TEMPE, Ariz. — With college football season at the halfway mark, Arizona State ranks among the nation’s major surprises with a 5-1 record.
Everything seems to have fallen into place in Coach Todd Graham’s first half-season in Tempe, starting with sophomore Taylor Kelly, whose understated efficiency has made him perhaps the best quarterback no one’s talking about.
That all could change this week as Kelly and the Sun Devils take center stage on Thursday night, when they host second-ranked Oregon in front of a sold-out crowd and national television audience.
Kelly enters the game ranked third nationally in passing efficiency. Third is a fitting place for the sophomore from Eagle, Idaho, since that’s where he stood on ASU’s depth chart entering fall camp.
Once a virtual afterthought in a three-quarterback competition, Kelly won the starting job in fall camp and has emerged as one of the most productive quarterbacks in the Pac-12, if not all of college football.
“It’s kind of funny everybody talks about where he came from and the ‘third-string’ deal and all that stuff,” ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. “When we named Taylor the starter, that was something where I knew I could lay my head on the pillow at night and know that we’ve got a guy who can help us win football games.”
As confident as Norvell and Graham were in Kelly by the end of fall camp, they were just as close to writing him off only a month earlier. Heading into the preseason, sophomore Mike Bercovici and redshirt freshman Michael Eubank both had a leg up on Kelly in the competition for the starting job.
Graham admitted in a recent radio interview he came close to cutting Kelly from the contest before it even started to avoid splitting snaps three ways. He ultimately decided against that and saw quickly it would have been a mistake.
“Probably Day 3 or 4 of camp, he just took command of it,” Graham said. “He didn’t give us any choice other than to have confidence in him.”
Kelly did not win the job on elite athleticism or a big arm. He won the job in probably the least flashy way possible: Ball security and efficiency.
That was exactly what Norvell and Graham were looking for. They’d laid out the criteria publicly more than once, and Kelly did the most to fit it.
Now halfway through the season, he has a passing efficiency rating of 175.98, behind only Baylor’s Nick Florence and Heisman Trophy front-runner Geno Smith of West Virginia. No other Pac-12 quarterback cracks the top 20.
“Coming into camp, nobody really expected him to come out the way he did,” junior tight end Chris Coyle said. “He’s really gone above and beyond what everybody expected of him.”
Kelly has thrown just two interceptions, both in a Sept. 15 loss to Missouri, giving him five turnover-free games in six as a starter.
“I’ve got to be fully confident in me making the throw and (a receiver) catching it and converting it,” Kelly said. “If not, I’m going to take care of the football and just throw it away or go after that first down (on foot).”
Kelly’s other numbers don’t stack up quite as high on the national charts but still far exceed expectations for a quarterback who had never started a college game before this season. After tallying 308 yards and five touchdowns in a win over Colorado last week, Kelly has 1,600 yards and 14 touchdowns, both of which rank third in the Pac-12.
As much as ball security and efficiency have made Kelly an effective orchestrator of Graham’s high-powered offense, it is perhaps his ability to extend plays that has impressed the most. Kelly always seems aware of charging defenders, of how far he has to go for a first down and when his best option is to simply tuck and run. Kelly is ASU’s third leading rusher, with 210 yards.
“A lot of that is just natural,” Norvell said. “That’s just the type of playmaker he is, but it’s also situations we talk about. We try to have that clock in his mind of the rhythm of what we do offensively.”
Added Coyle: “We know that a play is never really dead until the whistle is blown because he has that ability to get out and juke guys to get downfield or throw a pass downfield.”
After the loss to Missouri, Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said Kelly was making plays “most guys could never make.”
“(Coaches) tell us to just take what the defense gives you,” Kelly said. “That’s managing the game and not forcing a big play just to make a big play happen — just be confident in what your decision is.”
Just as important as any statistic, though, and perhaps more has been the confidence Kelly has inspired in teammates. Within a few games, Kelly had everyone around him believing he could lead the Sun Devils in any situation.
“That’s something you have to have in a quarterback,” Norvell said. “If you have a good quarterback, he better inspire his teammates. We talk to the quarterbacks all the time, telling them ‘You’ve got to be one guy that makes 21 people better.’ That’s something I think Taylor does.”
“We all believe in him,” junior receiver Kevin Ozier said. “Me personally, I love Taylor Kelly. He’s my quarterback.”
Added Coyle, who leads the team in receiving yards: “If it had been a little rocky at the start, if he was a little wishy-washy, it would have taken a little longer. But since he was able to come out and do the same thing every single day, I think everybody was able to buy in pretty quickly.”
Kelly said his teammates’ confidence means a lot to him, and he knows they look to how he reacts when the Sun Devils face adversity. That belief is particularly important this week against Oregon.
It will be Kelly’s first time on such a grand stage, with most of the college football world watching. The game could bring Kelly back to earth a bit, as ASU has yet to face a truly elite team, or it could vault him into the national conversation, particularly if ASU pulls off an upset.
“It’s going to be a huge game for him,” Coyle said. “Personally, I think Taylor will continue to go out there and do what he’s done in the past. He’s just got to make sure he doesn’t let the Oregon factor — just them being the No. 2 team in the nation — get to his head. He’s just got to play his game.”
Graham believes Kelly is already playing at a very high level but can still be better. For the Sun Devils, Thursday night would be the ideal setting for taking the next step.