FORT MYERS, Fla. – Boston Red Sox right-hander Casey Kelly has no regrets about giving up a full scholarship to the University of Tennessee, where he would have quarterbacked the football team and played shortstop in baseball.

Still, Boston’s No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft out of Sarasota, Fla., High figures he’ll make his college debut today, pitching the opener of an exhibition doubleheader against Northeastern. The Red Sox will play Boston College in the second game.

“I was talking to my dad the other day, and I was like, ‘Well, at least I finally get to make my first collegiate start and my college debut,’ ” Kelly said with a laugh. “But it’s still the same. I still want to go out there and get my work in and do a good job.”

His dad is Pat Kelly, a coach in the Reds’ minor-league system who has coached in the minors for more than 20 seasons.

Pat Kelly was a third-round pick of the Angels in 1973 and appeared in three games as a catcher with the Blue Jays that year.

The younger Kelly grew up around the game, tagging along with his father to minor-league outposts. Some of his earliest memories involve ballparks.

“I think it was in Harrisburg, when Vladimir Guerrero just signed with the Expos, and he and I used to play catch,” said Kelly, who is competing for a Portland Sea Dogs spot.

“I used to get so mad because he could catch my fastball with his bare hand. And it used to get me so mad because I was like, ‘How are you catching that? I’m trying to throw it so hard.’ But it was fun being around those guys and seeing how they become big-league stars.”

Kelly was 6 years old then, playing catch with a future American League MVP.

Now, at 20, he’s on the cusp of becoming a big leaguer himself. But it’s the poise he shows in his first big-league spring training camp that’s striking.

“I think that he’s comfortable around the field,” said Red Sox Manager Terry Francona. “He’s been doing it forever. I don’t think that makes you a good player, but that probably depends on who your dad is. But I think there’s a reason this kid probably respects the game, and knowing Pat, he probably learned the right way.

“When you talk to him, he seems to get it. He’s very young but doesn’t give you youthful answers. He asks good questions.

“The organization is very excited about his future. There’s a lot of reasons why. It’s not just a big arm. It’s got to be more.”

It wasn’t until December that the organization was certain Kelly’s future would be his arm.

Prior to that, his pro career had been spent pitching and playing shortstop. Although Kelly expressed an early desire to be a position player, he opted for a career on the mound.

“I think as we went through that process, we trusted Casey so much because of the questions he asked and all the things he expressed in the year and a half, how he handled that whole process,” said Mike Hazen, the Red Sox director of player development. “We felt very much that Casey had to want it.

“Whatever Casey was going to do he had to really want to do, and really buy into. So we left it in his hands to sort of make that decision. We had hoped — that was sort of how we had him evaluated — as a pitcher.

“But ultimately we knew if Casey was going to be fulfilled in what he was doing, he was going to have to make this decision, one that was going to be right for his life and his career.”

Kelly has been spending the early part of spring training watching the veteran pitchers and picking up tips from them.

“I think the biggest thing is just watching how they work and go about their business,” Kelly said.

“Watching them try and get their work in the weight room or throwing (bullpen sessions). If you just kind of listen and watch, I think that’s kind of more important than asking questions. I think once the games start going on and things happen and situations come up, then I’ll start asking the questions.”

He’ll get that chance today, pitching against college players, most of whom are older.


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