Big-time players make big-time plays, right? It’s usually a quarterback or a skill position player connecting on a long pass or busting a big run down the sidelines. Fans don’t think of punters as potential game changers.
Just don’t tell Gamecocks junior punter Sean Kelly that.
The punter spent the 2013 season at Florida Atlantic University and transferred to Tallahassee Junior College in 2014, where he didn’t play, before coming to Columbia for the 2015 season.
He was named the starting punter in his first game as a Gamecock and didn’t disappoint.
He trotted on the field six times to punt; and six times he made a big play. He had five punts for 231 yards, averaging 46.2 yards per punt. Two were downed inside the 10-yard line.
He even shot a punt 60 yards down the field, which gained more yards in one punt than Pharoh Cooper had receiving all game. The punt was the Gamecocks’ longest since 2011.
Kelly also had one of the biggest plays of the game: a fake punt on fourth down where he scampered for 17 yards and a Gamecock first down.
Standing at 5-foot-10, 189 pounds, the former high school quarterback was able to show off his elusiveness and outrun the North Carolina special teams unit and high-knee run past the chains and onto the Gamecock sideline.
After the game he said he didn’t go onto the field with a trick play up his sleeve, he saw something once the Tar Heels lined up and audibled into the fake.
“I didn’t even hear myself at the end,” he told media after the game. “All I heard was every single Carolina fan yelling. It was pretty exciting.”
It seemed like Kelly did something on every side of the ball: he had a few rushing yards, a few bombing punts and even a tackle.
The tackle came at the end of the half when junior kicker Elliott Fry missed a 57-yard field goal. The ball landed in the hands of a North Carolina player who was waiting in the endzone, and he took off down the sideline.
He dodged a few defenders and cut back across the field, where he found a lot of space to run, protected only by Kelly. The punter made the tackle, saving a potential touchdown.
It looks as if Kelly has solidified the starting punter role, adding to an already stout special teams unit. Head coach Steve Spurrier called Elliott Fry one of the best kickers in the country, and in Thursday’s game kickoff specialist Landon Ard had all four of his kickoffs go for touchbacks.
Spurrier was highly complimentary of special teams unit, especially Kelly.
“If you want me to brag on a punter, I’m bragging on ours,” Spurrier said. “Not only did he punt beautifully all night, but he made the tackle on the field goal we attempted the last play of the half. That thing looked like it was going all the way when he cut back. Our punter Sean Kelly tackled him right there. Give a little praise to the Gamecock punter.”