TEMPE, Ariz. -- The only thing greater than the butterflies in his stomach was the excitement coursing through him.
After a few final words from his coach, he ran out onto the field in front of nearly 49,000 fans. A month prior, this sight would have been thought highly improbable by most fans. Yet here he was, about to take his first snap as Arizona State’s starting quarterback.
“We designed a play
to get me out of the pocket and make a nice, easy pass,” Taylor Kelly remembers. “I found D.J. (Foster) wide open and put a pass on him, and he made a great catch. I felt confident. I just wanted to get that first play out of the way and to go on to make it like practice or camp.”
That first completion would gain 16 yards, and over the remained of the season, Kelly would tack on 3,023 more, as well as 29 touchdowns. The surprise of his ascent from afterthought to winner in the offseason competition to replace Brock Osweiler was only surpassed by just how well Kelly played in 2012.
Kelly won the job in part due to his ability to avoid turnovers, but it was his top-notch work ethic that helped him shake off any nerves and become acclimated with the pressures of being a starting quarterback far more quickly than most expected.
“I just kept improving myself throughout the weeks, studying film and continuing to grow that way,” Kelly said. “I started to get more comfortable after the Missouri game, the first road game. The game then started slowing down for me.”
It was hard to imagine both ASU and Kelly’s seasons going any better for a Sun Devil team many expected to struggle in Todd Graham’s first year as head coach. Yet, here they were. The team was 5-1 at the halfway mark, with Kelly posting a sterling 14-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Then the bottom seemed to fall out.
“We had that four-game losing streak, so we just had to learn from that,” said Kelly”. “I watched a lot of film on those games and learned from it. They schemed for us. A lot of those teams had a bye week and another week to prepare for us. They were great teams. Oregon and Oregon State have great defenses. Same for UCLA. I’m just trying to learn from that and continue to grow from it.”
Despite that disappointing stretch, there were plenty of signs that Kelly could be the long-sought after answer at quarterback. None of those omens were greater than the team’s final offensive drive during the 45-43 loss to UCLA in late October.
With what ultimately could have been the South division title hanging in the balance, Kelly led the Sun Devils on a masterful drive late in the fourth quarter, capped by a terrific play
in which Kelly evaded pressure to toss what could have been the game-winning touchdown pass to Foster.
Nearly seven months later, Kelly remembers that moment as one of the high points of his season.
“The play broke down and I evaded away from the pocket pressure, and D.J. just found a hole in the defense,” Kelly said. “He was working for me and made a great catch for us to take the lead. That was probably one of the greatest plays that we had as an offense—that last minute drive to go down there and take the lead.”
Kelly now finds himself in a place that no Sun Devil has been in over half a decade—a returning starter at quarterback. Not since Rudy Carpenter in 2008 has an ASU quarterback started consecutive season openers, but now as one of the Pac-12’s elite, Kelly has both job security and the pressure to live up to it. Accordingly, he has been diligent in his preparation over the offseason.
“Just my footwork and some film watching,” answered Kelly regarding his offseason improvement goals. “I watched all our games from last season, all of our big plays, our interceptions, the turnovers that I committed. I’m watching those to see where the defenses were lined up and how my feet were wrong. I just improved on that and getting my feet quicker, getting the ball out quickly, and in the weight room.”
During the year, Kelly was occasionally spelled by Michael Eubank, whose larger frame and running ability resulted in specific packages that forced Kelly to the sidelines. The talented Eubank returns, as does Mike Bercovici, the frontrunner for the job this time last year. Despite speculation regarding a possible transfer, Bercovici remains in Tempe and is coming off a very impressive stretch of spring football. The persistent pressure provided by Eubank and Bercovici is something for which Kelly is thankful.
“It’s great. All three of us are close friends. We’re all pushing each other to compete,” Kelly said. “You want that competition every day to have someone pushing you and you pushing them. They’re great quarterbacks and I just have to continue to grow and never let a rep down because you never know what can happen.”
Kelly’s success in 2012 was all the more remarkable due to the teams’ deficiencies at wide receiver. The group had major difficulties last year adjusting to the new offensive system, and compounded that issue with crucial drops and the inability to get open downfield. Through it all, Kelly said there was no frustration on his part, and that he expects a big improvement in 2013.
“We had a good group last year of wide receivers,” said Kelly. “Being in that first-year offense, we started connecting later on towards the end of the year. The guys who stayed and have been in the offense this long have continued to grow this spring and summer. We have some good guys coming in, some freshman and junior college kids coming in this summer. We have to get the young guys going, because they are going to have a big role in our offense.”
