TEMPE, Ariz. — For any returning starting quarterbacks in college football, a new season always brings the same question: What’s the next step? That can be a difficult question to answer for some quarterbacks, especially in the Pac-12, the so-called ‘conference of quarterbacks.’
Arizona State’s answer for Taylor Kelly: Give him more control.
As Kelly enters his third season of starting, ASU wants him to take on more responsibility in its high-powered offense as he tries to top a season that landed him on the All-Pac-12 Second Team — ahead of the likes of Brett Hundley, Sean Mannion and Kevin Hogan.
"We don’t want him to be like last year," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "We want him to be the Pac-12 championship quarterback. Some of that requires us letting go of our control. Taylor Kelly needs to be the offensive coordinator of our offense on that field."
That doesn’t mean offensive coordinator Mike Norvell will have trouble keeping busy this year, his third in Tempe, as he’ll obviously still call the plays. It simply means he and Graham are putting more trust in Kelly to call the shots because he’s the one on the field staring down opposing defenses.
Specifically, ASU is giving Kelly options before the snap. He’s already shown a penchant for working on the fly after the snap, scrambling or finding a new target when a play goes awry, so now it’s about avoiding the need to do so.
"I kind of can sense when a bad play is about to happen — whether the defense has us and I don’t like it," Kelly said. "So Coach Norvell has given me the freedom to either check with him or he’s given me a couple calls to get out of it. It’s a great thing for our offense."
Norvell praises Kelly for what he calls an "unbelievable understanding of the offense." The hours of extra film study might have something to do with that. It also can’t hurt that Kelly studies other Pac-12 quarterbacks, pinpointing their weaknesses and trying to make them his own strengths.
Within the conference, Kelly sometimes gets forgotten, though certainly not by opposing coaches. But with Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and UCLA’s Hundley considered top Heisman Trophy contenders, Kelly often gets overlooked despite his All-Pac-12 Second Team placement last season.
Rather than discussing his own improvement, Kelly talks about how he can make the 10 players around him better. That means putting the offense as a whole in as many good situations as possible.
"I’ve actually tried to almost scale back a little bit of what we do and just be able to change the variations and how we present things, but let Taylor go out there and run the show, let Taylor go out and really go through his reads, be able to pick apart the defense and obviously not have to call the perfect play but give him multiple options," Norvell said.
Kelly is Norvell’s prized pupil at ASU. Kelly came to ASU under Dennis Erickson, but it was Norvell who developed Kelly from a third-string quarterback in spring of 2012 to a 3,000-yard passer in back-to-back seasons.
"I’m starting to think how Coach Norvell is thinking," Kelly said. "If we have a big play, I can almost guess what the next play is going to be for our tempo."
Some pundits consider Kelly a dark horse Heisman candidate, a tier below the true contenders. The knocks on Kelly have been his arm strength (which Norvell says is better than ever) and his efficiency — though he owns school records for completion percentage in a game (89.5 percent vs. Navy in 2012) and career (64.5), he has thrown 21 interceptions in two seasons as the starter.
Kelly should benefit this season from a wealth of weapons including top receiver Jaelen Strong, running back D.J. Foster and perhaps the best offensive line ASU has had in three seasons.
Graham and Norvell believe Kelly is better in every way this season. If they had any doubts they might not be so willing to let him get his hands on the reins of what could be the most potent offense in ASU’s history.
"You don’t do this with a quarterback that’s in their first year," Kelly said. "You’ve just got to build that trust, and I think I’ve built that trust with Coach Graham and Coach Norvell that I’m comfortable with the offense, I’m comfortable having a plate full of different plays and options to go to."