The middle linebacker is the heart and soul of the defense.
University Academy senior Jon Kelly is the epitome of this as the Lions try to return to the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) championship game, where it fell 7-6 to Newton County last year.
“The teammates that are here this year see how we felt about it,” Kelly said. “The teammates that came back from last year, they feel the same way that I do. We just want to go back to the state championship so we can get what we need to get this year.”
As the Lions are adjusting to life with Blair Phillips at the helm, there was more of a focus on the defensive side of the ball during fall camp as they changed from an Air Raid attack under Vic Williams to a more balanced attack favoring the run.
Since he was UA’s defensive coordinator last season and played linebacker during his playing days, Phillips zeroed in on the linebacker corps during the summer.
“Position wise we get a little bit more work in,” Kelly said. “It is helping us all as a team a lot better this year.”
Like Kelly, Phillips played linebacker in high school — playing for Bolton from 1999 to 2002.
After he left the Bears and played at the junior college level, Phillips went on to play for Oregon and the Dallas Cowboys, before joining the high school coaching ranks.
“By doing the workouts and the drills that Coach Blair makes us do in practice just helps me work better to prepare and to perform the way that I need to do at the position that I am,” Kelly said. “It just helps me to whenever I get in the game that I need to perform the best that I do.”
The strategy has worked as Kelly has remained steady by recording double-digit stops in each game this year despite UA facing against much stiffer competition this season.
“It’s a big step up than what we had last year,” Kelly said. “We have a lot more depth this year and I think we’ll be able to pull through and get it done.”
While the Lions have struggled in the early part of the year, he remains to be a leader on both sides of the ball. Kelly has the most tackles on the team and he has rushed for 130 yards in Phillips’ system that tailors to the run.
“He’s going to be one of our guys that’s going to lead,” Phillips said prior to the season. “He plays multiple positions and he’s a wild card for us as a plug-and-play guy. If somebody goes down, we’ll throw Jon there.”
University will seek its first win of the season Friday when it takes on Central Private at Wildcat Field on Louisiana College’s campus.