TEMPE, Ariz. — Much like his first two seasons at Arizona State, Taylor Kelly’s first two quarters against Missouri last week did little to inspire confidence.
The third-year sophomore started the game 1 for 8 passing for six yards, threw an interception that led to a touchdown and seemed rattled by a loud road atmosphere. Two quarters later, he had two head coaches singing his praises.
During his ascent to the starting quarterback job and first three games under center, Kelly has made believers out of fans, coaches and teammates who a month and a half ago considered him a distant third in a three-man quarterback competition.
“There’s no doubt he will be a star quarterback,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said after his team’s 24-20 road loss.
Added Missouri coach Gary Pinkel: “He made a couple of plays that most guys could never make.”
Graham admitted openly that Kelly was a long shot to win ASU’s starting quarterback job after spring practice. Entering fall camp, big-armed sophomore Mike Bercovici seemed the favorite. Undaunted, Kelly figured out exactly how to beat Bercovici and athletic redshirt freshman Michael Eubank for the job. He protected the ball and moved the chains.
Just like that, he’d convinced Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell.
“He’s just got that ‘it’ factor,” Graham said. “You can look him in the eye on game day and see it.”
Though it was made clear Eubank would play, too, Kelly had earned his coaches’ confidence. Next he had to prove he could perform when it counted.
In the first two weeks of the season, wins over Northern Arizona and Illinois, Kelly won over doubters with poise, sound decision making and a whole lot of scoring.
But it still seemed Kelly had a little more convincing to do, and he did it at Missouri.
After his rough start, Kelly completed 12 of 15 passes for 172 yards and a touchdown while also leading the team with 59 rushing yards. In rallying ASU back from a 24-7 deficit late in the third quarter, Kelly became the leader the Sun Devils needed amid adversity, putting the team on his back and coming within a yard of victory.
“After some of the stuff he had — he had a fumble, an interception — a lot of quarterbacks would pout, but he just kept his head high and kept running our offense,” junior receiver Kevin Ozier said. “He just said ‘We’re gonna win this,’ which we didn’t, but he led us like he should have as a quarterback.”
Kelly impressed most with his play extension, avoiding a sack or throwing the ball away and making something out of nothing. Graham said Monday he yelled at Kelly more than once to just throw the ball away, only to watch him revive the play.
Though Kelly’s last chance to win the game went for an interception, sealing a 24-20 loss, it was clear he’d erased any lingering doubt about his role on the offense, and he didn’t need a fiery pep talk to do it.
“This football team believes in him, and I believe in him,” Graham said. “He showed a lot of character. A lot of special things about him were revealed in that game.”
Kelly is not the vocal type. So what makes teammates believe in the quiet, understated kid from Idaho?
“It’s just kind of that aura that he has,” Norvell said. “His teammates look at him and they know. They know that he’s ready. He doesn’t get rattled. He’s not a kid that’s real up and down. He’s a kid that everybody wants to follow.”
Three games is a small sample by which to judge Kelly’s future as a quarterback. But so were a couple quarters of the Missouri game, and so were the four passes he threw in the previous two seasons.
Kelly certainly has a number of challenges remaining, like bouncing back from a three-turnover performance or making that final play that gives his team a win. To the latter point, Kelly might have had the opportunity last week if not for some curious play calling.
After Kelly drove ASU to Missouri’s 1-yard line, Eubank came on to try for the go-ahead touchdown. He was stopped on back-to-back plays trying to run the ball in, and it was later revealed one of those carries was supposed to go to running back Marion Grice. Kelly got one chance on fourth down but couldn’t connect with Ozier in the end zone.
Eubank’s presence after the successful drive led some to question the rotation of quarterbacks, but Graham and Norvell are unwavering.
“We have certain situations we practice all week,” Norvell said. “We got into that situation and we went with what our call was.
“After every game, win or lose, we go back and evaluate the things we did and what we could’ve done better. I’ve got a lot of faith in Mike Eubank, I’ve got a lot of faith in our offense.”
Graham also defended the system, even while Kelly continues to show what he’s capable of.
“Taylor Kelly is our quarterback,” Graham said. “We have a great deal of confidence in him. I have a great deal of confidence in Michael Eubank, and if we continue to play him, it will pay off for us big time because he is going to be a big-time player.”
Kelly has room to grow, too, but his early returns have produced higher expectations for himself and a team that most didn’t expect to go very far.
“I’m telling you we have a real quarterback, there’s no doubt in my mind,” Graham said. “That guy is a winner. How he conducts himself, how he carries himself, he’s a winner.”