably will end his college career as Clemson's career leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches. Here is where he ranks in each of the three categories.
1. Derrick Hamilton
2. Rod Gardner
3. Aaron Kelly
4. Terry Smith
5. Perry Tuttle
6. Kevin Youngblood
7. Chansi Stuckey
8. Jerry Butler
9. Brian Wofford
10. Airese Currie
1. Terry Smith
2. Perry Tuttle
3. Rod Gardner
4. Derrick Hamilton
5. Jerry Butler
6. Airese Currie
7. Aaron Kelly
8. Brian Wofford
9. Chansi Stuckey
10. Tony Horne
1. Glenn Smith
2. Perry Tuttle
3. Terrance Roulhac
4. Derrick Hamilton
5. Aaron Kelly
6. Terry Smith
7. Tony Horne
7. Brian Wofford
7. Rod Gardner
10. John McMakin
Kelly should play a key role on a talent-laden Clemson offense that led the ACC with 33.1 points per game last season. Clemson boasts the conference's top returning passer (Cullen Harper), rusher (James Davis) and receiver (Kelly).
A second consecutive big season could improve Kelly's draft stock and ease concerns teams might have about his lean 190-pound frame. The NFL Draft Advisory Board considered Kelly a probable fourth-round pick had he turned pro after last season. If he bulks up his physique and his stats this fall, Kelly might hear his name called on the first day of next year's draft.
"He wants to be a high draft pick," Clemson wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney told TigerIllustrated.com. "He came back really, really focused on attention to detail. … The guys respect him, and he has worked very hard in the weight room. He is becoming more physical."
Kelly is trying to get up to 200 pounds by the Aug. 30 season opener against Alabama as he attempts to remove the doubts about his physical toughness. He already has answered any questions about his mental toughness. That happened in the way he responded to his miscue against Boston College.
Three plays after dropping that likely touchdown pass, Kelly kept Clemson's hopes alive with a 12-yard reception to convert a fourth-and-10 situation. Of course, that play was forgotten once Mark Buchholz missed a potential game-tying 54-yard field goal as time expired. All anyone remembered was the drop.
Kelly's mother remembers how he sat inside his father's truck after the game, despondent over how things had turned out. Kelly received consolation that night from Derek Lassic – a cousin and member of Alabama's 1992 national championship team – and former Tide receiver Curtis Brown, a friend of the Kelly family.
"That's the most disappointed I've ever seen him after a game," Janice Kelly said.
Kelly went out the next week and arguably was the deciding factor in a 23-21 victory over South Carolina. Kelly had four receptions for 70 yards in the drive that led to Buchholz's game-winning 35-yard field goal.
He hopes to deliver many more of those types of performances during his final season at Clemson. Kelly knows he won't completely forget the Boston College game, but he also believes one lowlight shouldn't define a career.
"It's something I think about that will always be there," Kelly said, "but it's nothing that I dwell on."
By the end of his senior season, perhaps he can make that BC game a mere footnote in a record-setting career.