Analytics convinced Arkansas prep coach to abandon traditional tactics.

By Brent Glasgow, FNF Coaches Contributor

Pulaski Academy (Little Rock, Ark.) coach Kevin Kelley lists Hal Mumme, Mike Leach and Chip Kelly among his top coaching influences. All three are wild cards in their own right. Combine them, and they still don’t match the departure from the norm that Kelley exhibits on Friday nights.

Kelley almost never punts. He onside kicks until his team is up by 21 points or more. He goes for two on his team’s first two touchdowns each game, and after every TD in close games.

The 2016 USA Today All-USA Football Coach of the Year will host a discussion of his two-point conversion theory at the USA Football 2018 National Conference.

“I’ll talk about it, but I don’t want anybody else doing this stuff, because I don’t want that advantage taken away,” Kelley said. “If it ever trends that way, I might stop doing it.”

A numbers guy

A year after graduating from Henderson State University (Arkadelphia, Ark.) in 1992, Kelley landed a middle school gig in Texas. In 1997, he got an offer to become Pulaski’s offensive coordinator.

“I didn’t do much coordinating the first two years – I was just kind of there. Then in ’99 it got turned over to me,” Kelley said. “We were running the Power-I, and I completely switched to the spread. Admittedly now, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I thought I did.”

Kelley took over as head coach in 2003, and the program that had never been to a state title game won the Class 3A crown.

“That’s when some of the craziness of what we do now came in,” Kelley said.

Before he coached his first game, Kelley stumbled across a life-changing online gem.

“I’d search everything I could on football coaching, and I saw this bootleg-looking video of a Harvard professor who’d analyzed every game in college football for three years, and determined you shouldn’t punt as much as you do, and that you should use the time you prepare for the punt to do other things,” Kelley said.

Football at Pulaski – and Arkansas – would never be the same.

A “nutty” approach

 It started with the punts. In his first season, Kelley punted just 21 times in 15 games. By 2007, he’d essentially given it up altogether.

In 2006, he started experimenting with the onside kick. Using analytics, he figured for it to be successful over the course of time, his team had to recover the ball at least 16 percent of the time. Since then, his worst year was 18 percent. Pulaski recovered 28 percent of its onside kicks in its best year.

Even the youth feeder program does it.

“It gets them used to that style of play, knowing how crucial it is to get the ball,” Kelley said.

As for going for two at the beginning of games, it often results in a 16-7 early advantage that Kelley says frequently impacts how the opposition coaches.

Earning respect through cheers and jeers

Because his teams typically score in the 50s and 60s – even the 70s and 80s on occasion – not everyone appreciates Kelley’s tactics. He doesn’t care, because he always puts subs in, sometimes as early as the first quarter.

“I used to worry about what people think, but the bottom line is, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing what’s right. That’s what we’re doing,” Kelley said. “It’s different, it teaches kids to think outside the box, it’s problem-solving and using statistics to make decisions, which they should do in their jobs in life rather than gut feeling.”

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About the author

Dan Guttenplan