Although Will Kelly stood out for his record-breaking season as Dartmouth High’s starting quarterback, the senior captain turned just as many heads on defense this year, earning him the 2021 Standard-Times Football Defensive Player of the Year award.
“Pound for pound, he is the strongest kid on the team,” said Dartmouth head coach Rick White. “Pound for pound, he is the most conditioned kid on the team. Pound for pound, he is the toughest player I have ever coached.”
A lot of times when quarterbacks also play on defense, they have a limited role or are hesitant to make a play, but that wasn’t the case with Kelly, who delivered some of the biggest hits on the SouthCoast this fall.
“Usually you’d get a quarterback that wouldn’t want to get his nose dirty, but he did,” said Apponequet head coach Zane Fyfe.
White added, “He tries to give the hits back on defense that he gets on offense. He would hit people so hard. I’m like, ‘Dude, can you take it easy a little bit?’”
While Kelly will be most remembered for setting the school’s single-season record by a quarterback with 17 rushing touchdowns, he got his start in football at age five as a defensive player with Dartmouth Pop Warner.
“I was always a defensive player before I was a quarterback,” said the 18-year-old Kelly. “I would only play defense. When I went up to high school, I started playing quarterback. Everybody thinks you get soft when you play quarterback, but I loved defense.
“I took all the pride in the world on defense. Sometimes you’re tired from offense, but the fact that you get to hit every play, I loved it. I’m not the biggest guy, but I’m going to hit you as hard as I can every single play.”
As a hard-hitting free safety, Kelly finished the year with 76 tackles, four tackles for loss and six knockdowns.
“As a safety he was always good at filling the alley on the run and not giving up the big play. That was huge,” White said. “Both Will and Ethan (Marques) were really good tacklers and covered up a lot of mistakes. They’re really good in the perimeter game. Will had some good knockdowns and some good plays. Ethan made the calls on defense and that allowed Will to be more free.”
White said Dartmouth needed Kelly to be a two-way player this year.
“There’s always that thought, I could be better on offense if I didn’t play defense, but I knew for my team I needed to be out there,” he said. “It wouldn’t sit right for me to be sitting on the sideline. I always want to be on the field.”
White added, “He gives everything he has. He never asked to come out of the game ever. He’s just a competitor. He’s got the chip on his shoulder because he’s not as big as some guys. But he’s not going to back down from anybody. That’s what you want in a captain on your team.
“He won’t back down. He’d rather run you over on offense. On defense he wants to hit you with every ounce of his body and he does that.”
Kelly is a fierce competitor from growing up in a sports family with four older brothers and a younger sister. His father, James, was a Hall of Fame running back at GNB Voc-Tech in the 1980s and his mother, Pamela, enjoyed a Hall of Fame career at New Bedford High in basketball and softball before playing both sports at Springfield College
“It’s very competitive,” Kelly said of his family. “You always have someone to play against. There’s always something to do.
“When I was five my dad asked me if I wanted to play flag football or full contact. I said full contact and never looked back. For me it was a no-brainer. I grew up watching it and I always wanted to go to Dartmouth.”
Kelly played freshman football his first year at Dartmouth and then was the JV starting quarterback his sophomore season. He became a two-way varsity starter in Fall 2 and has started 16 straight games at quarterback and free safety, helping Dartmouth to an overall record of 9-7, including a 7-4 mark this fall and a berth in the Div. 3 state playoffs.
“It was a phenomenal season,” Kelly said. “Our senior group, we were best friends off the field and we were best friends on the field. We all had the same mentality. Our junior season we made every mistake you can make as a starter. Senior year we knew what to expect and how to run everything.”
White said Kelly led the team on and off the field.
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“Will being ready to go every Monday, win or lose, showed the younger kids the right way to approach things,” White said. “They don’t know any other way.
“Quarterback is a tough position to play and not many kids want to play it anymore because it takes a lot of attention to detail and you can’t wing it. He’s just such a competitor. He works hard in practice. He hits hard in practice. He plays hard in practice. And it carries over to games.”
Through countless hours of practice, Kelly became so good at running the option on offense that sometimes game officials wouldn’t know who had the ball and would call inadvertent whistles.
“That’s what made him good; being able to read and ride the ball deep into the line,” White said.
Kelly added, “It’s a lot of instinct. I look at their feet and you can tell where they are going. The biggest key was having a very good running back with Ethan Marques. They would focus on him and would forget about me and it becomes a dual threat.”
Kelly carried the ball 135 times for 1,002 yards (7.42 average) and scored 17 touchdowns. He also completed 26 of 61 pass attempts for 470 yards and six more TDs.
“Scoring touchdowns, it’s the best part,” Kelly said. “There is no better feeling than getting in the end zone.”
But Kelly wants to be remembered for more than his statistics.
“I want to be known for the kid that loved football more than anything and gave it my all every game,” he said. “I don’t want to be known as the person who ever gave up.”
Kelly is now facing the toughest challenge of his life after suffering a severe posterolateral injury in a non-contact play against Fairhaven on Thanksgiving. Kelly tore his ACL, LCL and lateral meniscus, ruptured his bicep femoris tendon, had fluid on the perineal nerve and bone contusions. He had surgery on Dec. 29 in Providence and will be in rehab for nine to 12 months.
“It’s the hardest thing I've had to do so far,” said Kelly, who plans to study physical education at either Bridgewater State University or Springfield College. “It’s a slow road. You have to take it slow.”
White knows Kelly will put up a fight.
“If anyone can back from this type of an injury, Will Kelly can,” he said.
ALL ABOUT WILL KELLY
WHY HE WAS SELECTED: A standout player on both sides of the ball, Kelly drew praise from opposing coaches for his fierce play, relentlessness and hard hits on defense while also being one of the area’s top quarterbacks. Kelly never took a play off and was instrumental in Dartmouth’s 4-0 start and Div. 3 state playoff berth.
KEY STATS: In addition to 76 tackles, four tackles for loss and six knockdowns, Kelly carried the ball 135 times for 1,002 yards (7.42 average) and scored 17 rushing touchdowns, the most by a Dartmouth quarterback in a single season, breaking Cole Jacobsen's mark of 14 set in 2016. Kelly also completed 26 of 61 passes for 470 yards and six more scores for 23 total touchdowns.
MVP MOMENT: His best defensive games came against two of Dartmouth’s toughest opponents. Kelly had a team-leading 11 tackles against both Brockton and Bridgewater-Raynham. Offensively, he had more than 100 rushing yards five times and had three games where he scored three touchdowns. His biggest offensive play was connecting with Patrick Crane on a 76-yard game-winning scoring strike to lift Dartmouth past Apponequet 16-13.
FAIRHAVEN COACH DEREK ALMEIDA: “He’s definitely one of the best football players in the area on both sides of the ball. He was phenomenal. He was a really good high school football player. He would have excelled anywhere he played.”
NOTES: The son of James and Pamela Kelly, Will has four older brothers, Luke, Seth, Evan and Drew, and a younger sister, Sarah, who plays soccer, basketball and lacrosse at Dartmouth High. … A goal of Will’s was to surpass the single-season touchdown mark (16) that his father, James, set at GNB Voc-Tech in the 1980s and Will did that by scoring 17 this year at Dartmouth. “I always told him I was going to break it,” Will said. “He was very proud of me this season.” ... Will also played basketball and baseball at Dartmouth throughout his high school career. His injury will keep him from competing in both his senior year.
This article originally appeared on Standard-Times: Dartmouth's Will Kelly is 2021 Football Defensive Player of the Year