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ASU Football: Is Taylor Kelly a High Octane Choice or Just Low Risk?

Taylor Kelly, ASU's current starting quarterback (Photo: ASU)
Taylor Kelly, ASU's current starting quarterback (Photo: ASU)

Taylor Kelly: starting quarterback for the Arizona State Sun Devils.

Back when the team's fall camp opened, if you thought that phrase would hold true for the team's season opener, you were either a) lying b) a friend or relative of Kelly c) squandering your ESP on ASU football instead of cleaning up in Vegas or d) Cory Williams.

With Mike Bercovici being "a little bit ahead" of the group and Michael Eubank possessing his freakish talent and status as a former Todd Graham recruiting target, Kelly was running a very clear third among the trio in early August, a fact Graham admitted on Monday.

Fast forward three weeks, and that darkhorse will soon become the Sun Devils' fifth starting quarterback over the last five season openers.

How did he do it? By following the Graham's "One Simple Rule to Quarterback My ASU Sun Devils".

"The quarterback that will play will be the one that takes care of the football," said Graham at ASU Media Day. "We have one mission: own the football."

And own it Kelly did. As a result, he now own's the starting job for the season opener against NAU on August 30th.

"He came in the first four days of camp and jumped out there," Graham said of Kelly. "He was playing at a different level and then moved up in a hurry. He has just stayed there. He never has moved backwards and the other players came charging forward towards the end."

Now with the question of "Who?" answered, the real issue becomes: "For how long?".

Here are the facts of the situation as we know them:

  • Graham has said that Kelly will start the opener, with Eubank seeing some snaps.
  • Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell recruited Eubank heavily while each was at Pitt.
  • Throughout the spring and summer, Graham has said that he can't envision a scenario in which Eubank doesn't factor into the offense
  • Graham also said, "This is just the beginning, and it will be a process. We'll see where we end up." That's pretty close to the cliched "vote of confidence".

Taken together, that doesn't paint a picture of a quarterback with much job security, a fact not lost on the media. It seems that most every article about the news has the phrase "for now" attached (including my own), and there are legitimate reasons for such a sentiment.

From the moment he stepped on campus, Graham has preached that everything about the team will be "high octane", led by an offense designed to run 80 or more plays per game.The offensive focus will be on a strong running game, including designed quarterback runs. The passing game will be more vertical than in recent years, and built around strikes downfield.

Right now, there's a strong perception that Kelly is a "game manager" rather than play maker; the type of quarterback that teams don't ask to go out and win a game, but merely just not to lose it for them. Hand the ball off, make a key throw or two, rely on your defense and DON'T turn the ball over. There's nothing necessarily wrong with such a player, and teams have succeeded with one (i.e. Trent Dilfer with Baltimore in 2000).

However, that approach is not sustainable. That's not how to win in today's pass-first game.

That's not high octane.

2012 ASU Season Preview

These days, what a quarterback can do is more important that what he won't do. Teams need a quarterback who can consistently deliver game-changing plays, whether it's with his passing or his running ability. Playing it safe may get you a few wins and a Maaco Bowl berth, but it's not taking you to Pasadena in this day and age.

During his eight months in Tempe, Graham has repeatedly proven he is not a cutting corners-type of coach. Fortune favors the bold and Graham is going for billionaire status. That makes a "safe pick" like this somewhat concerning.

Yes, his stated goal is to win now, as well as build for the future. But while playing it "safe" may get a better record in the short-term, it likely isn't going to get the program to where the players, coaches and fans so desperately want it to go.

That would then seem to indicate that the low-risk Kelly may ultimately be just keeping the job warm for Eubank.

The 6-foot-5, 242-pound Eubank is tailor made for Norvell's spread offense. His dynamic running ability fits what the team would like to do, and his powerful arm is perfect for making those necessary throws downfield. Those skills made him arguably the fan's pick in the competition, as well as a spot on CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman's list of Top 10 Most Intriguing Redshirt Freshman. His incredible physical talent gives him by far the highest ceiling among the group, and his four years of eligibility allow him to be the long-term solution the team has lacked since Rudy Carpenter.

But while Graham seems to be wanting to hand the team over to him, Eubank does not yet appear to be ready. His passing skills have improved greatly over the offseason, but they skill lack consistency. He also has a tendency, as many young and mobile quarterbacks do, to give up on a play too quickly and resort to scrambling. That mix of huge potential and inexperience make Eubank a classic "boom or bust" type of player. Therefore, easing him onto the NCAA stage as a part of the two-quarterback system while gradually increasing his role may be a sound strategy.

Yet there's one potential problem with that.

Taylor Kelly.

It's true his physical skills pale in comparison to his teammates. At 6-foot-1, 203 pounds, he doesn't have the ideal quarterbacking stature. While a good runner, he's not a ball carrying threat like Eubank. While he's improved his passing—especially vertically—he's not nearly as polished in the pocket as Bercovici.

Yet here Kelly is, doing exactly what the coaches have asked of him, and it's taken him from an afterthought to the spotlight. Plenty of quarterbacks have had successful careers becoming greater than the sum of their parts. Remember another lanky Idahoan turned Sun Devil quarterback from the mid-1990s? Hey, anything is possible—if at best improbable.

Few gave Kelly a chance to win this competition, but he did. Now, not many are thinking he'll have the job for long. He may turn out to be a surprise, win games and keep Eubank relegated to the margins. Or he may in fact be just a game-managing, low-ceiling type who bridges the gap between Brock Osweiler and the next star Sun Devil quarterback.

Obviously, only time and the early part of the 2012 schedule will tell whether tabbing Kelly as the starter was a high octane stroke of genius or a low risk and low reward hold-me-over move. Until that result becomes clear, their will be ceaseless speculation, opinions, analysis and counter-analysis. Every dropback, scramble, incompletion and read will be fair game.

So while ASU now has a starter, it also still has a quarterback competition. Stay tuned.

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