TEMPE, Ariz. — This time a year ago, Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly was battling just to maintain relevance, largely forgotten in favor of fellow signal callers Michael Eubank and Mike Bercovici.
This year, Kelly enjoys the luxury of incumbency. Firmly entrenched as the Sun Devils’ quarterback, he’s been able to work this spring on polishing the finer points of his approach.
No longer worried about trying to win a job, Kelly can focus on the things he must do to keep it and help elevate ASU to another level. And coach Todd Graham has said that while the quarterback position, like all others, remains a constant competition, Kelly is the starter.
“It’s going to be a competition, ain’t no question about that,” Graham said. “But it’s not like it was last spring. When a guy has earned it on the field the way he has, he’s got to be beat out.
“When we came out of spring, Taylor Kelly was the third-string quarterback. He came in the fall, he worked and developed himself, he was the best and he’s going to play.”
Bercovici and Eubank might put a little pressure on Kelly, particularly in the fall, but you wouldn’t know it from talking to the redshirt junior. Increasingly known for his even-keeled nature, Kelly has put the focus on his own improvement this spring. In particular, Kelly has emphasized footwork, defensive reads and interceptions.
The interceptions have been a particular focus, and Graham, a stickler for ball security, has let him know it.
“Coach Graham always brings up that we’re 8-0 when I don’t throw a pick,” Kelly said. “So if I just limit that and take what the defense gives me and protect the football, we’ll be in good shape.”
While one or two interceptions might have tipped a game the other way in 2012, it’s not accurate to say an interception-free performance from Kelly would have led to a win over Oregon or Southern California. And at least a few of Kelly’s nine interceptions simply were not his fault.
Kelly was often limited by ASU’s thin receiving corps and its questionable routes. Other times, defenders simply made outstanding plays. Yet still other times, Kelly admits he tried to force plays that were not there, leading to turnovers.
“Sometimes if we’re down, I want to make a play; that’s just the competitor in me forcing things,” Kelly said. “I can’t do that. I’ve got to take what the defense gives me and not get greedy.”
There’s even less certainty at wide receiver now with the graduation of Rashad Ross and Jamal Miles. Senior Kevin Ozier, redshirt senior Alonzo Agwuenu and sophomore Richard Smith return having played last season, but given the lack of production, some freshmen in the incoming class likely will have a chance to earn playing time.
Kelly passed for 3,039 yards and 29 touchdowns last season while finishing the year ranked ninth in the nation with a 159.88 passer efficiency rating. As impressive and unexpected as the performance was — Kelly was named the team’s offensive MVP and earned All-Pac-12 recognition — the coaches are seeking greater consistency from Kelly in 2013.
“He had some great games last year, some games where he was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country,” offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. “But (there were) about four or five games where maybe he didn’t play to the top of his ability. So it’s developing that consistency.”
If Kelly’s decision making improves and interception rate drops, it’s hard to imagine him not improving on his breakout 2013 season. He’s undoubtedly among the best returning Pac-12 quarterbacks, perhaps behind only Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and even with UCLA’s Brett Hundley. The question is whether he’ll have progressed enough to lead ASU to a Pac-12 South title and opportunity to play for a Rose Bowl berth.