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Pulaski Academy starts to mold life without Kelley

by Mitchell Gladstone | June 1, 2021 at 1:55 a.m.
Pulaski Academy wide receivers coach Anthony Lucas during warm-ups before playing Magnolia on Friday night at Joe B. Hatcher stadium in Little Rock...Special to the Democrat-Gazette/JIMMY JONES

Sitting atop Pulaski Academy's Joe B. Hatcher Stadium, it's calm and quiet.

Yes, it's just a Monday spring practice in the middle of May, but those were never adjectives used to describe a Kevin Kelley practice.

In the many videos documenting Kelley's sessions with the Bruins, you didn't have to wait long for a clip of the 51-year-old coach roaming the field in a tank top yelling at someone within close proximity.

But this is no longer Kelley's team. Named the coach at FCS-level Presbyterian College last month, Kelley will head to Clinton, S.C., on a full-time basis this week, leaving Pulaski Academy football in the hands of several of his now-former assistants.

That includes former Razorback Anthony Lucas, who will succeed Kelley as the Bruins' head coach. Although Lucas brings more than requisite football experience, it's a tougher task replacing the presence Kelley provided at PA.

Lucas said it will take a group effort that requires every member of the program, especially the Bruins' upperclassman leaders.

"Each one of us has got the mindset that we're going to come out here and do as much as we can," quarterback Charlie Fiser said of himself and the Bruins' other 14 seniors. "We're on the coaches' side -- they're not against us and we're not against them -- and there's a senior in each position group. We've learned so much, we can channel that in practice when we coach the younger guys, and we coach each other."

Pulaski Academy has the benefit of a majority of the seniors being at the school since fifth grade. In that time, they've developed through Kelley's system, understanding how to function in his offense and establishing faith in his unorthodox tactics.

But Kelley, in his 18 seasons with the Bruins, was always the unquestioned leader. While he asked plenty of his staff and players, Kelley was the one who would shoulder the blame.

"At times it makes me think I was oppressive in that way to their leadership abilities," Kelley said. "But I did it that way because I wanted it to be that if we lost a game, it would all be my fault. I wanted to take responsibility for that."

That's no longer the case.

As the Bruins wrap up a practice with wind sprints, a coach calls out for Fiser to win the rep -- a sign of the competitive fire that's carried PA to state titles in six of the past seven seasons.

When an underclassman fails to get down and touch the 10-yard line, a senior quickly calls him out.

Kelley isn't far away. He's just 50 feet or so from the turf, watching film in his soon-to-be-former office.

But it's the first day he's keeping himself from intervening in practice at all, allowing Lucas and longtime defensive coordinator Jason Wyatt to run the show.

"We got together and were talking about how since Coach Kelley is gone, we've got to be a player-led team even more," senior running back Joseph Himon said. "When somebody's not doing something right, we're going to have to get on them. He taught us [discipline], and we're trying to keep it up."

As much as there's an expectation to maintain the Bruins' championship-caliber play, there's also a sense of a clean slate. That's an ever-present benefit of high school football, with its consistent turnover.

"Every year is its own year, and I think when you take that approach, we're going to do what it takes this year to win," defensive coordinator Madison Taylor said. "With a school that has the number of players that we do, what we've been forced to do that's become an advantage is [having kids playing both sides of the ball].

"Every year, our offense looks a little bit different depending on our receivers and what they can do, our defense looks a little bit different depending on our personnel."

Lucas said PA's offense will function similarly to how it did under Kelley -- throwing deep often, rarely punting and typically running onside kicks after scores.

But Kelley was the one with the moniker. It wasn't "Pulaski Academy, the team that never punts." It was always "Kevin Kelley, the coach who never punts."

There was always a belief that one day Kelley might leave Little Rock. Nobody knew when, and his announcement a few weeks ago still shocked many in the program.

And as much as it's an opportunity for Kelley to prove that his methods can work at any level of football, Pulaski Academy knows it can fully step out of Kelley's shadow.

While the Bruins may not have anything left to prove, this year and those to come are what Fiser and PA's veterans see as the program's "next step."

"Coach Kelley has done all this for us and he's built us to what we are," Fiser said. "We want to go see if we can do it kind of by ourselves."

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