By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
Jeremy Kelley stayed behind after Friday’s rookie mini-camp practice, catching pass after pass from the automated JUGS machine.
Not every player at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center is at the start of his professional career. Before signing a futures contract with the Indianapolis Colts in January, Kelley played a full season with the Hamilton Tiger Cats in the Canadian Football League and about half a season with the Arena Football League’s Utah Blaze.
At every stop, including his collegiate days at the University of Maine, Kelley made a habit of putting in extra work. It’s not about catching the eyes of the coaching staff.
It’s just about getting better. Every day. In any way possible.
“If you go throughout the day, maybe you had a drop or you’re just wanting to get some extra work in, that’s really what it is,” Kelley said in the locker room before Saturday’s practice. “It’s been a habit of mine. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve always tried to stay after and just get extra catches just for a confidence type thing.”
Kelley’s confidence should be at an all-time high.
He went undrafted after leaving Maine, and just one NFL team besides the Colts has made contact in the year-plus he’s been working his way through the football minor leagues. Kelley didn’t name that team, mentioning only that “nobody pulled the trigger” on a contract offer.
He doesn’t need to look long around the locker room to find inspiration in Indianapolis.
Starting inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman was cut by the Tennessee Titans at the end of training camp before becoming a star in the CFL. Colts general manager Ryan Grigson saw enough of Freeman’s tape from Saskatchewan to sign him as his first transaction after joining Indianapolis last year.
When inside linebacker Pat Angerer fractured a bone in his foot during the preseason opener against the St. Louis Rams, Freeman stepped up to the first-team defense. He hasn’t returned to the sideline since.
Kelley played against Freeman in Canada, and he played alongside Indianapolis outside linebacker Justin Hickman — who also was making a name for himself last fall before an injury derailed his season.
“I know he’s a freakish defensive lineman,” Kelley said. “So I’m sure you’ll see him out here this year.”
The question is how much will Colts fans see of Kelley?
At 6-foot-6, he has an attribute that can’t be coached. But Kelley must show coaches he can run precise routes, consistently get open and catch the ball whenever it’s thrown his way.
His nose has been buried in his playbook at every opportunity, studying every nuance of offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton’s “No Coast” scheme. Kelley has a leg up on the other rookies in camp. He’s spent the past few weeks working alongside the veterans and picking up whatever knowledge he can.
“I could kind of see the rest of these guys’ heads are kind of spinning, but I felt the same way first couple days I got here,” he said. “You’re trying to grasp everything you can and perform at the same time. But you just try to get in where you fit in, make sure you can do the best that you can.
“You’re going to make mistakes. We’re rookies, it’s the NFL, you know what I’m saying? But you just gotta keep moving 100 miles an hour, and you learn as you go.”
Kelley’s locker is next to linebacker Jake Killeen, a 27-year-old out of Charleston Southern who also has bounced around the minor leagues and is taking part in the Colts’ three-day rookie camp.
Elsewhere in the room is a nameplate for tight end Dominique Jones, a second-year player out of tiny Shepherd University in West Virginia who split last season between the Colts and Miami Dolphins after being signed out the Indoor Football League.
Among the 13 unsigned “tryout” players working out with the Colts this weekend are men who hail from Indianapolis’ Marian University, Arkansas Tech, Findlay, Southern Connecticut and Merrimack.
Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said it doesn’t matter where these players’ journeys began. All that matters is what they do now.
“Anything can happen,” he said. “You’re here. We don’t care how you got here. Take advantage of the opportunity.”
Before signing with the Colts, Kelley was bound for the Jacksonville Sharks and a return to the AFL. Unlike the tryout players, he has an NFL contract. But it guarantees him nothing.
That’s why he stays after practice. It’s why he studies his playbook so closely.
And his long journey to this point makes certain he enjoys every moment.
“It’s just a great organization,” Kelley said of the Colts. “It’s run real well, especially compared to some things I’ve heard from other clubs, just guys that I know outside of here that have been around the league a little bit. This is one of the better teams to be a part of. So I’m just happy to be here, do what I gotta do to stay.”