That sudden gust of wind blowing through the Arizona State athletic department Monday morning was a huge sigh of relief coming out of Todd Graham‘s office.
The new ASU head football coach finally made the decision as to which of his three quarterback prospects will start in the season opener against Northern Arizona University next week. It has been, he says, one of the most difficult personnel decisions he’s had to make in his college coaching career.
“I have never been in a situation like this,” he admitted, after announcing his selection of sophomore Taylor Kelly to take the first snaps against the Lumberjacks – essentially kicking off Graham’s tenure with the Sun Devil program. “I have never had three guys of that quality at that position, so it has been a very hard decision to make.”
But Taylor made it a little easier on his head coach, coming off a dedicated summer of individual workouts to help separate him from the rest of the pack as the fall training camp began earlier this month.
Taylor was actually third in line when spring practice concluded, falling behind sophomore Mike Bercovici , the perceived leading candidate at that point, and Michael Eubank, the third contender in the group. Eubank, a 6’5″ redshirt freshman who Graham recruited at his last coaching stop at Pittsburgh, put up the bigger numbers in the spring scrimmage, completing 8-of-15 passes for 183 yards and three touchdowns.
The 6’2″ Kelly, a redshirt sophomore from Eagle, Idaho, will become the fifth different starting quarterback in the last five ASU season openers when he takes the first snap on Aug. 30 to officially open the Graham era of ASU football. Only one of the last five campaigns under Dennis Erickson produced a winning record.
Graham has established Eubank, a dual-threat QB, as the back-up for the first game, but expects to insert him into the game at various times as he contemplates going to a two-quarterback system. Even before fall practice began, Graham said of the California product: “I can’t imagine him not playing in some way (this season); the potential he has is just so incredible.”
The decision to go with Taylor boiled down to two things, says Graham…ball control and an ability to effectively manage the new offensive system that has been installed. Graham has said all along that holding on to the ball and avoiding turnovers will be the key to a winning season.
At the Media Day weeks ago, Graham outlined his criteria for selecting a starting quarterback. “The one that’s going to play is not going to be the one that has the best physical skills,” he noted. “It’s going to be the one that will take care of the ball and manage the offense. That’s it. That’s how simple it is.”
Obviously, not too simple. The boys turned the ball over four times in the first day of spring practice.
“The key for us, if we own the ball, if we don’t turn the football over, we’re going to score,” he added. But that’s going to be a challenge with the lack of college experience among his three primary options under center.
However, that certainly hasn’t dampened the first-year coach’s optimism for the coming season. Graham has lofty expectations.
“Can we win a championship this first year?” was the question he posed rhetorically at Media Day. “Yes, we can. That’s what our mission is going to be.
“If we lead the Pac-12 in taking care of the ball, and we lead the Pac-12 in take-aways, then we’ll win the league.”
A bold statement for a team that got picked in the pre-season poll to finish fifth in the conference. But Graham points out that early predictions don’t always mean much.
“I’m not making outlandish statements,” he insists. “We got picked fifth in the league. When we won the conference championship (at Tulsa), the last I won, we were picked ninth. I’ve been picked first twice, and got runner-up. So that’s why I don’t really look at all that stuff.”
Championship talk is great motivation for the players, and the fans love to hear it. But Graham has yet another reason to point toward that conference championship… a $75,000 bonus in his five-year contract for bringing home the Pac-12 crown.
However, lofty goals and monetary incentives aside, there are at least two major hurdles between here and a conference title this year… USC and Oregon.
They should both get a good chuckle when they read this.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)