- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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The question concerns Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly: What's next for him after a strong starting debut as a sophomore? Both head coach Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell make the same observation in separate interviews.
"In the eight games we won last year, Taylor didn't throw any interceptions," Graham said.
"And in the five games we lost," Norvell said, "he threw at least one."
It's an interesting factoid -- all nine interceptions in five losses -- one you can imagine has been brought up to Kelly by both a few times. You also could read too much into it. Other than his first-ever road start against a mediocre-to-bad Missouri team, those losses came against good teams.
But it also aligns with what Kelly needs to do this fall to take the proverbial next step: Take charge and be consistently excellent so Arizona State becomes better than those other good teams.
Graham calls it mastering the offense. Kelly knows it's about stepping up at critical moments.
"When things hit the fan, that's when I've got to play my best," Kelly said. "When things would start to hit the fan last year, I would kind of panic and start forcing things. Or if we were down, I'd feel I had to make a play. After watching film, I realize I need to take the easy route and take what the defense gives me."
Be smart. Command the huddle. Distribute the ball to the playmakers. Step up and deliver in big moments. That's what veteran quarterbacks do, and that's what will get Kelly and the Sun Devils to the Pac-12 title game with a shot at the Rose Bowl.
It's reasonable to project. Kelly blew away preseason expectations last year, eclipsing 3,000 yards passing while ranking second in the Pac-12 and ninth in the nation in passing efficiency. He threw 29 touchdown passes and rushed for 516 yards and a score. Even incremental improvement should make him an all-conference candidate, though the same can be said for a number of outstanding Pac-12 quarterbacks.
It's strange to recall that a year ago the idea of such a projection would have seemed ridiculous. Kelly finished 2012 spring practice third in the Sun Devils quarterback competition behind Mike Bercovici and Michael Eubank. More than that, there was some talk of reducing his reps and making it a two-man race heading into fall camp.
"We came this close to making it a two-man race because of my belief that it's hard to rep three guys," Graham said. "That would have eliminated Taylor Kelly. I'll be honest. He was third team coming out of spring, and that was where he should have been. He improved that much over the summer."
The same can be said for the 2012 season. Kelly showed resilience by bouncing back after bad games. The poor showing at Missouri? He threw 11 touchdown passes in the next three games with no picks. A four-game losing streak killing the momentum of a previously promising season? Kelly threw eight touchdown passes with no picks as the Sun Devils finished with three consecutive victories, including a comeback victory in the Territorial Cup.
"I think he got better every single game," Graham said. "There is no substitute for experience. What gives me the most confidence in this team is we have a quarterback who I completely trust, who has all the intangibles it takes to be a great quarterback and a great leader."
There is a question, and it affects Kelly directly: Receiver.
Said Kelly, "It's been a work in progress."
It's an issue whose solution lies in the unknown: Arizona State needs at least two, perhaps three, incoming receivers to show up ready to play immediately. The Sun Devils signed five receivers, topped by the touted Jaelen Strong (Said Graham, "As dynamic a receiver as I've seen on film."), and they will be immediately thrown into the rotation.
While Graham also frets about special teams, the Sun Devils' potential advance to a 10-win sort of team depends on giving Kelly some A-list targets who will keep an opposing defense honest.
Further, there won't be much of a preseason, getting-to-know-you process. Games 2-4 go: Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in Cowboys Stadium.
Yet this team is fully capable of handling a front-loaded schedule and climbing the national rankings. And that feeling starts with Kelly.
"He commands our team. He's a guy with all the intangibles, a guy we completely trust," Graham said. "We have a quarterback who is a championship-level quarterback. That gives you a chance."