Michael Clay impressed Chip Kelly the first time Clay took the field as a freshman Oregon Duck.
“Mike’s been a leader since Day 1,” Kelly, the former Eagles coach, now running the UCLA Bruins, said Thursday. “Nothing was ever too big for Michael. When he was a freshman, he didn’t act like a freshman; he acted like a senior. His approach – he just had a maturity that you noticed when he was 18 years old.
“He played for us immediately. He was actually our long-snapper in his first college game. We didn’t have a long-snapper,” so Clay volunteered that summer, having learned how to do it in high school, as the son of a coach in San Jose, Calif.
“We recruited him as a linebacker, we didn’t recruit him as a long-snapper, but it didn’t faze him,” Kelly said.
Kelly said normally he would have been worried about asking a true freshman to step in and do something he hadn’t done that much in games, “but no one was worried about him, just because of the way Michael carried himself.”
Clay, now the Eagles’ special-teams coordinator, recalled the moment, and said long-snapping was how he “got my seat on the bus.”
“Freshman year, you’re trying to make the bus more than anything else. … I remember vividly that first game, at Boise State, first college game, scared, and it was the best long-snap of my life,” he said Thursday. He said he felt the key was that he didn’t think about what he was doing.
The Ducks recruited a long-snapper the next year, and Clay concentrated on linebacking. But the skills are still there, he said.
“I can still do it a little bit,” he said, “but you’re not going to get any protection out of me.”
Though Clay excelled as an undersize Pac -12 linebacker, he didn’t make it in the NFL as an undrafted rookie with Miami in 2013. Kelly said Clay played for Oregon at about 210 pounds, tried to add 15 or 20 for the NFL, and couldn’t carry that weight with the same quickness.
The next year, Kelly ended up hiring Clay as an entry-level defensive quality control coach for the Eagles, and he promoted Clay to assistant special-teams coach in 2015. Kelly was fired with a week left in that season. He then went to the 49ers, and brought Clay with him. Kelly was fired there after the 2016 season, but Clay stayed on and was part of the 49ers’ Super Bowl run in 2019.
The NFL turns in mysterious ways. The Eagles fired Kelly’s successor, Doug Pederson, after going 4-11-1 last season. Clay had no background with new coach Nick Sirianni, but he impressed Sirianni enough in an interview for Sirianni to make Clay the NFL’s youngest coordinator, at 29.
“Anything we threw at him, he had an answer for, and it was a good, detailed answer that he’s thought through,” Sirianni told the Eagles’ web site when Clay was hired. “You can just tell that this guy has been preparing to be a special-teams coordinator his entire career.”
Kelly said Clay “would be good at anything he did. Whether he went into the business world, or wanted to get a medical degree – nothing would surprise me, in terms of Michael’s success.”
Kelly and Clay credited Dave Fipp, the Eagles’ special-teams coordinator under Kelly and Pederson, for giving Clay a good grounding in NFL special- teams theory. Fipp now runs the Lions’ special teams; Clay is his Eagles successor.
Fipp’s units were well-regarded through most of his eight-year tenure. Last season, like pretty much everything else having to do with the Eagles, they cratered. Kicker Jake Elliott and punter Cam Johnston endured their worst years, with Johnston then moving on to the Texans in free agency, in favor of Arryn Siposs.
The Eagles’ return teams didn’t provide much of a boost to a struggling offense. Their 20.9-yard kickoff return average ranked 20th in the NFL, and their 8.8-yard punt return average ranked 18th. The only thing the Eagles’ special teams did well was cover punts; their 6.4-yard opponent return average ranked eighth. Opponents averaged 22.3 yards per kickoff return, which ranked 18th. So Clay has some work to do.
“Where [Clay] is right now is of zero surprise to me,” Kelly said. “I knew he would be a rising star in this profession.”
What will Clay’s units be like?
“I think they’ll be really disciplined, because Mike is. I think they’ll be very situationally aware,” Kelly said.
Kelly said he thought Clay’s players would be well-versed in positional fundamentals but also have a good grasp of “the big picture,” as Clay always did.
“He’s a really good communicator,” Kelly said.
Clay said he wants “something that is not a forced energy. It’s an energetic group that they love doing what they have to do.”
“… Special teams can change the game regardless. It could be a 0-0, bad weather, and it could be a blocked punt, a return where it’s going to change the game. So I think having that true energy and that true confidence like, ‘Hey, this play could change it,’ I think is what this group really wants.”
Clay acknowledged that he “owes the world” to Kelly, whose name evokes sour memories in Philadelphia.
“What I learned from him is just, you’ve got to be on the details, but you’ve also got to believe in yourself more than anything else,” Clay said.
“I think, when Chip was really rolling, he was believing in himself. Everything he thought of and everything he said, he believed, and I think to get everybody else to do that, they’ve got to buy in as well.”
As an aside, that’s an interesting insight into Kelly’s career. In 2015, after two 10-6 seasons, when suddenly opponents weren’t so fazed by the hurry-up pace of his simple, basic offense, and the losses mounted, did Kelly lose that belief? His Eagles players certainly did. Has Kelly ever gotten that belief back? Another story for another day.
» READ MORE: Are Eagles players still behind Chip Kelly?
Clay didn’t set out to coach special teams; most coaches don’t. He has a defensive background. But he has been with special teams long enough now to appreciate coaching it.
“With special teams, you get to work with everyone. You can’t say that when you’re a position coach, unless you’re a coordinator,” Clay said. “I worked with, from quarterbacks to O-line, D-line, and you almost have a full sense of the whole team. You see faces come in, come out.
“I think that’s the whole true love of special teams. You work with everyone, and you try to get them better regardless of what they do. They could be a one-phase guy, but you could give them the sense of confidence that, ‘Dang, I’m a pretty good one-phase guy, and I’m going to help this team win.’ "