Sun Devil Six Pack: ASU quarterback preview

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By Brad Denny By Brad Denny

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The streak is in danger.

Not since 2007 and 2008 has Arizona State had a quarterback start consecutive season openers, but barring an injury to Taylor Kelly in the next nine days, that dubious mark will come to an end. 

In just one calendar year, Kelly has gone from afterthought to Heisman darkhorse, and he is now in position to lead his Sun Devil team on a run at the Rose Bowl. 

While the Sun Devil defense has received most of the attention over the offseason, it is Kelly's offense that should be the difference in whether this much-hyped 2013 season can meet expectations. Talented playmakers populate the skill positions, so if Kelly can continue his upward career arc, the team should be a strong contender for a Pac-12 South division title.

To preview the ASU quarterbacks, we take a look at six elements that will define the position this fall.

1) Now No. 1, can Taylor Kelly become No. 3 (or better?)

Beyond even Will Sutton's emergence as a consensus All-American, no development was more surprising last year than Kelly's excellence.

Once thought to be running third in the three-man quarterback race at the start of last year's fall camp, Kelly ultimately became one of the best quarterbacks in the conference, throwing for 3,039 yards and 29 touchdowns while setting the school's accuracy record by completing 67.1-percent of his throws. He was also a dangerous runner, leading the team with 724 yards rushing (pre-sack deduction total).

Heading into 2013, the 6-foot-2, 201-pound redshirt junior is primed to take his game to the next level. While most pundits place Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley atop the Pac-12's quarterback rankings, Kelly is in the next group of quarterbacks with the likes of Washington's Keith Price, Stanford's Kevin Hogan and Oregon State's Sean Mannion for that third slot, and Kelly has seen his name on numerous preseason award watch lists.

Kelly's diligent offseason work has him in position to make the leap, and should he play well and lead the team to three or more wins through their murderous early schedule, he may just find himself mentioned with the nation's elite.

2) Standing Tall 

The numbers say it all.

For all his success a year ago, there was a clear troubling trend about Kelly's play in 2012. In ASU's eight wins, Kelly threw 21 touchdowns and not a single interception. In the team's five losses: Eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. As Kelly went, so did the Sun Devils. 

During the team's season-defining four-game losing streak, Kelly faced four defenses—Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State and USC—that were able to put sustained pressure on him. Like many first-year quarterbacks, Kelly struggled. Those four opponents tallied 18 sacks, exactly half of the total ASU allowed all year.

Kelly will need to stand tough in the face of pressure again this year. Combining last year's sack and tackles-for-loss totals, ASU will face three of the top five teams from last year (Stanford 1st, USC 4th, UCLA 5th, and ASU was 2nd) this fall, and six of the top 50.

Now with a year of experience, Kelly is better equipped, mentally and physically, to handle opposing pressure and make smart plays. Starting next Tuesday, he'll have to prove it on the field.

3) Comfort with the new weapons

Kelly's success in 2013 was amazing on its own, but it was even more remarkable considering that the team's play at wide receivers was below average (at best), which in turn resulted in great seasons by tight end Chris Coyle and running backs Marion Grice and D.J. Foster, all of whom return.

Not one to stand pat, head coach Todd Graham brought in five wide receivers and two tight ends in this year's recruiting class, and as many as six of those newcomers should see the field this fall.

Two wide receivers, Jaelen Strong and Ellis Jefferson, have been among fall camp's biggest stars. Strong has all the tools to be a true No. 1 wide receiver and nearly has a starting job locked up, while Jefferson's big body (6-foot-4) and reliable hands have him competing for a job in the slot. Ronald Lewis and Cameron Smith are shifty speedsters, and Joe Morris figures to be in the mix when healthy. New 3-back De'Marieya Nelson has size, speed, and versatility to provide a playmaking complement to Coyle in a num,ber of ways.

Through the first three weeks of fall camp, the newcomers have seen their share of growing pains, but many, especially Strong, Jefferson and Nelson, have begun to show that they will be contributors this season. 

Kelly and the quarterbacks have the benefit of having a year of experience in the offense, so it will be paramount that they can continue to ramp up the newcomers as quickly, as after the opener, the Sun Devils will need all the weapons they can muster.

4) Is Berc ready to take over if needed?

Over spring and fall camps, Mike Bercovici has elevated his game to the level many expected of him last year. Heading into last year's fall camp, Bercovici was viewed as the favorite to start for the team, before dropping to third and ultimately redshirting in 2012.

Now refocused, reenergized and slimmer, Bercovici has been consistently on point through camp, showing off the strong arm and polished passing skills for which he was known. He also has been a much better runner than last year, and while he won't ever be the scarmbling threat of Kelly or Michael Eubank, his improved mobility makes him a more dangerous playmaker and better fit for the offense.

His resurgence has him primed to be Kelly's top backup, and should Kelly be lost for an extended period of time, the 6-foot-1, 196-pound Bercovici appears to be ready to hold the line for the Sun Devil offense.

5) How will Eubank be used?

Michael Eubank possesses a physical toolset very few can match. Standing 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, Eubank has a cannon of an arm and is an equally powerful runner. 

It was that mix of skills that led the ASU coaching staff to frequently use him in special packages throughout the year, with varying levels of success. However, with Kelly's development and some situational struggles, those packages became less frequent as the year went on.

Eubank is still developing as a passer, and with Bercovici perhaps passing him up, the question stands as to whether, or how much, Eubank's specially designed plays will be used.

6) Will all three guys stay?

Kelly is the unquestioned starter, and the team received a verbal commit this summer from 4-star prospect Manny Wilkins, who figures to inherit the job from Kelly in 2015. With that in mind, where does that leave Bercovici and Eubank.

Both players are confident in their abilities, and believe that they are starting-caliber players. If the road to a starting job is as clogged as it appears to be, a transfer could be in the works.

To their credit, both Bercovici and Eubank have said they have every intent to remain Sun Devils, but it bears watching if ultimately their desire for playing time takes them elsewhere.