TEMPE, Ariz. — When Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly saw a photo last year of Johnny Manziel’s Heisman Trophy on display at Texas A&M, it was like a light bulb went on in his head.
"I was thinking ‘Man, that would be sweet to have my name right there on the wall with the Heisman Trophy and be the first one in school history,’" Kelly recalled.
Kelly hadn’t previously given much serious thought to winning college football’s highest individual award — no more than so many young boys do, anyway — but after seeing that photo and having coach Todd Graham suggest to Kelly he could be ASU’s first Heisman winner, the idea took hold.
"He said ‘That’s kind of a lofty goal,’" Graham said. "Well why not? Why would we not have that goal? And how you do that is get those other 10 guys to play at a Heisman Trophy level."
Approaching his senior season, Kelly has embraced those sky-high expectations, making them his motivation to best his previous two campaigns as the Sun Devils’ starter.
While Kelly puts ASU’s success before his own recognition, he’ll face stiff competition for a spot in New York, where ASU was last represented in 1996 by third-place finisher Jake Plummer, who, like Kelly, was a quarterback from Idaho.
Within the Pac-12 alone, Kelly would probably be pegged as no better than the third most-likely Heisman contender. Oregon returns Marcus Mariota, the favorite to win the award most of last season, while UCLA returns Brett Hundley and has launched a Heisman campaign on his behalf.
That’s before getting outside the conference, where incumbent Heisman winner Jameis Winston returns for Florida State, Bryce Petty for Baylor and Braxton Miller for Ohio State. And that’s before getting to running backs, receivers and other positions.
Kelly got to meet one those competitors and a past winner in San Diego recently while working with quarterback coach George Whitfield. Also attending Whitfield’s camp were Manziel and Petty along with Virginia’s David Watford and North Carolina’s Marquise Williams.
"I like to see those guys and how they work so I can compare myself to them," Kelly said.
Amassing Trophy-worthy numbers shouldn’t be a problem for Kelly considering ASU’s high-powered offense — his 2013 touchdowns, yards and completion percentage compare favorably with Mariota and Hundley (less so with Winston and Petty) — but he has one lingering issue. Kelly’s 12 interceptions in 2013 are more than the above-mentioned passers.
"Some of those were situational things, but he needs to make sure we’re taking care of the football," said ASU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Norvell. "This offense is going to provide him with the opportunity to have great numbers if he’s doing his job."
More than putting together stellar statistics, Kelly knows he’ll have to lead ASU to one of its best seasons ever. Kelly said he’d likely need to guide the Sun Devils to an 11-1 or 12-0 finish, which would be asking a lot of a team that just lost 13 starters to graduation and the NFL.
"I need to get all 10 other guys around me better each and every day," Kelly said. "It’s a team. If you’ve got a good team behind you and you’re putting up the numbers, they won’t miss you."
Where some college quarterbacks might shy away from Heisman or All-American expectations, Kelly welcomes the challenge. He compares them to wearing a wristwatch: You notice a watch on your wrist at first but soon become immune to it. Then when it’s taken off, something is missing.
In that sense, Kelly wants the expectations and puts them on himself.
"He handles it well because he believes it," Norvell said. "Everybody in the country can talk about wanting to win (the Heisman). Everybody in the country can talk about wanting to be the best, but it really drives him to practice that way, to work that way, to study that way.
"I’ll never shortchange him because the way he works and the attitude and approach he brings to practice every day, he wants to be the best."
Kelly’s Heisman candidacy figures to be met with skepticism outside Tempe, particularly with the consensus seeming to be that ASU is due for a bit of a backslide with so much talent to replace.
Some early lists suggest Kelly is just outside of the top tier, while others don’t mention him at all. But on campus, Kelly has the expectations he wants and is he’s using them as fuel on his fire.
"I like those big expectations," Kelly said. "They push me to be great."