TEMPE, Ariz. — Michael Eubank was asked Monday how it felt to lose the battle for Arizona State’s starting quarterback spot.
“The quarterback competition is not ended just yet,” Eubank cautioned. “I take everything as motivation.”
Buckle up, Sun Devils fans. It’s going to be a chaotic football season.
While coach Todd Graham ended the immediate suspense by naming Taylor Kelly his starter (while guaranteeing Eubank weekly snaps), the quarterback position will reside in a constant state of evolution because Graham insists it’s that close.
“This is just the beginning, and it will be a process,” Graham said. “We’ll see where we end up.”
It will only take a couple weeks to find out whether the battle is that close because nobody stepped up or because everyone did. The Sun Devils open the season Aug. 30 against Northern Arizona. After that come two significant tests, first against Illinois and next on the road at Missouri.
“You have to put your faith in someone and go,” Graham said.
That someone is Kelly. Whether that lasts remains to be seen, but it’s a remarkable turn for a kid who Graham considered a distant third in the race following spring ball.
Kelly has been in that situation before. Maybe it helped him.
At the start of the 2011 season, then-coach Dennis Erickson expressed immense confidence in Kelly’s ability to take over for Brock Osweiler, if needed. By the midpoint of the season, Kelly was a dusty, forgotten knickknack on the upper shelf of a cabinet while Mike Bercovici was wowing people with his bazooka arm.
“You have adversity in life,” Kelly said. “I just took that and started working hard from there.”
But how did the least sexy of Arizona State’s three choices get from that cold outpost to this place in a span of three months? Three things worked in Kelly’s favor. First, Graham says, he doesn’t “put the ball in jeopardy.” Second, he can extend plays because he runs far better than Bercovici, the one-time favorite. Third, he has a little more experience than Eubank.
Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has also seen progress in Kelly’s biggest problem areas.
“The improvement he’s had in the vertical passing game has been unbelievable,” Norvell said. “We challenged Taylor after spring ball with some things he had to get better at. He answered the call.”
Again, we’ll know soon if that’s coaching hyperbole or fact when the Sun Devils hit the field. Norvell admits he hasn’t seen any of his three quarterbacks in a game situation. Few have. You never know what will happen when the lights come on and the decibels rise.
“With any new quarterback, there’s going to be a concern with experience,” Norvell said. “They’ve got to go out there and take the things they’ve done in practice and scrimmage situations and take it to game time when the lights come on.”
The cynic might argue that Graham’s staff didn’t want to throw Eubank into that same fire because he is the program’s future, so they wanted to bring him along more slowly.
But Eubank has his own issues.
“They told me I need to progress more with my progressions and my timing, not being so hesitant to run,” he said. “If my first two reads aren’t there, take off.”
So Eubank’s role will change as his game progresses.
“If that’s how it has to be, that’s how it will be,” he said. “I’ll just work harder each and every day.”
With that in mind, maybe Graham just realized the clock was ticking. He couldn’t yet turn to his one-time Pitt recruit, so he had to make another choice. Kelly was the safest one.
“We have to have some stability there,” Graham said. “I hate that it’s taken us this long.”
Kelly seemed to sense the transitory nature of his job after Graham called him into his office on Monday and told him that he’d be the guy. He did call his mom to deliver the news. He deserved that much after the roller-coaster ride he’s endured the past 12 months. But when asked if he planned to celebrate, Kelly gave an answer that would make his head coach smile.