Todd Graham has coached many players in his football career. From his days at Tulsa, West Virginia and Pittsburgh, Graham has had the opportunity to coach many elite collegiate athletes. In his first two years in Tempe, Graham watched two senior classes help lead the Sun Devils back to national relevance.
This Saturday, Graham ushered his third senior class through their final game at Sun Devil Stadium, and improved to 3-0 in his three senior day games as Arizona State's head coach with a 52-31 win over Washington State.
But make no mistake, this senior day was different for Graham. Because on Saturday, it was Graham's quarterback who made his final impression on Tempe. Saturday was Taylor Kelly's day.
"All these seniors, I love them, I'm so grateful to coach them, but in particular I want to thank him," Graham said. "What he's meant, no one that's outside this program knows what this young man's meant to our program. Just from a character standpoint, how he leads. There's not a player on our team he doesn't interact with. That is strange, that is not normal."
Kelly wasn't supposed to be this position. A two-star recruit out of high school, Kelly sat at third-string on the 2012 spring camp depth chart in Graham's first season as Arizona State's coach, but he beat out both Michael Eubank and Mike Bercovici (who will be taking over for Kelly next season) for the starting gig. Since then, Kelly has won 25 games as quarterback of the Sun Devils, being the catalyst and leader in Arizona State's resurgence as a program.
"It's been my honor and privilege to get the opportunity to work with these young men, and when I came in here they had a choice," Graham said. "When I stood up in front of them, the talk that I gave them. I gave them a choice, and they really bought in. Without Taylor, we wouldn't be where we're at. Taylor Kelly is the best leader we've had since I've been here and the best leader I've ever coached, and Jamil Douglas is the second-best leader I've ever coached."
Even after completing his ascension from obscurity to quarterback of a top-25 program, Kelly experienced new adversity this season, fracturing his foot Sept. 13 against Colorado. Kelly missed the next three games, while Bercovici came in and beat Pac-12 powers USC and Stanford. Kelly returned against Washington, but struggled to re-acclimate himself and had one of his worst games as quarterback of the Sun Devils in last Saturday's loss at Oregon State. Calls for Bercovici to replace Kelly as full-time starter were shouted from a multitude of fans, and Kelly was even booed Saturday as Arizona State's offense got out to a stagnant start.
But the senior bounced back, completing eight of his ten passes in the second half, and earned himself a standing ovation.
On Kelly's adversity over the past couple of weeks, Graham ensured that he was well aware of his mistakes.
"No one's harder on him than him," Graham said. "It has been a struggle. It hasn't been just get back on the bike and it'll be like it was before. But you know what, we're sitting here with nine wins.
"I was proud of his performance today and proud of him bouncing back and having a great senior day. He can't have the heart he has and have it not bother him."
As for Kelly himself, the senior made no effort to hide his emotion, visibly crying before the game started. After the game, the quarterback was much more composed and expressed what the program has meant to him.
"Coming off the field was a thing I'll remember the rest of my life," Kelly said. "Seeing the clock hit zero, looking at the fans, my coaches, my teammates. Just seeing their faces, it's one of those memories I'll remember the rest of my life.
"I kinda lost it when I gave Coach Grizz (Strength and Conditioning coach Shawn Griswold) a hug and Coach Graham, and just all the hard work and relationships I've built with this team, how close we've become as a family."
Todd Graham and Taylor Kelly have been through a lot together, from the highs of the Pac-12 South title last year to the lows of last week's crushing loss in Corvallis, the two will be linked forever. Graham stayed staunch in his position to keep Kelly, and hitched his wagon to the senior captain. The two have more football to be played, with a chance at a third straight Territorial Cup win next week at Arizona and the possibility of a return trip to the Pac-12 Championship, the writing of Graham and Kelly's story is still ongoing.
But even with all the players he's coached and all the football left to be played, it was a struggle for Graham to put into words what his quarterback has meant to him.
"In my career, there's been one Taylor Kelly."
Through ups and downs, adversity and achievement, Taylor Kelly will always be Todd Graham's quarterback.