Protecting Army's Blind Side

Sept. 21, 2011

By Pam Flenke, Army Athletic Communications

Army senior Brad Kelly looks like a football player. At 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, you feel pretty confident assuming that he's not a cross country runner, not a pole vaulter and not a high-diver.

Someone with a reasonable amount of general football knowledge might even go so far to think, "He looks like he could be a tight end, maybe a linebacker."

That would make sense at nearly every other Division I football program in America, but this is Army. (Perhaps I failed to mention when you see Brad Kelly, he's probably dressed in some sort of military-issued uniform and uses phrases rarely heard in college sports such as "Yes, ma'am" and "thank you".)

Kelly looks like a tight end because he was a tight end - playing high school football in New Hampshire and in his first season at West Point. Then Rich Ellerson took over as head coach of Army and did away with the position, transitioning those formerly listed with the TE next their names to tackles, defensive ends and linebackers.

"Freshman year I played tight end on the scout team, then our new coaches came in and changed the look of our offense," said Kelly. "It's a totally different mindset. As offensive linemen, you have some of the most responsibility on the team and the least amount of recognition. That's not something we look down upon, it's actually an honor to be in that position."

At West Point, 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds makes you an offensive lineman; more specifically, a left tackle.

Odds are, even the most casual of football fans has an image of what a left tackle should look like, a fact that many of us can thank Sandra Bullock for. "The Blind Side," with box office sales of over $300 million and nearly eight million DVDs sold, presents the prototypical image of the left tackle as Michael Oher - 6-foot-4 and 313 pounds.

But Oher played college football at the University of Mississippi. Mississippi is not West Point. Oher also went on to play in the NFL. Kelly's aspirations don't lie in professional football.

You can search Army football rosters for hours and not find a single player who even approaches the 300-pound mark.

Of the Black Knights' 12 opponents in 2011, the average left tackle tips the scales at over 295 pounds, with the heaviest registering at 320 (Fordham and Temple) and the lightest at 267 (not surprisingly, at service-academy rival Navy).

So does Kelly think he's at disadvantage being almost 50 pounds lighter than his counterparts?

"I don't really associate myself as a regular offensive lineman or left tackle. I don't think any of us on the Army offensive line envision ourselves as the regular, sort of, pro-level NFL left tackle, like the whole "Blind Side" idea.

"We don't really ever pass block like that. Guys that are that big are all about being the biggest road block as possible. Certain plays we run we might do some of that kind of blocking, but I envision myself attacking rather than being a road block."

"Our offense is primarily speed-oriented, so I think being a smaller LT is almost an advantage. You alter your game as a smaller guy - you play lower and faster.

"Some of the best linemen I've ever played with, whether it was at Army or in high school in New Hampshire, were always guys that are smaller and just have better technique."

One of those "smaller linemen" Kelly was referencing was former Army right tackle Jason Johnson, who graduated from the Academy this past May.

Johnson, standing at 6-foot-3 and weighing 250 pounds, started all 13 games for the Black Knights in 2010, finishing his career with 35-straight starts and 44 game appearances.

"Jason was an incredible player and he was pretty undersized too," said Kelly. "He played with a lot of tenacity and speed, and that's how I wish I could play; that's how I'd like to play."

Johnson, along with the rest of the Black Knights' offensive line, helped Army finish the 2010 season ranked third in the NCAA by allowing just .62 sacks per game. Yet for an Army team which doesn't necessarily rely on a passing game, the sacks-allowed statistic isn't what Kelly would focus on as a point of pride or representative of their work on the o-line.

"We take pride in team offensive stats as whole because that's where your efforts show up. While we only allowed a few sacks because our pass protection was good, we also didn't throw the ball that much.

"I think rushing yards is something directly off of us as an offensive line and the running backs. We also focus on the turnover margin. We have to protect our guys because the ball is vulnerable in our offense; if we miss a block, someone is getting hurt and the ball is on the ground."

The Black Knights were strong in both of those points of pride a season ago, ranking eighth in the NCAA in rushing offense with 251.62 yards per game and third in turnover margin at +1.23.

Turnover margin, blocking for the running backs and so on may sound like football talk, but for a left tackle at the United States Military Academy, it reflects more than what the Black Knights do on the gridiron.

"Playing left tackle and protecting for our running backs is something decided within inches, within the right step," said Kelly. "If your first step off the ball is not in the exact right place or at the exact right speed, then someone is going to get hurt.

"Our offensive line takes great pride in protecting those guys which is just like the mindset we have in the Army. If you don't do the right thing all the time, if you don't pay attention to the details, that's how people can get hurt."

The Black Knights' offensive line unit is considered an Army within an Army, or a brotherhood within a brotherhood, operating in a way which reflects the values of the Academy and the Army.

"We're kind of a different breed than the other football players at West Point and we're certainly a different breed than the other cadets here. We're heavier - we have to deal with being a bigger person and the challenges that brings.

"We try to develop this culture where everyone is looking out for everyone else. If I go to the sideline during the game, I can say 'Dan Whittaker, what happened on that play?' When you're in the game you can't see everything going on around you. I'll come to the sideline or Mike McDermott will come to the sideline and the guys there can tell us what that play was or what that defense was.

"If you're off the field, you're still playing a roll with the offensive line, helping us get better and make corrections throughout the game. We all have each others' backs on and off the field."

For someone who is proud of playing a position which often times goes unrecognized, was Kelly happy that a movie like "The Blind Side" finally shown a light on some of the most deserving people to play the sport?

"I think it's tough for an offensive lineman to get attention anyway. We don't touch the ball so there aren't stats next to our names directly like number of tackles or passes thrown.

"'The Blind Side' definitely highlighted the importance of the role that we play. Personally, I can't draw a whole lot of comparisons between myself and Michael Oher because he's humungous, but the theme of the movie is something I think definitely resonates in me.

"The movie was all about your willingness to sacrifice yourself to protect others. That's something that transcends all offensive linemen, not just at West Point. We're not out to get the glory or the magazine covers or the photo opps. We're out there to look out for our brothers and that certainly transcends into what we do in the U.S. Army."

West Point might not be Ole Miss and Brad Kelly might not be Michael Oher, but Army left tackle Brad Kelly protects the Black Knights' blind side with humility and poise.

Come May 26, 2012, the focus of Kelly's protection will shift from the quarterback and running backs to the United States of America as he joins his classmates in becoming second lieutenants in the U.S. Army.

So would you expect Kelly to want to branch Adjutant General or Quartermaster? Of course not. It's only fitting then for the Army left tackle to want to join a branch of the Army with a protective theme.

"I'm considering Engineers, Infantry and Field Artillery. I've met a lot of great infantry officers since I've been here and I've related well to them. A lot of the football guys branch Field Artillery, so there's the Army Football Brotherhood in that aspect too."

Infantry and Field Artillery, specifically, deal with suppressing or neutralizing enemies, just like Kelly does in the "field of friendly strife" at Michie Stadium.

Whether it's on the 30-yard line or halfway across the globe on enemy lines, Kelly's protective mentality transcends it all.

Sandra Bullock's character in "The Blind Side" boasted about Michael Oher's 98th-percentile ranking on a protective instincts aptitude test.

Brad Kelly is a left tackle at West Point and is a future second lieutenant in the U.S Army. No percentages are necessary to prove his ability and willingness to protect blind sides.

Knight Vision


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