Coach who never punts and always attempts onside kicks gets Division I job

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The high school football coach who almost never punts has landed a college head-coaching job.

According to multiple reports, longtime Pulaski Academy head coach Kevin Kelley is leaving the Little Rock, Arkansas-based high school for Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina. Presbyterian has a Division I football program that competes at the FCS level in the Pioneer Football League.

Presbyterian has yet to announce the hire of Kelley, but Pulaski Academy confirmed his destination in communication with parents of the school.

Why Kevin Kelley never punts

Kelley has been the head coach at Pulaski Academy since 2003. He rose to prominence nationally by adopting an extremely unique strategy. He rarely punts and almost always follows a touchdown by attempting an onside kick. His approach has yielded plenty of success in the state of Arkansas — nine state championships.

When the score is within three touchdowns, Kelley’s team attempted an onside kick “100 percent of the time,” he told Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel back in 2018.

Kelley’s approach is completely data driven, as Wetzel wrote:

Kelley believes, and has data to back it up, that the “opportunity to create a turnover” via an onside kick is greater than the loss of field position from a failed kick. There’s more. His teams also never (or almost never) punt because the chance to run four downs worth of plays is seen as more valuable than field position (especially with high school punters). Pulaski also receives kicks with unusual formations, creating space and limiting penalties and injuries. It blitzes often because “sacks change the game” more than allowing a first down.

Kelley believes field position is completely overrated. The more important variable is turnover margin, he believes.

“You win games by winning the turnover value, not field position,” Kelley told Wetzel.

From Wetzel’s 2018 story:

In Pulaski’s case, it’s attempting an onside kick every time the score is remotely close. Kelley’s reasoning is that turnover margin is among the most predictive stats when it comes to determining a game’s outcome. While winning an onside kick isn’t officially considered a turnover, he says it’s the same thing.

“If I kick it down the field and we force the return man to fumble, then that’s a turnover,” Kelley said. “Either way, we get the ball.”

The downside of failing to recover is the opponent is given better field position, but Kelley’s numbers show field position is an overrated variable, especially when considering most failed onside kicks wind up in the mid-field area.

Pulaski Academy coach Kevin Kelley, center, celebrates with his team after the Arkansas Class 5A High School Championship football game in Little Rock, Ark., Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014. Pulaski Academy defeated Wynne High School 38-28. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Pulaski Academy coach Kevin Kelley, center, celebrates with his team after the Arkansas Class 5A High School Championship football game in Little Rock, Ark., Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014. Pulaski Academy defeated Wynne High School 38-28. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Bill Belichick is a fan of Kelley

Kelley counts Bill Belichick — you may have heard of him — among his admirers. The two coaches first met in 2015 and have kept in touch over the years. Back in December, Belichick referred to Kelley as “probably the top high school coach in the country” during a midweek press conference.

“[I’ve] followed him. He’s a little unconventional, but he’s had great success. And he’s had a lot of [NFL] players come through there,” Belichick said per the Boston Herald. “We’ve had a couple other ones here. I have great respect for coach Kelley and the program he runs, and some of the creative things that he does.”

Kelley will now get to test his methods at a much higher level of competition.

Presbyterian fired head coach Tommy Spangler on April 21 after the Blue Hose went 4-3 during the spring season. Spangler was the head coach at PC from 2001 to 2006 before spending six seasons as the defensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech. He returned to Presbyterian in 2013 before being promoted back to head coach in 2017. The Blue Hose went a combined 12-28 over the last four seasons.

Presbyterian was a member of the Big South Conference from 2007 until 2020. Presbyterian was set to join the Pioneer Football League in the fall of 2021, but was permitted to join early and participate in the league’s spring season.

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