LOS ANGELES -- Taylor Kelly thought Todd Graham was a racing fan. And while it’s true that Arizona State’s coach did love watching the sprint cars race around the Devil’s Bowl Speedway while growing up in Mesquite, Texas, he did not relish watching his starting quarterback roar down a quarter-mile drag strip in Kelly’s hometown of Eagle, Idaho.
After Graham saw the Pac-12 Network’s video of Kelly’s racing exploits during the 2013 offseason, the coach gave Kelly a choice. He could floor it on the track in his BMW M3 with a Toyota Supra motor, or he could depress the pedal on the Sun Devils’ hurry-up offense. “I called him,” Graham said on Thursday at Pac-12 media days. “He said, ‘Coach, I thought you were a fan of racing.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you can race if you want to. You’re just not going to be our starting quarterback. It’s no big deal.”
We know which option Kelly chose. As a junior, he took the keys to the offense and led a group that finished 10th
nationally and second in the Pac-12 by averaging 39.7 points a game. As a senior, Kelly and his pit crew might be even more productive. Graham, whose teams have featured some high-octane offenses, predicted on Thursday that this group will be the best he has ever coached. As for Kelly, the customized Beamer will be reserved strictly for basic transportation. His automotive knowledge will be of use only when teammates need a jump start, though Kelly could offer some pointers. He estimates five Arizona State players could change their own oil and “probably 10” could change a flat tire.
“I’m still retired,” Kelly said of his racing career. “Coach Graham is looking out for my best interests. And his as well, probably.” (This may read like an insult, but Kelly was laughing when he said it.)
Graham and Kelly led the Sun Devils to a Pac-12 South title last year, but the offense will likely have to produce even more while a defense that lost nine starters finds its way. Gone is Will Sutton, two-time winner of the Pac-12’s Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year Award. Sutton was a defensive tackle who could wreck an opposing offense from the three-technique (outside eye of the guard) position, and such a treasure is difficult to replace. Arizona State will also be without Devil Backer Carl Bradford, who piled up 39.5 tackles for loss in the past two seasons in the program’s linebacker/end hybrid role.
Younger players such as redshirt freshman Chans Cox or sophomore Viliami Latu -- who are vying to take over for Bradford at Devil Backer -- will have produce quickly against a schedule that includes games against UCLA, USC, Stanford and Washington during a particularly tough one-month stretch. The Sun Devils avoid Oregon, but they get an out-of-conference visit from Notre Dame and must prep for their Territorial Cup matchup with Arizona by facing pass-happy Washington State and Oregon State in back-to-back weeks in November.
||at New Mexico
||at Oregon State
By that point in the season, Graham should feel much more energetic than he did last November. For his first two years in Tempe, he ran Arizona State’s defense and special teams. Keith Patterson, the guy who served as Graham’s defensive coordinator during stints at Tulsa and Pittsburgh, had not followed Graham to the Valley of the Sun. Instead, Patterson went to nearby West Virginia when Graham and his staff left Pittsburgh. In February, Graham hired Patterson away from the Mountaineers. Now, instead of running the defensive meetings as he has for the past two years, Graham will take on more of a global focus. He’ll still be heavily involved in calling coverages on game day, but Patterson will be in charge of meetings and the defensive fronts. The men will run the special teams together.
“It’s just going to give us balance where I’m able to spend more time, obviously, with the special teams and able to spend some time with the offense as a defensive consultant there,” Graham said. “That’s where he just provides balance for us. I don’t know if that makes sense, but he's got all the things in place that I wanted. Keith was coming with me in the beginning, and they offered him a lot of money to go to West Virginia and he went that path. I’m very grateful to have him back.”
Because Graham has team rules against admitting weariness, he was hesitant to say the multiple roles ground him down last fall. But he is obviously thrilled to have more administrative help. “I’m not going to tell you that I ever get tired because I tell my players we don’t get tired,” Graham said. “I wouldn't say I got tired, but I would say some people around me were pretty tired. Tired of me.”
While the Graham-as-vagabond jokes -- thanks to one-year stops at Rice and at Pittsburgh -- probably won’t go away until he retires, the coach says he has not tired of Arizona State. In fact, he paid off his house in May. Then, in June, Graham’s wife bought a second. This one used to belong to Poison frontman Bret Michaels. “We moved 600 yards up the hill,” Graham said. “But we’re committed. We have a capital campaign that my wife and I both have made a large commitment to it as well. I want our fans to know that. I want our fans to know how committed we are to Arizona State. I think it’s something that is so important, the stability.”
A key piece of that stability was the retention of offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, the 32-year-old wunderkind who drew interest across the country thanks to an up-tempo scheme that produced six 50-point games last year. While Graham’s stated desire to put down roots in the desert might not square with his previous job history, he has the pieces in place to build a consistent winner.
So, while it seems unlikely that Graham will burn rubber out of Tempe in the immediate future, one player would like to see the coach lay down some tread. Once Kelly finishes his Arizona State career, he might celebrate his return to the track by challenging Graham to a race. “I should,” Kelly said. “For pinks.”