After a breakout campaign last season, TAYLOR KELLY and the Arizona State Sun Devils look to raise the bar in 2013

By Byron Kline
PHOTOS BY STEVE RODRIGUEZ

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AT FIRST GLANCE, he may not pass the proverbial “eye test” for elite starting quarterbacks in college football — he’s only 6-foot-2. In fact, you could argue that he’s neither the most natural passer nor the quickest quarterback on the Arizona State roster. But Taylor Kelly is the ideal blend of passing and speed, and he’s the engine that makes head coach Todd Graham’s high-octane Sun Devil offense run. He catapulted to the top of the ASU depth chart last year following a strong fall camp and hit the ground running in 2012, leading Arizona State to its first winning season in five years. Kelly capped it off with a dramatic come-from-behind victory against rival Arizona, as well as ASU’s first bowl win since 2005.

Now, with a full year’s worth of experience under his belt, Sun Devil fans are anxious to see where Kelly can lead the team next. It’s amazing how quickly things can change in just a year. At this time last summer, the Sun Devils were preparing for the start of fall camp, mired in a tightly contested quarterback competition while trying to adjust to the demands of their new head coach, Todd Graham. Kelly entered the offseason a distant third on the Sun Devil depth chart following an inconsistent spring performance, prompting many to believe it was just a two-player battle for the starting quarterback position between redshirt freshmen Mike Bercovici and Michael Eubank. Instead, Kelly quickly emerged as the overwhelming favorite because of his strong command of the Sun Devil offense and his improved passing accuracy.”I’ve always had a lot of confidence in myself and try not to pay attention to the media and what other people say,” Kelly said. “Heading into last summer, my approach was just to work on my game every single day and give myself a shot in fall camp.

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I knew I needed to work on my arm strength and my footwork. I watched a lot of film and really tried to learn the offense. The repetition over the summer was huge.” “When I got that call and Coach told me I’d be starting, I was so excited,” he added. “I called my mom immediately, but I knew I had to stay humble and continue to work hard.” Kelly played his first game as starting quarterback in the season opener against Northern Arizona, guiding the Sun Devils to a 63-6 win, and he never looked back. With Kelly at the helm, ASU finished the year with an 8-5 record and was the 14th highest-scoring team in the nation, averaging 38.4 points per game. He passed for 3,039 yards, 29 touchdowns and just nine interceptions, setting the school record for both passing efficiency (159.88 points) and completion percentage (67.1 percent), while finishing one touchdown shy of equaling the school record. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound redshirt junior was also the team’s third leading rusher, totaling 516 yards on the ground and providing Arizona State with another multi-dimensional weapon in its offensive arsenal.

Kelly’s remarkably efficient and productive first year as the Sun Devil signal caller helped vault ASU from the depths of the Pac-12 and back into contention for the South division title, where they finished second to UCLA . “I think the season went well,” Kelly remarked. “I have a lot of playmakers around me and an offensive line that allows me to play to my ability. I got to learn what Coach Graham and Coach Norvell were like throughout the season and how they react to certain things during games, at practice, and off the field. We built a great relationship as the season went on and I started to understand how they wanted the offense to perform.” “It’s huge to have that kind of relationship and trust with your coaches and it’s only going to grow more now heading into our second year together,” Kelly added. “Just to go out there and have the kind of year that we did was a great experience.” Chris Coyle was one of Kelly’s popular targets.

leadingthecharge3He not only mentored the soft-spoken quarterback when he first arrived on campus in 2010, but was also the team’s leading receiver last season, hauling in 57 catches, a school record for tight ends. “I think his defining moment was in the Missouri game,” said Coyle. “We hadn’t faced a real Division I opponent yet and the way he was able to take us down the field against an SEC defense, I knew he was the real deal. I knew he could make the plays that needed to be made. I was just looking forward to a good season after that and he definitely performed up to everyone’s expectations the whole year.” But with last year officially behind them, Kelly and his Sun Devil teammates have shifted their attention toward preparing for the upcoming season. Arizona State will play what is arguably one of the most difficult schedules in all of college football in 2013, beginning September 5 when they host Sacramento State, who is undefeated in its last three games against Pac-12 opponents.

