The rookie running back is expected to carry the ball quite a bit during the second half of the season, but he's not letting the pressure of an increased workload get him off-kilter.
Robert Kelley has earned his way up the Washington Redskins' depth chart over the last few months. Now it appears his hard work will result in a starter's workload.
During his press conference on Thursday, Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said Kelley is the team's first-string running back for the game against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
"When we start the game it'll be Robert and then we'll go from there and we'll decide the rest of the group later on," Gruden said. "And then Chris Thompson obviously is penciled in as the third-down guy and No. 2. So after that we'll make a decision."
Kelley admitted he was a little surprised hearing the news from the head coach considering his route to the Redskins, but he's happy to be in a situation where the Redskins need him to contribute.
"Yeah, I mean coming in undrafted, it's always something you think about and bring yourself back down to earth and not try to get to far ahead of yourself," Kelley said. "I'm happy with how far I've came. …"I just go as they come. If they need me, I do it. If they don't, I just sit back and encourage other guys. I don't really try to do their job for them, they do their job."
Kelley, of course, signed with the Redskins in May after going undrafted out of Tulane. The 24-year-old began the offseason workouts well behind the likes of Matt Jones, Chris Thompson, Mack Brown and even Keith Marshall. But a strong, confident running style coupled with a solid preseason showing not only earned Kelley a spot on the active roster, but eventually into a bigger role on a star-laden offense.
Kelley managed to get just eight carries for 29 yards through the first five weeks of the season, the rookie had a breakout performance against the Philadelphia Eagles, averaging nearly 12 yards on his five carries.
In the second quarter of the Redskins' victory over their NFC East rivals, Kelley eluded three different Eagles to produce a 45-yard gain.
The next week, Kelley caught his first NFL touchdown, hauling in a one-yard throw from Kirk Cousins.
Against the Bengals, Kelley not only started in place of an injured Jones, he tallied his first rushing touchdown of the season in a game that he collected 87 rushing yards on 21 carries.
While Gruden admitted that Kelley "pre-determined" some of his runs, he was pleased with how he ran under the bigger sample size and is willing to open up more opportunities for the rookie. Even with Jones returning to the practice field this week, Kelley will see a bulk of the reps against a strong Vikings defense.
If Washington can get Kelley going early, it could set the tone for a strong outing in the team's return to FedExField. Kelley's touchdown run against the Bengals capped of a 15-play opening drive.
"It's very important to come out fast; it's always best to come out fast in football," Kelley said. "But Minnesota is a real good defense. We're going to do the best we can to start off fast on those guys."
Not only has Kelley been a strong runner with the football (his five yards per carry is tied for the fifth highest average among running backs with at least 35 carries), but he's shows quite a bit of improvement in pass protection. That's perhaps the hardest adjustment any rookie running back has to make in the transition to the NFL.
"Where the growth happens is mentally – being able to see, 'OK, what is my blitz protection pickups on this play-action pass? Or in this Double-A pressure, where do my eyes need to be and who do I need to be picking up?'" quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "And even just technique, you know, blocking a blitzer in college is different than blocking a Pro Bowl blitzer at the NFL level. So just having the fundamentals to know how to pick those guys up in protection and consistently do it, you see how Chris Thompson has gotten much, much better from his rookie year to now in terms of being a complete player. So that's where Rob's going to continue to grow and get better. But as far as running the football, very talented runner, and we knew that coming in."
Washington faces quite the winding road in a potential path back to the playoffs. Five of the Redskins' upcoming opponents currently have records above .500. They also will go against some of the top run defenses in the NFL, as seven of the eight defenses they'll face are in the top half of the league against the run.
Kelley isn't trying to get too far ahead, though, regardless of what's to come.
"I try to keep it simple, I try not to get over my head with it," Kelley said of his approach. "I'm going to take it as they come. If they need me, I'm going to go. If they don't, they don't. …I feel like every team is tough: it's the NFL, it's the best of the best. I feel like we stayed on the same type of game plan, but put more emphasis on schemes on defense."
As far as Jones, the Redskins would still like to get him his carries and he may be asked to play some special teams, too, but for now Washington wants to keep Kelley at the top of the running back hierarchy.
"I think in this league people get promoted and demoted all the time," Gruden said. "It's up to the person that's starting to keep the starting role and it's up to the person behind them to keep pushing and getting better, and when your time comes take advantage of the reps. That's just the way it is. There's only one ball and there's only one starter, so to speak. But we expect everybody to be involved and everybody to have an impact on this football team whether you get the ball five times or 25 times. That will be our determination, not theirs."