LOS ANGELES (AP) — Oklahoma linebacker and Californian Caleb Kelly is not about to start doubting mom.
Valerie Kelly has already correctly predicted the Sooners would end up in the Rose Bowl, so when she tells her son that the next stop for No. 2 Oklahoma is Atlanta for the College Football Playoff national championship game, he is not going to argue.
“‘You’re going to go to the Rose Bowl and all of us are going to get to go. I just know it, I just know it.’ She kept on saying that,” Kelly said Thursday. “She says we’re going to win this week and I’m going to play really good and then we’re going to go to Atlanta.”
The sophomore from Fresno, a self-proclaimed “momma’s boy,” will have more than 40 family members and friends attending the Rose Bowl against No. 3 Georgia on Monday, his largest rooting section since his final high school game.
There will be one notable absence: Tony Perry, a longtime figure in Fresno high school football, died on Nov. 11. He was 54.
Perry oversaw the DB Guru 7-on-7 team and was a key conduit in recruiting. He also was a tireless advocate in trying to use football to keep young men in school and away from gangs.
“He just saved so many people’s lives,” said Kelly, who grew up in a better part of town away from such concerns.
Three of Perry’s pupils — L.J. Moore, Hatari Byrd and Michiah Quick — signed with Oklahoma as part of the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes, but none completed their eligibility for the Sooners. The chance to restore Fresno’s reputation in the eyes of Sooners’ fans was one of the reasons Kelly chose Oklahoma over Notre Dame in 2016.
“Having all of them either get kicked out or quitting, I really felt like I needed to come and kind of represent my city as well,” Kelly said. “It’s where I’m from. It’s who I am. It’s how I grew up. I’ve been on both sides. I’ve gone all over. I can really relate to anybody. Everywhere I go back home I’m going to know somebody.”
Teammates and coaches credit Valerie Kelly with instilling the attitude for Caleb Kelly to succeed where those other touted recruits from Fresno did not.
“His mother’s done an incredible job raising him, so he was different,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “Fresno’s a tough area, there’s a lot of challenges coming out of Fresno. You’re going to go on one side of the tracks or the other, and he always stayed on this side of the tracks and never wavered. I think it’s his commitment to his mother to be successful in whatever he does. Football’s important, but he’s way deeper than that.”
Senior linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo sees Kelly as his successor in leading the Oklahoma defense and expects his contributions on the field to become more pronounced. Kelly has 52 tackles this season, intercepting a pass against Texas Tech and returning a fumble 18 yards for Oklahoma’s first touchdown in the Big 12 title game win over TCU.
“Y’all going to see he’s going to keep getting better every year,” Okoronkwo said. “He hasn’t scratched the surface of what he can do.”
In Oklahoma’s last encounter with an SEC team, Kelly had a career-high 12 tackles in the Sugar Bowl win over Auburn last season. In the Bulldogs, another powerful, run-oriented offense featuring star back Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Kelly sees an opponent that should allow him to play to his strengths.
For his mom, Fresno and Oklahoma, Kelly wants to show who he is and what he can do.
“Just going in and really focusing on the run, stopping the run, I think I am a pretty good run stopper,” Kelly said. “Going against tight ends and doing stuff like that I feel like I’m used a lot more and so I like playing offenses like this.”
(© Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)