SAN FRANCISCO - Taylor Kelly knows he can't relax. Not with Michael Eubank and Mike Bercovici still wanting his job as Arizona State's starting quarterback. Not with a talented quarterback from Alpharetta, Ga., committed to the Sun Devils' 2013 recruiting class.
"I know entering next season I'm going to have to work even harder," Kelly said Wednesday.
Before that process begins, Kelly has one last item on this season's to-do list: Win Saturday's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl showdown against Navy at AT&T Park.
For the Sun Devils, it would mean an eighth win in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season. For Kelly, it would complete a season in which few thought he was capable.
In fact, many fans - and media members - didn't even think he would be here today. Kelly exited spring drills in April as ASU's third-string quarterback behind Bercovici and Eubank. Third-string quarterbacks usually don't stick around. They transfer. They go away.
But Kelly worked his tail off, improving his arm strength and offensive command, winning the job in fall camp. Through 12 games, he threw for 2,772 yards with 25 touchdowns and nine interceptions. His 65.9 completion percentage is on pace to break a school record for quarterbacks with 300 or more attempts.
"You continue to see him grow," offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. "I know he got off to a really fast start and then he had a couple games that he didn't play to the best of his ability, but I really loved the way he responded (in season-ending wins over) Washington State and Arizona. Just the composure he showed in leading us to victory."
All season, coach Todd Graham has described Kelly in the same fashion: strong character, tough, a winner. He pointed out at Wednesday's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl news conference that Kelly also earned the respect of teammates, something on display at the team's season-ending banquet earlier this month. When Kelly won ASU's Offensive MVP Award, his teammates delivered a standing ovation.
"At the beginning of the season, people were thinking he just needed to manage the offense and not make mistakes, but it turned out he was a playmaker for us," senior running back Cameron Marshall said. "He came through in clutch situations. At times, he carried the offense."
Junior tight end Chris Coyle added, "He made some mistakes, but you could tell he learned from them."
Graham wants Kelly's communication to improve. He said at times this season Kelly was too hurt to play - or at least too hurt to carry such a heavy load - yet Kelly never said a word. (Kelly said he battled knee, hip and back pain during the middle of season. Asked why he never spoke up, he simply said, "I'm a competitor.")
"I would say 95 percent of the time, I would give him an A-plus on how he operates everything," Graham said. "When things are at their worst, it's very, very important that you learn from those things and just don't operate outside the system. He probably took too many sacks and turned the ball over too much. Those are probably the things he needs to get better at and learn from."
The quarterback situation may change in the offseason. Someone could transfer. Someone could get hurt. But entering the bowl game, Graham likes that he has three players willing to compete. He said he tells the 6-foot-6-inch, 233-pound Eubank that the more he matures, the harder it will be to keep him off the field. But for now, the quarterback job belongs to Kelly.
"When a guy's started 13 games for you - and obviously we have to see how we finish this last one - I think he's earned something," Graham said.