Two years Morris-free, Kelley named top offensive player in FCS
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Two years removed from his time at Arkansas, quarterback Cole Kelley won the Walter Payton Award as the top offensive player in the FCS.
The honor comes after a season in which he completed 68.9 percent of his passes for an FCS-high 2,662 yards despite Southeastern Louisiana playing only seven games. He also had 18 touchdown passes to only four interceptions, plus added seven scores on the ground and even caught two touchdowns.
Sometimes referred to as the Heisman Trophy for Division I’s second tier, previous Walter Payton Award winners include this year’s No. 3 overall NFL Draft pick, Trey Lance (2019), as well as Cooper Kupp (2015), Jimmy Garoppolo (2013), Tony Romo (2002), Brian Westbrook (2001) and Steve McNair (1994).
A three-star recruit in the Class of 2016, Kelley started six games during his three years in Fayetteville.
After redshirting his first season, he filled in for an injured Austin Allen as a redshirt freshman and led the Razorbacks to comeback wins over Ole Miss and Coastal Carolina. They rallied from a 24-point deficit to beat the Rebels, making it the largest comeback in school history.
Kelley also started blowout losses to Alabama and Auburn in 2017. Bret Bielema was fired following that season and replaced by Chad Morris, who opened up a quarterback competition between Kelley and Ty Storey.
The battle continued into the 2018 season, with Kelley starting two of the Razorbacks’ first three games. However, he threw four interceptions against North Texas and received limited playing time the rest of the year, finishing 35 of 67 passing (52.2 percent) for 455 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions.
That ultimately led to his decision to transfer and he landed with the Lions, an FCS program in his home state of Louisiana.
Although he didn’t win the starting job his first year at Southeastern Louisiana, Kelley split time with senior and incumbent starter Chason Virgil. He finished 2019 with 10 touchdown passes and 10 rushing touchdowns while completing 74.2 percent of his passes, setting the stage for his breakout performance this spring.
Kelley is the third quarterback to thrive after struggling mightily under Morris and deciding to leave Arkansas.
Not long after Kelley entered the portal, Storey - a former four-star in-state recruit - also opted to leave and play his final collegiate season at Western Kentucky. He went 8-2 as the Hilltoppers’ starting quarterback, including a blowout win over the Razorbacks, and was named C-USA’s Newcomer of the Year.
One of Arkansas’ two primary starting quarterbacks in 2019, Nick Starkel transferred to San Jose State - the team that intercepted him five times in an upset win over Arkansas - and led the perennial doormat to an undefeated regular season, top-25 ranking and Mountain West championship, earning second-team All-MWC honors along the way.