On the flip side, Kelly and tight end Chris Coyle quickly emerged as one of the top passing combinations in the conference. Like Kelly, 2012 was Coyle’s first year as a starter, and he set the school single-season record for receptions by a tight end with 57, with 44 coming from Kelly. Kelly attributes this success to the pair’s chemistry both on and off the field.
“It’s a relationship. Being around, hanging out, just trying to get as much time as we can on the field throwing, even if he’s just standing and catching on different spots on the field,” Kelly said. “I just have to continue to trust him. He’s been working harder than I have ever seen him work, and he had a really good spring. He just has to continue to grow and stay humble. We just have to keep working every single day.”
Along with Coyle, the Sun Devil running backs were Kelly’s other preferred and most productive targets. Foster and Marion Grice combined for 79 catches and 12 receiving touchdowns, and their running ability helped to keep defenses honest and opened the field up for Kelly in the passing game. With the return to form of Deantre Lewis this spring, ASU now has three potent weapons to help ease the offensive burden off of Kelly, and the junior quarterback is eager to do so.
“They make it a lot easier,” said Kelly of the backfield trio. “To just hand them off the ball and have them take it to the house for 50, or get a 20-yard gain, or just pound the ball for a seven or eight-yard gain, or toss it out on a screen to one of them. Those three guys are dangerous, and they’ve been weapons for us. We just have to continue to feed them the ball.”
Even with so much talent around him, perhaps nothing will prove to be as much of a boost to the offense as experience. While the unit went through the inevitable growing pains of learning a new offensive system last year, Kelly has seen a massive leap forward in that area so far in 2013. In fact, during spring ball, the offense took that comprehension to a whole new level.
“This past spring, we had players coaching players instead of just coaches coaching players,” Kelly said. “That’s huge for a team’s success, to understand the offense as well as they do. Players may listen to players a little more than coaches, as it’s their age group, like (wide receiver) Rick Smith coaching me as to what he’s seeing. For us to be at that spot is big for the team.”
That doesn’t mean that there will not be schematic tweaks to the offensive gameplan.
One of the most noticeable additions during spring was the installation of the pistol formation, in which the running back lines up behind the quarterback in the shotgun. Along with ASU, Kelly’s only other FBS scholarship offer came from Nevada, where the pistol attack was the centerpiece of their offense. With ASU’s talent in the backfield, this new wrinkle could be just another element to keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night.
“I like it a lot. It helps the running back on protection,” said Kelly of the pistol. “It also helps the defense not key up on where we’re going to go with the ball either in the running or passing game. It’s going to help out tremendously.”
Even with the skills of Coyle, the running backs and the incoming wide receivers, the relationship between Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell stands at the center of the Sun Devil offense. Although Kelly was not recruited by Norvell and the current staff, the two have bonded quickly. Like the most productive player-coach relationships, this situation is not a one-way street, but rather a partnership in which both young men motivate the other.
“It’s great. I talk to him at least once a day,” Kelly says of their relationship. “He’s been out on the road recruiting, so I just continue to talk to him. He’s constantly on me with my grades and classes, making sure I’m going to class. When watching film, he asks ‘What are you doing to be the best quarterback in the nation?’ He’s always pushing me, and I’m pushing him to be the greatest coach that he can be. It’s a really good relationship. I’m excited for him to get back and just keep learning.”
Another relationship that should pay dividends this fall is one that symbolizes a bridge of Sun Devil past, present and future.
During the spring, legendary Sun Devil quarterback Jake Plummer was invited by Graham to spend some time around the team. Plummer spoke to the team after a few practices and the spring game, in addition to mentoring the current group of quarterbacks. Like Kelly, Plummer is an Idaho native, and he unknowingly served as a role model for the younger player during his formative years. Now Plummer has had a more direct role in Kelly’s development.
“I’ve looked up to Jake Plummer since I was a little kid,” said Kelly. “To finally meet him, to have that relationship with him, and work with him has been a blessing for all three of us quarterbacks because he knows so much about the game. For him to come work with us during the spring and to preach his knowledge to us was a great experience. I’m excited for him to continue to work with me.”
Thanks in part to Kelly’s emergence, ASU enters 2013 as one of the favorites to win the Pac-12 South and as a darkhorse BCS bowl contender. Amid these heightened expectations, the ever humble Kelly remains grounded in a one-step-at-a-time approach, while still having one eye on the ultimate goal.
“We just need to take one game at a time. We have a huge schedule. It’s a big schedule to take you to the national championship if you win all of those. We just have to take one game at a time and work to our goals. Win the Pac-12 South, get to the Rose Bowl, and win a national championship.
“We’re hungry out here."