Defensive tackle Xavier Kelly not returning to Arkansas Razorbacks in 2021, pursuing NFL dream
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Kelly not returning in 2021, pursuing NFL dream

Xavier Kelly will not return to Arkansas in 2021.
Xavier Kelly will not return to Arkansas in 2021. (Arkansas Athletics)

After a five-day stretch that saw seven Arkansas seniors reveal they’ll return in 2021, defensive tackle Xavier Kelly became the first to officially announce he is moving on Wednesday afternoon.

The graduate transfer from Clemson spent one season with the Razorbacks and will now pursue his dream of playing in the NFL, according to a message he posted on Twitter.

“Playing with this team, getting to know these guys, and working with this coaching staff has been such a great experience that I will always cherish,” Kelly wrote. “I have learned so much during my time here that I will take with me both on and off the field.”

Although head coach Sam Pittman said earlier this week that he doesn’t anticipate quarterback Feleipe Franks returning, especially considering he’s accepted an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl, Kelley is the Razorbacks’ first senior to publicly make his intentions of leaving known.

Despite being a fifth-year senior in 2020, Kelly could have played a sixth year of college ball thanks to a rule change by the NCAA. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, all football players have been granted an extra year of eligibility, regardless of how much they played this season.

Linebacker Grant Morgan, offensive linemen Myron Cunningham and Ty Clary, wide receiver De’Vion Warren, running back T.J. Hammonds, tight end Blake Kern and defensive end Dorian Gerald are the seven senior who have announced they’ll take advantage of that extra year.

A former 5.9 four-star recruit and the No. 141 overall prospect in the Class of 2016, Kelly originally signed with Clemson out of Wichita East High in Kansas. He turned down an offer from the Razorbacks, as well as Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and numerous other Power Five programs.

After spending four years as a backup playing behind several first-round picks for the national powerhouse Tigers, Kelly entered the transfer portal and landed at Arkansas. He was one of five graduate transfers Pittman brought in for his first season as head coach.

There was hope that he would come to Fayetteville and become a starter, but Kelly eventually settled in as a second-team defensive tackle, playing behind second-team All-SEC selection Jonathan Marshall and Isaiah Nichols.

He ended up playing 236 total defensive snaps across nine games, according to Pro Football Focus. He was one of several defensive linemen in the Razorbacks’ two-deep who missed the LSU game.

Kelly finished his lone season at Arkansas with eight tackles - including one sack - and notched two quarterback hurries. That earned him a 56.8 grade from PFF, which ranked 29th out of 42 SEC interior defensive linemen who played at least 200 snaps this season.

Nothing is official, but Marshall is also expected to move on, as he’s likely an NFL Draft prospect. With him and Kelly no longer in the picture, there will likely be a healthy competition at defensive tackle this offseason.

Nichols - entering his fourth seasons - will be back after starting seven games and playing 457 snaps this year, while redshirt freshman Taurean Carter played 155 snaps as a second-teamer.

Fellow redshirt freshmen Marcus Miller (55 snaps) and Enoch Jackson Jr. (8) got limited reps this year, while true freshman Andy Boykin never appeared in a game. The Razorbacks also signed JUCO transfer Jalen Williams and high school prospects Cameron Ball and Solomon Wright in their 2021 class, plus Pittman hasn’t ruled out the possibility of adding more defensive linemen from the transfer portal.

2020 Scholarship Seniors

Returning

~OL Ty Clary

~OL Myron Cunningham

~DE Dorian Gerald

~RB/WR T.J. Hammonds

~TE Blake Kern

~LB Grant Morgan

~WR De’Vion Warren

Not Returning

~RB Rakeem Boyd (opt out/NFL Draft)

~QB Feleipe Franks (unlikely to return)

~CB Jerry Jacobs (opt out/NFL Draft)

~DT Xavier Kelly (pursuing NFL)

~OL Chibueze Nwanna (opt out/transfer portal)

Undecided

~LB Deon Edwards

~LB Hayden Henry

~QB Jack Lindsey

~DT Jonathan Marshall

~WR Tyson Morris

~K A.J. Reed

~DB Micahh Smith

Click here to view HawgBeat’s projected scholarship distribution for the 2021 Arkansas football team.