Kelly getting prepared for 'last hurrah'
It's that spring break time of year, and college seniors across the country are enjoying a "last hurrah," so to speak. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly is no different.
Well, he's actually completely different.
Instead of hitting the beach with some buddies and making like Dionysus, he jetted on March 9 to San Diego to "work on my craft" with QB guru George Whitfield and several other college quarterbacks.
"I felt like it's my last hurrah, in the sense of my football senior year," Kelly said.
Also on hand in San Diego for a week of quarterback two-a-days were Baylor's Bryce Petty, North Carolina's Marquise Williams, Virginia's David Watford and Texas signee Jerrod Heard. Johnny Manziel and Logan Thomas were hanging around getting ready for their pro days and the NFL draft.
Busy, yes. But worth it, Kelly said.
"I learned a lot," he said.
Two springs ago -- and 57 touchdowns and 6,705 passing yards ago -- it would have been difficult to imagine Kelly being in such demand. He was the consensus pick to finish third behind Mike Bercovici and Michael Eubank in the Sun Devils QB competition to replace Brock Osweiler. Instead, he's a budding three-year starter, with Bercovici his big-armed backup. Eubank transferred to Samford after the 2013 season.
Kelly has played himself onto NFL radars and could improve his standing with a strong senior season. While few saw that coming in the spring of 2012, Kelly said his self-belief never wavered.
"With my competitive nature, I've always thought I could [play in the NFL]," he said. "I wanted to be that great quarterback, to lead a team to championships. That's who I've been my whole life. I never had any doubts in myself or my ability to be the starting quarterback three years ago."
Kelly is just the second Sun Devils quarterback to have thrown for more than 3,000 yards in consecutive seasons in school history. He set a school record for completion percentage (67.1 percent) and moved into the top five in seven school-record lists, including passing yards, passing yards per game, completions, attempts, total offense, yards per game and points responsible for.
Of course, if he wants to be remembered in Tempe like Jake Plummer, he's got to get the Sun Devils back to the Rose Bowl. Or the College Football Playoff.
Kelly said he's focused this spring on improving his efficiency and reducing interceptions and sacks. While he's put up big numbers as a dual threat, he also only ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency last year. He's thrown 21 interceptions in the past two years, including 12 in 2013. He's been sacked 79 times (ouch!). One of the surprising Pac-12 stats from 2013: The Sun Devils yielded a conference-worst 41 sacks (2.93 per game) -- five more than anyone else, though that was in 14 games -- despite having a mobile QB in Kelly and a good offensive line.
"Sometimes when I'd feel pressure, I'd release the pocket, and that's really hard on our offensive line," Kelly said.
Proving he can make plays under duress will answer a lot of NFL questions. It also would boost the Sun Devils' chances to repeat as South Division champions.
Another spring question for Arizona State is who Kelly will target. Receiver Jaelen Strong is back and likely will become an All-American candidate, but the next leading returning wideout is sophomore Cameron Smith, who caught just eight passes in 2013.
Kelly doesn't seem too worried, however. He named De'Marieya Nelson -- tight end Chris Coyle's 2013 backup -- touted juco transfer Eric Lauderdale, 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson and walk-on Fred Gammage as players who should step up this spring.
What is clear is that Kelly is the undisputed leader of the Sun Devils, a role that he's set to embrace despite a laid-back nature.
"I'm just going to be myself," he said. "If I need to speak up and say something, I feel a lot of the guys respect me enough that they are going to listen to what I say."
Arizona State is almost certain to fall behind UCLA in the Pac-12 South pecking order among preseason publications. Further, Kelly, not unlike Oregon State's Sean Mannion, falls in behind Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley in terms of Pac-12 and national quarterback Q-rating.
That doesn't figure to worry Kelly. He's been counted out before. It's pretty clear that he's not going to be outworked as he prepares for his last hurrah.