- The Washington Times - Monday, August 17, 2009

Malcolm Kelly’s instructions were clear when he lined up on third down Thursday in Baltimore.

Press man coverage: Run 11 yards and break inside.

Soft man coverage: Run 11 yards, stop and turn toward quarterback Todd Collins.

At the snap, Kelly misread the coverage, thinking it was press. He saw the middle of the field open, knifed through and jumped to snare Collins’ pass for a slick 13-yard gain, one of the few offensive bright spots for the Washington Redskins.

That something was amiss did not go unnoticed.

“It was the wrong route, so the coaches made fun of me about it,” Kelly said. “But at the same time, I got open and caught the ball.”

Said receivers coach Stan Hixon: “I always tell them we take all catches and we can work with them from there. He knew he was in the wrong neighborhood.”

That Kelly is in any neighborhood is a step in the right direction after last year, when he was injured in training camp and limited to five regular-season games, three catches and 92 snaps.

His surgically repaired left knee healthy, Kelly missed four practices early in camp with a hamstring injury but has returned to participate in the past eight workouts. He made three catches against Baltimore to intensify the battle with Devin Thomas for the starting “Z” receiver spot opposite Santana Moss.

The second-year receiver who couldn’t be covered his last two seasons at Oklahoma (111 catches and 19 touchdowns) feels like a football player again.

“It was good to get back out there and get hit around a few times,” Kelly said after the Redskins’ first practice Sunday. “Last year [in Baltimore], I dropped a ball in the middle of the field. And in the run game, I was just pitter-pattering around and got knocked on my butt.”

That December performance ended Kelly’s season; he was placed on injured reserve with the nagging knee injury.

An early entrant into the draft, Kelly was taken in the second round, the eighth receiver selected. But last year was difficult, especially after he started training camp in good shape. As one of the top receivers in Oklahoma history, he figured his transition to the NFL would be minimal because of his size (6-foot-4, 227 pounds) and hands (one drop in 83 attempts in his last year in Norman).

Kelly was still able to glean a positive from his difficult rookie season.

“More than anything, I learned not to get down on myself when bad things happen,” he said. “And when you do finally get the chance to be on the field, you can’t be so mad about what happened in the past that you can’t concentrate on the present.”

Kelly wants to return to the form that made him so effective at Oklahoma - but better. In college, he relied on his athletic ability to do whatever he wanted regardless of field position, coverage or quality of the pass.

One YouTube video illustrates Kelly’s versatility. The first three clips are a crossing pattern for a ball he catches below his waist, a “go” route straight down the field on which he runs by the defender for a 65-yard touchdown and a 24-yard post corner route to the end zone on which he makes an acrobatic catch.

“The deep routes are my favorite because, a lot of times, you get down there and the ball is in the air and it’s just you and the defender,” Kelly said. “In this offense, we run a lot of crosses and a lot of shorter stuff, so it’s forced me to become more of a complete receiver.”

In college, Kelly could glide out of his breaks and still beat the defender. In the NFL, not cutting quickly lets equally swift and athletic cornerbacks jump a route and break up or intercept the pass.

During some drills, coach Jim Zorn doesn’t watch the quarterbacks, instead focusing on the receivers to make sure they’re coming out of their breaks at the desired distance - not a yard early or late.

“The thing we’re trying to get [Kelly] up to speed on is the explosion down the field, getting in and out of breaks,” Zorn said. “I would like to see him with more involvement and more tries, if you will. I think he’s feeling better and better each day.”

Said Hixon: “He seems to have a better understanding of what we’re trying to get done. I always tell him to have a plan of what he’s trying to do and have a second plan in case that doesn’t work. He’s getting to the point where he’s developing that.”

He’s healthy, he’s running crisper routes and he’s dropping fewer passes. Is the light on for Kelly?

“It’s coming on - it really is,” Hixon said. “The first preseason game was a big help. He had some success catching the ball, and we have to get him where he’s supposed to be with his routes. With the receivers, that’s the No. 1 deal, and he’s on par with that.”

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