TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State has had a continuing run of good fortune at center.
Over the last decade, the torch has been passed from standout to standout, from Mike Pollak to Garth Gerhart to Kody Koebensky.
With Koebensky moving on, the Sun Devils look to find the next player to carry on the legacy, and think they have it in junior Nick Kelly.
Kelly came to to Tempe after one season at American River College in Sacramento, turning down offers from Wyoming and Nevada. As a mid-year transfer, Kelly participated in spring football, and that extra practice time allowed him to get acclimated to the frenetic speed of the Pac-12 game.
“It was a higher level of athlete," Kelly said. "Coming in this past year and going through all of the steps, I realized that my expectations (of the Pac-12) were exceeded. The defensive lineman were by far the most athletic people I’ve ever gone up against.”
While many offensive linemen struggle with the speed of an up-tempo offensive scheme like ASU's, that was not the case for Kelly.
“It wasn’t that big of an adjustment for me, because all throughout high school and my junior college, we always ran an up-tempo offense," said Kelly. "It wasn’t too much of a difference, but it was different enough for me to notice that it is a faster high-octane offense that we run here.”
That familiarity helped the 6-foot-2, 296-pound Kelly avoid a redshirt and see action in five games throughout the year as Koebensky's top reserve.
While Koebensky brought a stalwart presence to the middle of the Sun Devil line, Kelly greater athleticism to the group, and that trait has his position coach excited.
"I think Nick Kelly has a chance to be a really, really good player in what we do," ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen told Scout.com's Hod Rabino. "He’s a much different player than Kody, he’s a more athletic, more explosive type player. A guy that can get out and run a little but also do well in the pull stuff that we do.
“I feel that my athleticism is a big key, since not many offensive linemen are athletic and can move and have the ability to do the things I do like reach block," Kelly said. "I know how to flip my hips really well. It will help me in the long run with outside zone and the concepts of the run.”
With that job there for his taking, Kelly is now the favorite to win that job, but he is not allowing his front-runner status to impact his approach.
“I know Kody has left, but I’m still training like I have a spot to lose," Kelly said. "It’s mine to lose now. I’m training like I have a spot that I need to get, and that anybody can take at anytime. No spot is exclusive to any one person. It’s open right now until camp starts and the season starts.”
With no shortage of playmakers on offense, the play of the line will be critical in allowing the Sun Devils to reach their full potential and challenge to repeat as Pac-12 champions. If Kelly can play to the level of his predecessors, ASU will be well on their way.
What were the biggest challenges you faced this past year?: “I’d say getting used to the schedule. Waking up at 5:30 to get to the 6:00 run and then having to lift every day. Also, knowing where to go and all the locations.”
Where have your improved the most?: “My football smarts. Knowing the defense and what they want to do before the ball is snapped. My strength, weight, size, and ability to run off the ball is the key that I’ve worked on over the offseason.”
What did you learn from the veteran offensive linemen? “Leadership. Kody showed amazing leadership and really taught me what it meant to lead and not to be a ‘boss’. Don’t tell people how to do it, show people how to do it.”
How is your relationship with offensive line coach Chris Thomsen?: “A lot of respect for Coach Thomsen. He’s taught me a lot about the game of football, and helped me along with what the defense wants to do before the snap. You’re supposed to have fun with this game. Don’t treat it as a business, have fun with it.”
What have you focused on this offseason?: “Definitely getting stronger. Losing fat and gaining muscle. Keeping my quickness up and my speed up, and learning more about the game of football.”
What's it like going through Shawn Griswold's strength and conditioning program?: “It’s amazing. I came here not squatting a lot and not benching a lot. Now, I’m benching with the big boys. My squat has gone up a lot. It’s been a wild ride. My conditioning and endurance, I didn’t know I had that much in me until he pushed me. I learned I had it in me all along. He brings out the best in the players.”
What are your goals for this season?: “Get in the weight room and get stronger for the Pac-12 defenses, and getting ready for the competition and understanding the defenses that they run, the techniques that they use, and understanding the little parts about football. “
What should fans expect from Nick Kelly in 2014?: “Watch out for a surprise. I’m going to make a name for myself. I’m going to show the people who Nick Kelly is, because I’m the underdog now. I’ve got to show them how I play and how good I am