CLEMSON — First, he busted a move in the locker room. Then, he was the first Clemson player to emerge for postgame interviews, and nonchalantly addressed the blitzing reporters.
Chad Kelly sure seemed, looked and sounded fine after his first career college appearance, which was unexpected based on the way the redshirt freshman quarterback finished it.
It was expected that Kelly would play since head coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris promised it for the past few weeks.
It just was difficult to comprehend, since Kelly and tight end Sam Cooper (who also debuted) each suffered serious knee injuries (torn ACL) on this very same field at Memorial Stadium during Clemson’s spring game 21 weeks ago.
That’s a baffling medical achievement, since ACL reconstructive surgery normally requires six to nine months — and sometimes longer — to fully recover.
Therefore, when Kelly hobbled off the field in a great deal of pain with about four minutes left in the third quarter after taking a hit on an incomplete attempt to Jordan Leggett, the worst was feared.
“Like everybody else in the stadium,” Morris said, “I’m like, ‘Oh no, surely it’s not the same leg.’ ”
It was indeed the same leg, Kelly’s right. But as Kelly told it, he pinched a nerve when his knee brace bit into his calf, a less horrific injury than it sounds.
“It wasn’t anything serious,” Kelly said. “I feel good.”
Kelly’s return to action was more inspirational than effective. While he had zip on his ball, his accuracy needs work. He completed 2 of 6 passes for 11 yards.
Answering questions on whether he’s pushing himself to return too soon, Kelly and his coaches showed no concern.
“I feel 100 percent. I’m definitely a lot quicker than I was (before the injury), that’s for sure,” Kelly said.
As for Cooper, his plan is to ease his way back to action, a project to rediscover his rhythm for later this season.
“Our goal today with Sam was to get him good, live work, let him bang around a little bit,” Swinney said. “We weren’t really thinking about the passing game as much. Get him involved in our running game, get him full-speed, and he felt good about it.”
Right guard Tyler Shatley was held out with a foot injury (plantar fasciitis), which has nagged him throughout fall camp. Swinney indicated he’d be ready for Clemson’s next game Sept. 19 at North Carolina State.
Kalon Davis started in Shatley’s place.
Tailback Roderick McDowell was held out after taking a hit to the head, fearing concussion symptoms. In the second quarter, quarterback Tajh Boyd got the wind knocked out of him, and returned for one drive before wearing a ball cap on the sideline the entire second half.
During the same fourth-quarter drive, Mike Williams, C.J. Davidson, Jay Jay McCullough and T.J. Green each made their first career catch.
In succession, they became the 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th Tigers to make a reception Saturday.
“Unbelievable,” Boyd said. “Today was seeing how much depth we have, and I think we’ve got a lot of guys we feel comfortable with playing out in the field.”
Ten different offensive linemen checked in during the first quarter, and the second-string unit of Isaiah Battle, Patrick DeStefano, Jay Guillermo, Reid Webster and Shaq Anthony propelled Clemson to a pair of first-half offensive touchdowns.
“I didn’t want to have to go and just play guys when we got control of the game,” Swinney said. “I wanted guys to play in crunch time. I wanted that second offensive line to go play with Tajh. I wanted them to take ownership, and guys did that.”
Junior wide receiver Martavis Bryant shook off a rough opening night with career-highs: four catches for 87 yards. Charone Peake, who also had a costly drop against Georgia, had a touchdown catch.
They took a back seat to flashy freshman Germone Hopper, who led the Tigers with six catches, 66 yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s going to catch your eye early, but we still don’t quite trust him to be an every down player,” Swinney said. “It was good to cut him loose today. He’s a tough, tough little guy.”
Hopper’s first career catch was a 17-yard touchdown, much in the mold of Clemson’s current starters. In 2011, Bryant’s first career catch went for 54 yards, and his second was a touchdown; while Sammy Watkins’ first reception also ended up in the end zone.
“It was a very special moment for me,” Hopper said.