We've reached the end of our 12-week countdown of the dozen most important Sun Devil players for 2012, which means two things.
One, the season starts TOMORROW. Get your gold t-shirts and pitchforks ready.
Secondly, it's time for the most predictable entry on the list.
While we've had some surprises (at least based on the reader reactions) such as Brandon Magee down at No. 7, Carl Bradford in the top half and Cameron Marshall "only" No. 3, it's no surprise that the Sun Devil quarterback lands atop our list.
While this would be true of most teams around the country, in Arizona State's case, this comes with a bit of an asterisk. Yes, redshrit sophomore Taylor Kelly is the team's starting quarterback. However, he is not the team's only quarterback that will see significant playing time by design.
All offseason long, Todd Graham has hinted heavily that the team could run a two-quarterback system, a notion strengthened by his comments in recent months that he couldn't see a situation in which the hyper-talented Michael Eubank didn't play.
That possibility became a reality as soon as Kelly was named the starter, and this past Monday during his weekly press conference, Graham added a quantitative element to the equation.
"Hoping we can play 80 plus plays, I would see probably Taylor playing 50 and Mike playing about 30," said Graham.
Not exactly a situation in which anyone can lay claim to being "The Man"...at least right now.
Even as his improved play took him from third place in a three-quarterback race at the beginning of fall camp to the team's starter, there has been heavily speculation from both media and fans alike that Kelly was merely the "safe" option who would keep the seat warm for Eubank until the redshirt sophomore was ready for the job. Beyond Graham's just continued insistence that Eubank will see the field, that hypothesis was also built on Eubank's perceived fit into offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's scheme, and the fact that Eubank was a recruiting target of Graham and Norvell while each was at Pittsburgh.
Taken as a whole, that does seem to favor an eventual ascent by Eubank into the starting role. However, that entirely discounts the fact that Kelly could very well turn out to be a pretty darn good quarterback.
Kelly's not going to "wow" anyone with his physical skills, even though he is a decent running threat and has greatly improved his downfield passing. But where he does excel is in avoiding mistakes and making smart decisions. While he could be the safest option at this point, he has the potential to improve with game experience and become much more than a lame duck starter. While Kelly is continuing the ASU's run of a new starting quarterback in each of the past five seasons, should he continue to develop, he can also end that dubious streak.
Kelly or Eubank? Eubank or Kelly? Hey, how about Mike Bercovici? The best pure passer on ASU's roster was the presumed starter heading into fall camp, but fell to third after some struggles with turnovers. Should both Kelly and Eubank struggle during the Sun Devils' daunting early season schedule, it's very conceivable that Bercovici could get the call.
There is an old football cliche that says if a team has two (or three) quarterbacks, it really has none. When I talked to Eubank prior to fall camp about the possibility of a two-quarterback system, he made it clear that one is greater than two.
"It's very important to have a clear-cut quarterback," he said. "I ran a two-quarterback system in high school. It's definitely a rhythm you have to get in and get used to. Having two quarterbacks, you're not really able to get into a rhythm all that well. It can definitely cause some miscommunication and some bad reads, so I think having one clear-cut quarterback would definitely benefit the entire offense a lot more."
Cliches don't become cliches without a large degree of merit, and Eubank is right. The fact of the matter is that someone will need to emerge as "The Man" at quarterback for ASU to have any chance at a successful season. While the Sun Devil offense will lean heavily on the run, the days where a team can get by with a liability at quarterback are over. The sport has evolved to the point that a team's quarterback will be forced into many situations in which they will need to make plays, not merely avoid mistakes.
Right now, ASU doesn't have a clear idea of who that will be. Excellence on the practice field is certainly something to be praised, but eventually it will come down to who performs the best on Saturdays (or thrice on a Thursday...and one Friday).
Thankfully, the all-important process of finding that answer starts on Thursday at 7:35 p.m. PST. While it will not be without it's sharp peaks and valleys, it hopefully will eventually get ASU to the top of the mountain.