The running joke on the University of Wisconsin football team is that defensive end Brendan Kelly played on the 1999 team that won the Rose Bowl.

"A couple of guys truly believe I've been here since '99," Kelly said.

That's what happens when somebody plays right away as a true freshman, which Kelly did way back in 2008, then gets sidelined for a couple years by injuries, only to resurface.

And this isn't even expected to be his final season. Kelly is one of UW's eight fifth-year seniors, but having missed most or all of three seasons due to injuries, he is planning to petition the NCAA for a sixth year following the season.

He joked he is one of the few players "that can find a way to keep prolonging his career," a path fifth-year senior quarterback Curt Phillips also plans to pursue.

Kelly suffered a hand injury that cut short his freshman season after three games. Then came a nasty injury to his groin and pelvis, which required three surgeries.

He initially thought it was a pulled groin and tried to play through it in 2009 but appeared only briefly in eight games. It was later discovered he tore four muscles off his pelvis. He tried to return in 2010 but aggravated the injury in preseason camp and was redshirted.

Finally healthy in 2011, he played in all 14 games, starting the last eight.

"His attitude has always been unbelievable," defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said. "He's a fifth-year guy, lost two years of playing football, but he's got the knowledge of a fifth-year guy. His fundamentals and things are catching up to that knowledge."

Kelly was always the guy in the back of the meeting room, with his hand raised, ready to answer any question Partridge posed. Now, Kelly has playing experience to go with that knowledge.

"You learn so much on the field when you're thrust in those positions," Partridge said. "He could tell you everything in a meeting room, but some stuff you just don't know until you're in live action."

Kelly had just three sacks a year ago, but the coaches determined he missed 10 others when he got at least a hand on the quarterback.

"Obviously, you're never going to get every sack," Kelly said. "You can talk to any pass rusher, the difference is one inch, one second sooner, one pound stronger. There are a lot of things that came into play."

The biggest factor was Kelly playing extensively for the first time and learning on the run. He became the starter after David Gilbert suffered a broken foot prior to the Big Ten Conference opener against Nebraska.

"I can't even tell you what it did for me," Kelly said of playing a full season. "It's unbelievable, from the first game to the last, how much I improved and how much more comfortable I felt."

It also provided Kelly a list of things he needed to work on in the offseason. In the past, Kelly usually watched film of some of the team's former standout defensive ends, such as Matt Shaughnessy, O'Brien Schofield or J.J. Watt.

"Now I have film of myself," Kelly said. "I can correct my mistakes. Why not take that next step to excel?"

The Badgers ranked fifth in the Big Ten Conference last season with 25 sacks in 14 games. Most of their hopes for improvement have been pinned to the return of Gilbert.

But if Kelly finds a way to finish some of those near-misses, he could give the pass rush a big boost. He always gives great effort and plays with a high motor. His weight is up to 263 pounds after ending last season at 249.

After being injury-free for more than a year, he has added about 120 pounds to his squat.

"The workouts were torture, but they all had a purpose," he said of blazing hot conditions during the summer inside Camp Randall Stadium.

"You torture yourself doing certain things in the offseason, but you say, 'This is going to pay off in the fourth quarter, in Nebraska, and I need to get after (quarterback) Taylor Martinez.' That's how I think; that's how I'm wired. Every rep you take, straining to finish."

Kelly has been handed the position's leadership baton, passed on from strong leaders such as Schofield, Watt and Patrick Butrym. Partridge said Kelly was a nearly unanimous selection to the team's leadership council, with players being voted on by peers at their positions.

As much as Kelly was admired for his work ethic and persevering through injuries, it takes production on the field to become a voice that carries considerable weight in the locker room.

"He was always a guy who worked hard," Partridge said. "He was always a guy that led by example, but you put playing time behind that, now your hammer has some weight behind it."

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