Can Taylor Kelly end up as the greatest ASU QB ever?

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By Christian Petersen By Christian Petersen

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Football has been around for a long time. Only slightly younger are the barroom debates about who are the greatest players in the game. Armed with varying levels of logic, stats, biases, and (fuzzy) memories, such discussions are a time-honored and well-worn fan tradition.

As Arizona State's 2014 season draws ever closer, Sun Devil Nation has the opportunity to participate in one that holds a growing degree of validity. 

Can Taylor Kelly end his Sun Devil career as the greatest quarterback in school history?

Two years ago, there were certainly no expectations that this topic could one day be broached. In fact, such a notion would likely have been roundly laughed off. Even now, it's somewhat of a reach.A relatively unheralded recruit who many (myself included) thought would finish third in the team's three-man quarterback competition surely would never be spoken of in the same breath as Danny White, "The Snake", and the other maroon-and-gold immortals.

Fast forward to today and especially a year from now...well, it's a topic worth looking into.

Currently, there are four players who I firmly place the "greatest of all time" discussion: Danny White, Jake Plummer, Andrew Walter and Rudy Carpenter. All four of those players had the rare combination of overall success, signature moments, longevity, and statistical excellence to put them head and shoulders above the rest. 

There have been other excellent players throughout ASU history such as Mark Malone, Mike Pagel, Jeff Van Raaphorst, and Brock Osweiler, but each fails to reach that foursome in one area of the key criteria or another. Van Raaphorst, in particular, was a difficult omission.

So can Kelly not only get in the mix, but make a case for the top spot?

His career has become one of the more remarkable Sun Devil football success stories in recent years, transforming into one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation.

Kelly initially won the job over Mike Bercovici and Michael Eubank prior to the 2012 season and helped guide ASU to a 2-0 start over undermanned NAU and Illinois teams. The next week, he struggled in a disappointing road loss to Missouri, raising lingering questions about his long-term viability.

It was that moment that Kelly points to as setting him upon his current course of success.

“After the Missouri game, we went down there and we lost a real close one," Kelly remembers. "I threw an interception to lose the game. I just bounced back from there and things just started to go my way. I just put that behind me and focused on myself and my team and how to make them better.”

Following that defeat, Kelly led ASU to three straight wins, throwing 11 touchdowns without an interception, his place as the team's starter was solidified, and the rest is recent history.

Just how historic remains to be seen. Let's dig in.

The Numbers

We'll start with the stats, being the one area we can quantify...well, somewhat. 

Obviously, the game of football has changed drastically and evolved by leaps and bounds over the decades. Where once the "three yards and a cloud of dust" mentality dominated the game, football over the last 20 years has become an aerial circus, with pass-first attacks becoming the new norm. Add in ASU's up-tempo attack, which greatly adds to the number of offensive plays the team runs per game.

Kelly is just one of the many quarterbacks to benefit from this offensive shift, and that makes comparing his stat line against those of previous decades nearly an apples-to-oranges affair. Consider that Kelly threw exactly double the amount of passes in 2013 than White did in 1972. A look at the record book finds the eight highest single-season passing attempt totals in Sun Devil history have all come since 2002. Fun.

While Kelly enjoys the advantages of a far great number of plays and a scheme designed with a focus on his dual threat talents, he ultimately still has to make the plays, and that is something that he has done so repeatedly over the past two seasons.

In fact, Kelly's 2013 may have been the greatest single-season statistical performance ever seen by a Sun Devil quarterback.

He threw for 3,635 yards and 28 touchdowns while running for 852 gross yards (608 after sack yardage factored in) with another nine touchdowns. His 4,243 yards of total offense set an ASU single-season record.

After just two seasons as the starter, Kelly already finds himself in some rarefied air.

Kelly's Current All-Time Ranks in ASU History

  • 64.6 completion % (1st)
  • 7,853 yards of total offense (4th)
  • 57 passing TD (5th)
  • 547 completions (5th)
  • 6,705 passing yards (6th)
  • 847 attempts (7th)

So where could he end up? If we take the average of Kelly's first two seasons and place those numbers as his 2014 stat line, Kelly would finish with his name atop many key categories.

  • 85 passing touchdowns (tied for 1st, Walter)
  • 818 completions (1st)
  • 11,752 yards of total offense (1st)
  • 1,268 (3rd)
  • 10,042 passing yards (3rd)

Not bad for the one-time two-star recruit from Eagle, Idaho.

"It’s a great experience for me, and those are great guys," Kelly said of being in such select company. "I’ve met a lot of those guys. A lot of the stuff that they’ve done here on the field, in the classroom, and out in the community is tremendous. For me to be talked about with those guys is really eye-opening for myself, coming from a small town. Being talked about with those guys is a blessing. I feel blessed to get this opportunity.”

Using last year's statistical output as a baseline may turn out to be too conservative, given ASU's talent on the offensive side of the ball this season.

Kelly's top target and the Pac-12's leading returning receiver Jaelen Strong is back. Strong has the chance to challenge many of ASU's receiving records, and he is already being billed as a potential first round pick in the NFL Draft. Dynamic running back D.J. Foster and versatile tight end De'Marieya Nelson also return, along with redshirt sophomore wide receiver Ellis Jefferson who was the star of spring practices. If that wasn't enough, six highly-skilled wide receivers and running backs join the program this summer, including touted juco transfer Eric Lauderdale, who Kelly is "very excited" about.

There will be playmakers for days.

“It can be the best in the country," Kelly said of the 2014 Sun Devil offense. "That’s our goal, and that’s what we’re working towards. As long as all 11 guys do their job, it’s almost impossible to stop our offense with the weapons that we have.”

With those tools at his disposal, it's not hard to envision Kelly having his best numbers yet.