The Sun Devils also will host Wisconsin and USC, and will travel to play Stanford and Notre Dame in the season’s first five weeks, providing Kelly and ASU an opportunity to make a name for themselves early in the year. “It gets us fired up and keeps us focused on our goal,” Kelly said. “We get the Pac-12 champion, the Big 10 champion, and a team who played for the national championship last year. Not to mention USC, who always has a great team, and Sacramento State. We just have to take it one game at a time.” Appropriately, the Sun Devil team motto for 2013 is “Any Challenge,” which is prominently displayed throughout the football offices on signs and shirts worn by players and coaches. Graham has also mandated that each player read New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin’s book “Earn the Right to Win” before the start of fall camp. A winning record is no longer the goal in Tempe. That’s already been accomplished. Instead, the Sun Devils have their eyes set on a division title and a conference championship.

With renewed focus and higher expectations, Kelly and his teammates began their offseason workouts with the vigor and poise of a team with its sights set on winning a BCS bowl game. “The spring went really well and guys really competed,” remarked Kelly. “A lot of the guys were coaching each other instead of just having the coaches coach us. For all of us to understand what we want to accomplish this year and enforce that, I think that’s huge. It’s crazy how our team has come together as just one unit, offensively and defensively.” Of course, it’s that Arizona State defense that has been providing the biggest challenge for Kelly throughout the offseason. The Sun Devils, who finished second nationally in sacks and tackles for loss in 2012, are anchored by returning All-American Will Sutton and Carl Bradford, an explosive hybrid linebacker who stormed onto the scene last season and, coincidentally, is Kelly’s roommate. “It makes our offense so much better,” said Kelly on facing one of the premiere defensive units in the nation.

“I’d rather go against the best defense every single day than just some mediocre defense. To have them push us and get the best looks that we possibly can, from blitzes to coverages and disguises, they do a great job.” “And having to block Will Sutton and Carl Bradford helps our offensive line,” he continued. “You won’t see a better sack duo in the league than those two. Coach Graham is always calling for blitzes from just about everywhere, so it really gives us a chance to see and experience everything.” The pistol formation has been added to the ASU offense to help counter the aggressive Sun Devil defense, a scheme suited to match Kelly’s talents. Coming out of Eagle High School in Idaho, Kelly was heavily recruited by the University of Nevada — a team known for its pistol offense — to be the heir apparent to current San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kapernick, who Kelly says he models his game after. “It’s a great formation to disguise where you’re going with the football,” commented Kelly. “It’s hard for defenses because the running back lines up right behind me and can go either way with it. By using the pistol, it’s going to help us out tremendously and be hard for defenses to scheme for us now.” Of course, another quarterback that Kelly watched and idolized growing up was fellow Idaho native and former Sun Devil great, Jake “The Snake” Plummer. At the end of spring camp in April, Plummer visited the team and met with Kelly individually to discuss his development as a player and the importance of being a leader for his Sun Devil team. “I watched him growing up, mostly as a player for the Denver Broncos, so to have him come back here and to talk to him was incredible,” Kelly said. ”

We spent three hours just talking about life, football, and the opportunities that he had. He told me to keep working, continue to grow, and just be the best that I can.” “I feel comfortable with it,” added Kelly on becoming the team’s leader for 2013 and the future. “I experienced it a lot last year, along with Cameron Marshall, as someone the guys looked up to. Cam was kind of quiet, but a great person and a great leader. I learned a lot of things from him and also when I was backing up Brock Osweiler, just watching his leadership.” “I think his ability to keep his composure in critical situations is his biggest asset,” mentioned Coyle on Kelly’s leadership. “Taylor’s sort of a quiet guy, but he’s confident in his ability and confident in his teammates.

” In one year as the starting quarterback, Kelly helped turn around a Sun Devil program that had spent the last five years floundering in anonymity. Now it has a new identity and some new goals. With another strong season, 2013 can be a stepping stone for future success for both Kelly and the Sun Devils. While the task may be daunting, don’t expect Kelly to shy away from the challenge. He’s already hard at work. “I know I’ve got to work even harder now,” he said. “The summer goes by so fast, so I can’t take any breaks. I’m in here every day watching film and trying to get everyone back before we officially start so we can get those extra reps in together. There aren’t any days off because the things that we can do this year, it’s crazy and the sky’s the limit for us.”