Arizona State head coach Todd Graham elicited some chuckles from the reporters gathered at Sony Studios for last July's Pac-12 media day, when he quipped that quarterback Taylor Kelly's offseason drag racing "bothers [him] a lot."
Graham must be happy Kelly's no longer behind the wheel of a race car, instead focused on stepping on the gas of one of the nation's most explosive offenses.
Kelly is operating on the football field at a breakneck pace suited to the track. Arizona State scored no fewer than 53 points in its last four conference games, most recently hanging 55 on Washington State. He scored seven total touchdowns in the win to garner Pac-12 Player of the Week recognition.
"I can’t say enough good things about him," said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference call. His Utes are the next defense tasked with slowing the Sun Devils 46.6-point per game offense, of which Whittingham said Kelly is "really the catalyst of what they're doing."
Much as the daredevil auto driver needs composure in the driver's seat, so too does the quarterback of a championship offense. And that quality—composure amid the chaos—is what Graham said has made Kelly so successful in 2013.
"The biggest thing now [compared to last year] is he's matured," Graham said. "As he's matured, he has a grasp on the offense...that's like having an offensive coordinator on the field."
Graham attributes Kelly's growth since last season, when Kelly split quarterbacking duties with teammate Michael Eubank, to the rapport he's been able to build throughout the locker room.
"He's a tremendous listener and giver of respect," Graham said.
While Kelly was the primary quarterback in 2012, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell used Eubank in short yardage, goal-line and other rushing situations. That's another modification Kelly's made to his game, as he's proven he has the wheels to be effective in such scenarios.
"He takes what the defense gives him and established himself as a runner," Graham said.
That's particularly the case in conference, where Kelly is averaging 52.2 rushing yards per game. In the Sun Devils' four wins, that output improves to 66.3 per game. He's also scored all five of his rushing touchdowns in Arizona State's last three outings, all wins.
Kelly hasn't received the same level of attention as other Pac-12 quarterbacks, whether it be Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley or Oregon State's Sean Mannion. Even now, with the Sun Devils rolling off points at a pace not far behind Oregon or Baylor, Kelly's shared the spotlight with national touchdown leader and running back Marion Grice.
Grice has 18 touchdowns on the year, which translates to 13.5 points per game—an average that would have made him the third highest scorer on Herb Sendek's Sun Devil basketball team a season ago.
The success of Grice has benefited Kelly, and vice versa. The two make for one of the most formidable backfield combinations in the nation.
Of course, a powerful engine needs more than two cylinders, and Kelly is helping the Arizona State offense to fire on much more. He's thrown to six targets for at least 13 receptions on the year, led by Jaelen Strong with 49.
Strong is among the conference's top receivers, but he's hardly alone in the Sun Devils' attack. Kelly also makes effective use out of running backs Grice and D.J. Foster in the passing game, as well as tight end Chris Coyle. The diversity is one of the driving force's behind the Sun Devils offensive explosion.
And with Kelly firmly in the driver's seat, it could be enough to power Arizona State to Pasadena come January.
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