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Eastern Michigan expects big things from Greg Kelley, 25, but 'it's a process'

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

It's a great story, Greg Kelley's return to football.

But Eastern Michigan didn't bring him to campus to generate headlines. It brought him to campus to make plays — like he did eight years ago in high school, before he was wrongly convicted and jailed on child molestation charges.

Kelley is 25 years old, seven years older than your typical freshman.

Leander's Greg Kelley (2), Martin Nwakamma (23) and Michael Epley (7) celebrate a defensive stop. All three players made verbal commitments to play college football.

"I would say he is a freshman and not a freshman," said Chris Creighton, head coach at Eastern Michigan. "A 25-year-old NFL player is not considered old. Being 25 years old doesn't make you too old to play football. The 25-years-old piece doesn't really make a ton of sense.

"The not having played for seven years is the relevant piece."

"The guy is playing college football for the first time.

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Kelley arrived on campus in mid-September, after signing his full-ride scholarship paperwork, and immediately began participating in practices.

He hasn't seen game action for Eastern, which is 0-1 and plays again Wednesday night in this COVID-19-shortened season. He's nursing a groin injury, and might not play until next season.

But at some point, Eastern coaches expect the 6-foot-2, 215-pound safety to make an impact, even if it's initially on special teams.

He's in amazing shape, as anyone who's seen the Showtime "Outcry" documentary can attest.

"It really is too early to say what kind of impact he'll have," Creighton said. "But this was not a situation where we felt sorry for him. It was a combination of this is a guy that we've had a relationship with since 2013.

"We think he's going to be a really good player."

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Kelley, from suburban Austin, Texas, originally signed in high school to play at Texas-San Antonio, when Neal Neathery was the defensive coordinator there.

Neathery now is defensive coordinator at Eastern Michigan.

Kelley never made it to UTSA, having spent more than three years in prison after being wrongfully convicted. He spent more than two years after that out on bond, but not officially exonerated until November 2019. He wanted to try walking on at Texas, but Texas shut down its walk-on opportunities amid COVID-19.

And so he reconnected with Neathery, and here you have it.

Greg Kelley is expected to play safety and special teams at Eastern Michigan.

"It's going to be a process. He hasn't played college football in a long, long time, and with most freshmen, very few freshmen can step on campus and do well (right away)," Neathery said. "He's talented, he's got physical strength, he's got the speed. He showed that as a high school football player.

"We're excited about him, but it's a little bit of a process."

There aren't many stats to go on for Kelley, and those that there are — four sacks and 68 total tackles his junior year at Leander High School — again are from a long time ago.

But the physical tools are there, and so is the motivation and drive.

He's been through a lot in life.

He's just ready for a game.

"I feel like I'm a 19-year-old kid again," Kelley said. "I'm making new friends, I'm making brothers, I'm getting to play the same position.

"I'm super excited."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984