TEMPE, Ariz. — It’s unfair to expect any college football player to be a transcendental figure for his program. There are too many variables that impact consistent success.
You need the right coach and staff. You need good recruiters. You need fertile recruiting grounds. You need plenty of prep talent to translate at the college level. You need an athletic director who is as much fundraiser as glad-hander and community builder. You need a supportive administration. And you need a lot of luck.
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But that laundry list of obstacles doesn’t stop redshirt junior Taylor Kelly from dreaming about making that sort of impact at Arizona State.
“It gives me chills just saying it, but yeah, I would love to help make that happen,” the Sun Devils quarterback said. “This program is definitely moving in the right direction, and they’re bringing in the right guys to make it happen. ASU’s future is going to be very bright in the next few years.”
Kelly can help accelerate the process on Saturday when ASU hosts Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game at Sun Devil Stadium. A win would send the Sun Devils to their first Rose Bowl (and first major bowl) since another Idaho product, Jake Plummer, led an undefeated ASU team to Pasadena to face Ohio State with a possible national championship on the line on Jan. 1, 1997.
“If he can beat Stanford and lead them to the Rose Bowl and win, this would just as big,” said Plummer, who spent time with Kelly during spring ball. “This could be the thing people remember about ASU years from now.”
Plummer’s team still holds that distinction for many Valley fans who are either too young or too new to remember Frank Kush’s teams or John Cooper’s 1986 team, which beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl. The criticism of Plummer’s coach, Bruce Snyder, is that he never capitalized on that brush with a national title to build a national power, instead slipping back into mediocrity.
It’s a fact that still frustrates Plummer, who admits he wanted to be the watershed player for ASU’s program.
“Of course that thought went through my head,” he said. “That is one of the big reasons I decided to go to ASU. That along with Coach Snyder telling me to my face that if I came to ASU, we would win a national title.
“I was sold: Win a title and hopefully start what would become a national power. I wanted to do well in my days and leave something to be remembered by.”
Kelly isn’t the type of player or person who demands that sort of iconic stature, but maybe that’s a condemnation of the college football culture rather than Kelly. He doesn’t sell autographs in the offseason. There were no ethical issues associated with his recruitment to ASU, no legal troubles before or since he arrived. And he doesn’t thump his chest to let everyone know he is the clock hand that keeps the Sun Devils’ intricate offense ticking.
“If you had a son, you’d be proud to have him act and be like Taylor Kelly,” ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. “I think you can see the confidence in him when he’s on the field, but he’s a humble kid who just goes about his business, keeps his head down and works hard.”
About the only thing that stands out about Kelly is how well-suited he is to Norvell’s zone-read offense, which Kelly says is remarkably similar to the one he ran in high school.
“I think of it as a fast break in basketball,” Kelly said. “That’s what my high school coach told me: ‘If the (defense) comes to you, you dish it. If not, you keep it.”
Entering Saturday’s game, Kelly is 15th in the nation in passing yards (3,337) and touchdown passes (27). But the attribute that stands out to Stanford coach David Shaw is Kelly’s mobility.
“Mobility is a game-changer for your offense,” said Shaw, who saw the potential for that element when he named Kevin Hogan his starting quarterback with five games remaining in the 2012 season. “If your quarterback can scramble for first downs, if you can have a ‘gun run game where the defense has to account for him as runner then also the play-action game and a movement game where he can get outside the pocket and do what he is naturally gifted to do, he becomes a guy that’s really, really hard to defend.”
That was a major element of Plummer’s game even though the scheme was different, and Plummer believes many of the comparisons to Kelly are warranted, from his Idaho pedigree and scrambling ability to the passion with which he plays on the field.
“He throws on the run as well if not better than I did at that stage of my career, and he’s a tough, fiery competitor who gets back up every time he gets hit when people expect him to stay down,” Plummer said. “The one difference I see is that he’s a little more even-keel than I was. I was a little too emotional, but that kid is as cool as a cucumber.”
Earlier in his career, Kelly exhibited a weakness that had defined ASU football: an inability to perform on the big stage. When ASU was routed at Stanford and then lost 37-34 to Notre Dame at Cowboys Stadium earlier this season, Kelly and the team heard those same criticisms. But a crucial win at UCLA to clinch the Pac-12 South and this seven-game winning streak appear to have put those criticisms to bed.
“I think any player has to grow into that ability, but you can see he’s confident, and when you add in the fact that he’s even-keeled, that really helps you perform in those settings,” Norvell said. “The stage isn’t too big for him. He plays his game and doesn’t get rattled. The key is don’t worry about what’s happening in the stands or adversity or what has gone wrong before. You just focus on that next play.”
Saturday’s game will be the next step — and the biggest stage to date — in the evolution of ASU’s unassuming QB. But Plummer shrugged off that hype when asked what advice he gave Kelly.
“I just told him, ‘Go out and play like an Idaho stud,'” Plummer said.