Brendan Kelly was a 230-pound defensive end when he arrived at the University of Wisconsin — what now seems like eons ago.
“Guys always say, ‘It feels like I just walked in the door yesterday,’ ” Kelly said after a recent spring football practice. “Well, I walked in the door in 2008. It’s been a while.”
When Kelly arrived here from Eden Prairie, Minn., he quickly dropped 10 pounds since he no longer had his mom’s cooking.
After that, it was a constant battle to put on weight — finally reaching the 260s last season — and trying to hold up against 300-pound offensive tackles.
Things changed for Kelly in December when Gary Andersen was hired as the new coach. With the Badgers installing a 3-4 defense and Kelly moving to outside linebacker, speed and athleticism trumped size and strength.
Also at that time, Kelly was granted a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA after fighting injuries early in his career.
These days, teammates tease Kelly about his age, regarding him as a father figure.
“People always say I’m like 25,” he said. “I’m really only 22. I’m like the father on the team. It’s good to be in that position.”
Kelly points out good friend and roommate Curt Phillips has actually been here a semester longer after enrolling early. Phillips also was given a sixth year.
Having a second senior year, which is the way Kelly views it, is like a gift.
“Going through the season last year, I was treating it exactly like my last season, doing everything I could,” he said.
“I wanted to come back, I’ve got something to prove. I’ve battled so many injuries early in my career, the last couple seasons I’ve been pretty good, getting rid of the injury bug. Why not come back for one more season?”
The interview with Kelly last week came prior to the news on Friday that senior David Gilbert will not play this season due to recurring injury problems in his right foot.
“We lost a very good player, we all know that,” Andersen said after practice on Saturday. “It’s an opportunity for a young player to step up and I think they’re doing a nice job. ... If I’m betting on David, I would say his days of playing football are not over.”
Andersen was apparently referring to the NFL, since UW officials indicated Gilbert would not play again for the Badgers.
It’s not just an opportunity for young guys, either, to step forward. The old guy in the room will need to do more at his new position.
“I think it caters to guys in my position,” Kelly said of his new spot. “Guys that may not have been 280-pound defensive ends, but maybe 250-pound defensive ends that can move in space or drop.”
Kelly is focusing on quickness and agility drills this spring. He currently weighs 255 and plans to play at that weight.
The problem for Kelly is he has not practiced all spring following what he said was a minor surgical procedure on a hip. It was to clear up an issue that surfaced in the Big Ten Conference championship game but died down enough not to bother him in the Rose Bowl.
“It wasn’t a big injury or anything,” he said. “It’s kind of one of those things where it could get worse. If you fix it now, there’s no problems.”
Kelly feels ready to practice, but Andersen has been admittedly cautious when it comes to injuries this spring. At least 16 players were held out of the scrimmage on Saturday due to injuries.
Kelly has been relegated to leading cheers on the sidelines, but when you’ve been at it as long as he has, is there much to be gained from spring drills?
“(Andersen) is really smart about taking care of his players, especially the seniors,” Kelly said.
“One of the biggest things is how important the senior class is to him. You really realize that he cares about you and respects you, both on and off the field.”
Kelly is pursuing a master’s in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, with a focus on athletic administration. That means he could be hitting up UW athletic director Barry Alvarez for a future job.
“I’ve managed to put together a crazy resume of internships, majors and (a) master’s,” Kelly said. “I’m that guy that milks the system, I guess.”
Kelly also realizes he’s never too old to stop learning. That’s why keeping an open mind through the recent coaching change taught him a valuable lesson.
“I think there’s a lot of takeaway from every season,” he said. “Some of the biggest things for me through the whole transition was kind of growing and learning. With any change that happens, it’s not always bad. There can be a lot of room for opportunity and growth.
“It’s a great opportunity to play that outside linebacker position. I’m definitely increasing my football IQ and learning a different style of play.”