Kelly Is the Right Play

Arizona State senior quarterback Taylor Kelly said Wednesday he’s back to operating at 100 percent. 

Even if he’s not quite there yet, coaches made the right call this week when they said Kelly would be the starter Saturday at Washington after he missed the team’s last three games with a foot injury. 

Fans have understandably been excited and even perhaps captivated by the play of junior back up Mike Bercovici in recent weeks, as Bercovici has helped the team to back-to-back wins over USC and Stanford and not turned the ball over in either game. 

No doubt, Bercovici performed very well for anyone, much less a player getting the second and third starts of his career against ranked opponents. 

But some fans and even a smattering of media members have suggested the Sun Devils should ‘continue to ride the hot hand’ with Bercovici, or even intimated that Bercovici is better. 

That’s taking things a bit too far. 

Above and beyond all else, you don’t replace Kelly out of principle if he’s even anywhere near full strength. This is a quarterback who led ASU to a 10-win, Pac-12 South title last season, including seven straight regular season wins to end the year. In doing so, he set a single season school record for completion percentage and has more touchdown throws over a two-year period than any quarterback before him at ASU.

Furthermore, ASU coach Todd Graham has relentlessly provided to all who have listened a narrative of Kelly as one of the best leaders and most integral players he’s ever coached. 

You don’t replace a guy like that who has been successful due to a three-game absence due to injury, period. Think of the message that would send not only to the rest of your team but to the recruits you’re trying to appeal to in order to take the next step as a program. You run a grave risk of undercutting your own mission and losing faith with a team that has been extremely resolute. 

Secondarily, but also extremely important, Bercovici does not give the team a better chance to win games moving forward. Statistics show clearly that when ASU has  more offensive balance via its run game, it is more likely to win, and without question, Kelly provides more duality in that regard. 

Against Stanford, for example, Bercovici had more than a few plays in which he should have kept the ball on read option plays and would have likely had gained good yardage and forced Stanford to be more assignment sound in that regard. Cardinal defensive ends on several occasions crashed down the line of scrimmage prematurely and made tackles on the running back unblocked as a result of not being kept honest by the quarterback. 

That isn’t to say Bercovici didn’t do extremely well. He did. He’s given the Sun Devils a much better outlook on their 2015 season due to how well he’s done when called into action and especially because offensive coordinator Mike Norvell now has a full off-season to scheme to what he’s seen from Bercovici in meaningful reps, something that wouldn’t have happened had Kelly not been hurt.

But this offense is a heavy read-option one in its run schemes and that’s difficult to change mid-season. Kelly may not be running at full speed against Washington, but his split-second decision-making and ability to extend the mesh point in read-option plays is clearly superior to Bercovici, and he will be able to keep defenses more honest, and likely get more yardage on the ground as a result. And certainly, his arm and throwing mechanics were not impacted by the injury. Perhaps there could be a little bit of rust, but he’s taken the first-team reps in practice this week fully, and looked fine during the observation portions of practice. 

There are perhaps a few throws in any given game that Bercovici makes that Kelly may not be able to, or not quite as well, given how well Bercovici climbs the pocket and his better ball velocity and throwing range on some types of passes. But that’s clearly off-set by Kelly’s strengths given the style of offense ASU runs. 

Kelly is the right call, and he’ll have a chance to go down as one of the most esteemed quarterbacks in school history if he can lead ASU to a consecutive Pac-12 South title, which appears very possible. Thanks, in large part, to Bercovici.