The Wins

Stats are fun, but at the end of the day, the only number that truly matters is the on that falls under the win column. In that regard, Kelly is positioning himself very well.

White's success in helming arguably the greatest period in Sun Devil history from 1971-1973 will likely never be replicated from a win-loss perspective. He went a remarkable 32-3 during that stretch, capping each of those seasons with a Fiesta Bowl win. That success makes Kelly and every future quarterback's career a run for second place in that department.

With 18 wins over his first two seasons, Kelly now has a chance to leap over his other accomplished company and vie for that No. 2 position behind White.

Career Records and Winning Percentage

  • White 32-3 (.914)
  • Kelly 18-9 (.667)
  • Carpenter 26-17 (.605)
  • Plummer 24-16 (.600)
  • Walter 18-17 (.514)

While he'd need a perfect 14-0 record in 2014 to match White (let's go ahead and call that highly unlikely), Kelly's win percentage entering the fall stacks up very favorably amongst the group.

The 2014 schedule is another tough one, but it does break in ASU favor in a number of key areas. ASU hosts their (arguably) three most difficult opponents in UCLA, Stanford, and Notre Dame, and the Sun Devils will enjoy the benefit of a bye before the games against the Bruins and Cardinal. 

Kelly and the offense should keep the Sun Devils in games, and if a very young defense can develop, ASU can make another run at a double-digit win season.

The Emotion

Now we get real.

Greatness is a subjective and highly emotional measure, and each and every fan's mileage with a player and their accomplishments will vary. That said, this is the area in which Kelly needs the most help in order to get into the discussion. 

While Kelly may ultimately become the stat king and bring home a hefty tally of overall wins, he will also need the right wins along with a handful of signature performances. In short, he needs the stuff that will have fans reminiscing for years to come, much like our beloved foursome has done.

While many Sun Devil fans remain divided on him, Carpenter nevertheless showed an unmatched toughness during his career, making more consecutive starts (43) than any quarterback in Pac-10/12 history despite taking a beating behind a perennially poor offensive line. He led the Sun Devils to signature win over Cal that propelled ASU to a share of the conference title in 2007, and threw for over 10,000 yards in his career.

Walter didn't have the number of big wins as the rest of the group, but he single-handedly re-wrote the Sun Devil passing record book. Showing off a passing polish never before seen in Tempe, Walter owns three of the top six single-season passing yardage totals in ASU history, and no Sun Devil has ever thrown more touchdowns than Walter's 85.

As the face of the "Golden Era" of Sun Devil football in the 1970s, White left perhaps the greatest legacy of them all. Thanks to his sterling stats, All-American awards, and victories in the first three Fiesta Bowls, White is one of just four players in program history to have his jersey number retired and is beloved by fans to this day.

Then there is Jake "The Snake", arguably the most popular player in Sun Devil football history. All he did to earn the love of Sun Devil fans was beat No. 1 Nebraska, catch a touchdown pass in a key win over UCLA, led a decisive rout of Arizona, win the Pac-10 title, make one the the great clutch plays in college football history, and take ASU to within just under two minutes of a national championship.

Your move, Taylor.

During his first year as a starter, Kelly struggled in the team's biggest moments, faltering in key games against Missouri, Oregon, UCLA and USC. Last year, however, was a different story.

Kelly led big wins over Wisconsin, USC, Utah and Washington during the Sun Devils' 10-win season. He also ran his career record to a perfect 2-0 against rival Arizona, and with a win this year, would join White, Carpenter and Joe Spagnola as the only ASU quarterbacks to beat the Wildcats three times.

Perhaps most crucially to his resume, Kelly also notched a major marquee win this past year in the road win against UCLA that clinched ASU's first ever Pac-12 South championship.

“Going down there and clinching the South division was such a great game," Kelly said. "It was a lot of fun going to southern California and beating them at home was one of the top games that I think about.”

However, there were still struggles in the biggest moments, including one that would have elevated Kelly immediately into the "best ever" discussion had it turned out differently.

With the program's third-ever Rose Bowl bid on the line in the Pac-12 Championship game, Kelly and the entire ASU offense were shut down by Stanford in a decisive 38-14 defeat in Sun Devil Stadium. It's a failure that has served as the inspiration behind this season's "Unfinished Business" motto.

“We fell short because of some of the relationships, and we didn’t handle success very well," Kelly said of the late-season failures. "We just have to keep attacking that. I have every belief in my teammates in what we can do this year.”

That belief will need to bear some fruit this year. A division title, while great, is not enough to get a seat at the "best ever" table.

The Chances

So come January 2015, will there be a fifth member in the discussion? 

Barring an unprecedented season in which he rewrites the record books in resounding and memorable fashion, it will come down to whether Kelly can help ASU add some hardware to the Sun Devil trophy case. 

Another strong statistical season along with some big wins and a Pac-12 South title? Maaaaybe. 

Take the next step and get the Sun Devils to their third Rose Bowl? Now we're talking.

Realistically, given the quarterback-friendly era in which he plays and its impact on the statistical side of things, he'll need a Rose Bowl title. A best case scenario for Kelly could be to become the second coming of White—should Kelly lead ASU to a strong conference-title caliber season, he can join White as quarterbacks who launched golden eras of Sun Devil football.

Given the incredible lineage of quarterbacking the school has seen, it's going to be a tough task for Kelly to ultimately be included. But it does speak volumes that the notion is now reasonable. Let's grab a beer next January and hash it all out.

For his part and what he can control, Kelly is already aiming for his legacy to include it all.

“That I didn’t leave any doubt," said Kelly of how he wants to. "That I gave 110 percent effort out on the field, in the community, and in the classroom. I was the guy that you could trust, and that I led the team to the national championship and a Rose Bowl championship.”

If he can get that done, Kelly can end the debate once and for all.