Sitting in the middle of the Superdome, underneath the same lights that have shined on numerous Super Bowls and Final Fours, surrounded by members of the media, Ryan Kelly reflected on the path that took him from Lakota West High School to the starting center position for the nation’s No. 1 team, Alabama.
One thing’s for sure: he hasn’t forgotten Lakota West coach Larry Cox.
“I couldn’t thank Coach Cox enough,” Kelly said.
Kelly, a 6-foot-5, 296-pound junior, was an Under-Armour All-American as a senior at Lakota West. Cox and Lakota West’s other coaches helped him navigate the recruiting waters. It helped that Jordan Hicks, who just finished his career as a fifth-year senior linebacker at Texas, preceded Kelly at Lakota West.
Many of the coaches who recruited Hicks, Kelly said, also found out about Kelly. That included Urban Meyer, who was the head coach at Florida at the time, but not Ohio State’s Jim Tressel.
Kelly doesn’t know why Ohio State didn’t offer him a scholarship — a relevant topic this week as the Crimson Tide prepare to play No. 4 Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl on Thursday — but it didn’t bother him.
“It’s nothing personal, just business,” Kelly said. “I had a lot of other schools looking at me. I wasn’t going to try to make somebody recruit me. I fell in love with Alabama, and it worked out for the best.”
Kelly red-shirted as a freshman in 2011, came off the bench in 10 games at center in 2012 and moved into the starting lineup in 2013 in place of departed All-American Barrett Jones. He started 11 games this season and earned an All-Southeastern Conference honorable mention.
“He’s one of the most valuable members of this football team, “Alabama offensive line coach Mario Cristobal said. “He’s a relentless competitor. He has tremendous attention to detail and a tremendous amount of pride.
“This is really important to him. He’s very physical and athletic. He’s extremely intelligent. He’s as intelligent as a coach in terms of his football IQ. His family, his background, his upbringing is everything you want in a team leader and a football player and certainly in the center of your offensive line.”
Kelly has a couple of aunts and uncles who attended Ohio State and knows plenty of OSU fans back home in West Chester, but he didn’t grow up rooting for the Buckeyes. He looks forward to the matchup but doesn’t regret not getting a chance to play in Columbus.
“I couldn’t ask for a better decision in my life,” Kelly said. “When you’re getting recruited and you visit all these places, you want to figure out a place where you can go. Even if you weren’t playing football, you would want to go to school there. Alabama is one place I wanted to be.
”You look at the teams Coach (Nick) Saban has put together in my career here and all the effort he’s gone through to get everybody to buy in and put together the best support staff for players to be successful, especially in academics. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons I came here. I couldn’t be more proud of my decision, and it’s worked out for the best.”
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