Kelly becomes Sun Devils' undisputed leader
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) Taylor Kelly remembers feeling the doubt around him at an early age, when he and a group of scrappy teammates played in a basketball tournament in Las Vegas.
It hovered over him again during his senior year in high school when, despite all that he had accomplished, the scholarship offers were almost nonexistent. Once he got to Arizona State, the skepticism continued with two years of waiting and a prolonged competition to become the starter.
Even now, as a proven winner and undisputed leader of the 19th-ranked Sun Devils, the fifth-year senior still finds himself as an afterthought in conversations about the nation's best quarterbacks.
It's a mistake.
No matter how many times he's been marginalized or overlooked, Kelly has found a way to win by out-working, out-thinking and out-performing his opponent.
''He's a tremendous competitor,'' Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. ''Whether it was in high school or here at ASU, he's always won, always had an edge to him. He doesn't need all the extra attention, but he knows and he plays with a chip on his shoulder.''
A native of Eagle, Idaho, Kelly knows the underdog role well and grew to relish it.
He led Eagle High School to a state championship and was considered one of the top recruits in the region, yet had one scholarship offer: from Nevada. It wasn't until another player de-committed to Arizona State that the Sun Devils offered Kelly a scholarship.
When Kelly arrived in the desert, he was mostly an afterthought, redshirting his first season in 2010, buried on the depth chart the next year. When a three-way battle for the starting job emerged before his sophomore season, Kelly was considered the third-best option before beating out Michael Eubank and Mike Bercovici just before the start of the season.
Even after filling up Arizona State's record book and leading the Sun Devils to a pair of bowl games, he often gets overlooked among the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12, much less the country.
The consistent lack of respect could wear on Kelly.
Instead, it motivates him.
''I've always been an underdog, whether it's in a QB battle or something else,'' Kelly said. ''For me to have that chip on my shoulder and stay hungry and has always pushed me.''
It's certainly worked.
Combining natural ability with a work-harder-than-the-next-guy mentality, Kelly has become one of college football's best playmakers - even if he doesn't always get the recognition for it.
An athletic 6-foot-2, 211 pounds, Kelly has been knocked for his arm strength, but can make all the throws - his completion rate of 67.1 percent last season set a school record - and has a can't-teach-that timing with his receivers, particularly on back-shoulder throws to Jaelen Strong.
He is the second quarterback in school history to throw for over 3,000 yards in consecutive seasons and his 57 touchdown passes are most during a two-year span at ASU. Last season, he threw for 3,635 yards and 28 touchdowns, both third-most in school history, while leading the Sun Devils to the Pac-12 South Division title.
But it's not just Kelly's arm.
Since his first game as Arizona State's quarterback, Kelly has dazzled with his ability to extend plays by escaping would-be tacklers to complete a pass downfield or break off a long run.
He has rushed for more than 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns in two seasons, and his career average of 270.8 yards per game is on pace to shatter the school record.
And if a team needs a leader, it would be hard to find a better one than Kelly, a perfect combination of rah-rah enthusiasm and lead-by example work ethic.
''Taylor Kelly is the best leader I've ever been around,'' Norvell said.
For Kelly's desert finale, he will take the reins of Arizona State's offense a little more.
Kelly has already been given some freedom in Norvell's system and this season the offensive coordinator and head coach Todd Graham will give him an even looser leash. Kelly knows the Sun Devils' playbook about as well as ASU's coaches and this season will be allowed to check out of plays without looking toward the sideline for guidance, essentially becoming an on-field offensive coordinator.
''I feel really comfortable with it,'' Kelly said. ''Coach Graham and coach Norvell have a lot of trust in myself.''
After years of proving people wrong, he's certainly earned it.