Five words perhaps best describe Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly.
Speed defines the Sun Devils’ redshirt senior. He has a love of automobile racing–though head coach Todd Graham encouraged Kelly to turn his attention from the track to the football field.
“He said, Coach, I thought you were a fan of racing. I said, ‘Yeah, you can race if you want to. You’re just not going to be our starting quarterback,'” Graham said at Pac-12 media days.
Two years after winning the starting job in a three-man race that also included Michael Eubank and Mike Bercovici, it’s abundantly clear Taylor Kelly made the right choice. He enters his third season as the driving force of the Sun Devils offense. He’s a legitimate contender for the Heisman Trophy and captain of the defending Pac-12 South champions.
And, despite hanging up his racing helmet for the time being, Kelly’s need for speed is still being met through offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s offense.
Arizona State ran 1,102 plays in 2013; third most in the nation. The Sun Devils put up 39.7 points per game and broke the 50-point barrier five times, including a run of three straight with at least 53 during Pac-12 play.
Kelly’s dual-threat playmaking ability was Arizona State’s engine. He passed for 3,635 yards and 28 touchdowns, while rushing for another 608 with nine scores.
Topping that kind of production is a tall task for Taylor Kelly and his Sun Devil teammates, but Graham is setting the bar for this year’s team high. He called it, “the best offensive football team I’ve ever coached.”
That’s a bold statement given some of the offenses Graham’s seen in his time.
Graham’s worked extensively with offensive genius and current Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, as well as Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris. In 2010, Morris was offensive coordinator of Graham’s Tulsa team’s offense.
The Golden Hurricane put up 41.4 points per game that season behind their own dual-threat quarterback, G.J. Kinne. Kinne was the team’s leading passer and rusher.
That’s not a benchmark Taylor Kelly has to meet for Arizona State to improve its offensive output in 2014. Kelly can rely on junior running D.J. Foster to shoulder a considerable portion of the ball-carrying duties.
“He’s looking great,” Kelly said of Foster. “He’s put on some weight and he’s faster than he’s ever been.
“We’ll have a lot more explosive plays this year,” he added, crediting Foster.
A proven weapon in the aerial attack, Foster’s explosiveness as a receiver out of the backfield should help bolster Kelly’s already impressive passing numbers. Opposing defenses must prep for that threat on the periphery, while also dealing with the big-play threat of wide receiver Jaelen Strong.
Strong was a breakout star in his debut season with the Sun Devils, hauling in 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns. Another year in the program has helped Strong and Kelly develop a chemistry that should result in even more production this season.
“It’s awesome,” Kelly said. “We’re spending a lot more time off the field, whether it’s on barbecues or going to lunch together, watching film together. He’s starting to understand how to train, run routes and watch film.”
Film study is an element of the team’s offseason regimen Kelly strongly emphasized, and studying in general is a theme on which Graham has molded the Arizona State program.
“We have 70 players out of 110 that are operating at 3.0 [grade point average] or higher,” Graham said, adding another superlative to the already lofty praise he heaped on the 2014 Sun Devils: “This is the smartest team I’ve had.”
As he is on the field, Taylor Kelly is a driving force behind Arizona State’s classroom success. He’s a 4.0 student and has finished his undergraduate degree in business.
Kelly attributes the team’s collective success in their studies to improvements made on game days.
“In football, you have to know the different coverages and blitzes,” Kelly said. “When you manage yourself in the classroom, it shows on the field.”
If that’s the case, Graham’s projection of the Arizona State offense should come to fruition. And that means Taylor Kelly will be pushing down on the gas pedal of Graham and Norvell’s high-octane system more than ever before.
After riding it to a divisional title and appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game a season ago, the projected destination behind Kelly and that offense in 2014 is simple: Rose Bowl or bust.
“Our program’s about winning championships, period,” Graham said. “We’re one game shy last year, and we don’t [just] want to be Pac-12 South Champions. We want to be Pac-12 champions, Rose Bowl
champions, and obviously, win every game.”
Graham said Arizona State’s “motto this year is unfinished business.”
So long as Taylor Kelly is going fast, the Sun Devils will be on course to their own checkered flag.