October 28, 2009

Unique Transition

By Tommy Hine

Matt Kelleher was not only the quarterback of the most prolific high school offense in the country four years ago

He was probably one of the biggest high school quarterbacks in the country.

By his junior year at Southington High School, Kelleher weighed 252 pounds. As a slim-downed senior, he still weighed 240 pounds, only five pounds less than he weighs now. Kelleher remembers always being large.

“When I was in the eighth grade, they started a Pop Warner team for the kids who were too heavy to play in the town league,” he said. “I actually had to gain weight to play in that league.

“The coach wanted me to play quarterback. He had seen me throw on the sidelines and thought I had some potential. That’s how it all started. I had success at quarterback, and it continued in high school. We had a power offense, and we threw the ball a lot. We led the nation in passing my senior year, both as a player and as a team. We threw the ball 50-60 times a game. It was really crazy.”

Many of the state passing records Kelleher set at Southington High still stand.

In 29 high school games, Kelleher completed 367 of 643 passes for 6,172 yards and 54 touchdowns, and he had a quarterback rating of 160.75. He also rushed for 18 touchdowns and finished his high school career with 6,697 yards of total offense, including a state-record 3,558 passing yards and 33 touchdowns his senior year. Selected the Gatorade State Player of the Year, Kelleher was named an all-stater as a senior, and he was the Most Valuable Player of the state championship game.

Yet, Kelleher has never played a full season as a quarterback at Yale.

“In 2006, I hurt my back, and I didn’t play at all,” Kelleher said. “By the time I could come back, it was pretty late in the year. I wanted to make sure I could have a red-shirt year, so I sat out the rest of the year.”

The next season, he played on the junior varsity at quarterback, but then he tore his PCL and MCL and missed the last two games.

He never took another snap from center again, due mainly to his two injuries and a numbers game at quarterback.

“Coming in as a freshman, the quarterback spot was pretty much open,” Kelleher said. “Jeff Mroz had just left. Matt Polhemus and Ryan Fodor were there. They hadn’t had any prior experience, so going into camp, the coaches said the quarterback competition was pretty much open. Unfortunately, I ended up getting hurt, so I didn’t really have much of a chance to compete for the spot.”

By the time Kelleher was healthy again the next season, Polhemus had secured the starting slot.

“Matt Polhemus was a senior,” Kelleher said. “He had started the year before, so I didn’t have much of a chance to play then either.”

By the time Polhemus graduated, Kelleher had been converted to a defensive lineman, and he has been playing there ever since.

“[Defensive line coach] Duane Books all along was very supportive of me on offense, but he always told me he wanted me on defense,” Kelleher said. “Coming out of high school, I had been recruited by a couple of schools like BC that wanted me to play defensive end. So, the idea of playing defensive end or defensive line had always been in the back of my mind.

“I had been recruited for that, so I kind of thought to myself they must see something in me if they want me to play that position.”

Brooks eventually became one of Kelleher’s best friends.

“He and I really connected. We have a great relationship,” Brooks said. “When he was in high school, he played a couple of snaps as a defensive player. His Dad (Mike) played at Boston University and was an outstanding outside linebacker before they dropped their program there.

“So, I figured if his Dad had it in his genes, he probably had it in his. I used to always kid him, ‘If your head is so big, you have to be a defensive player.”’

Brooks wasn’t the only Yale coach who saw Kelleher’s future as a defensive lineman. So did Rick Flanders, the former defensive coordinator, and Jack Siedlecki, the former head coach.

“They said it would be a good move for me,” Kelleher said. “They felt I had something to contribute to the team and could make a difference on the defensive line.”

Brooks wasn’t the least bit surprised.

“It worked out. It worked out for both of us,” he said. “I told him, ‘I’m going to keep asking you, and one day you’re going to say ‘Yes.’

“He’s doing a great job, and he has another year. I always knew that because he’s so big and athletic, he could do something for us.”

Kelleher has never left his new position and last year, he played in all 10 games as a 245-pound defensive tackle, with his best game the two solo tackles and two assists he had at Cornell. And he did this all on a bad knee.

“I played all of last year after tearing my LCL and medial and lateral meniscus,” Kelleher said. “I just kept playing and wore a brace. At the end of the year, I saw the doctor, and my knee was so unstable, I would have just kept tearing it. All I had left was an ACL.”

After surgery, Kelleher came into this season with a sound knee beneath him again, and he was cleared to start cutting the day before camp opened.

“I had to get used to cutting again and lateral movement, and at the same time, try to get back into the rotation of things,” he said. “Trying to play D-line, just trying to play football, was a little bit of a difficult transition at first.

“My knee kept swelling up on me just because I wasn’t used to doing that kind of stuff for a while. A few weeks into it, I was feeling a lot better. I had to alter my practice to introduce my knee to doing those kind of things again and at the same time, do as much as I could.”

It wasn’t very long into camp before Kelleher was singled out as the best short and long snapper on the team.

“Matt Kelleher is doing a great job for us,” said Tom Williams, Yale’s new Joel E. Smilow ’54 Head Coach of Football. “He’s still battling back from a knee injury but is progressing well. He doubles as a long snapper for us and currently is our most accurate and consistent player at that position.

“As he gets strong and has more confidence in the knee, we will ease him into playing defensive line but currently, his value to our team is in snapping. We look forward to his contributions to our team, and we are pleased that he’s back.”

Kelleher doesn’t plan on being only a snapper for very long.“Hopefully, within the next week or so, I’ll get right back in there on the D-line,” he said. “I want to get to where I was last year. I want to contribute the best I can.”

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