ASU, Bercovici aware QB situation is no bed of roses
TEMPE, Ariz. — Experiementation and implementation are big parts of Arizona State’s spring football practices. More importantly for this version of the Sun Devils, coach Todd Graham has used the first week of spring drills to reset the bar.
"I told them that everybody’s excited about back-to-back 10-win seasons," Graham said Saturday after practice. "I’m disappointed because we underachieved."
What worked to get to those marks isn’t good enough now. The Sun Devils aren’t satisfied with the status quo, even in the most familiar places this spring.
Like at quarterback.
"If we have the same Mike Bercovici we had last year, we’re in trouble," offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. "We got a guy that’s pretty dang good that is the starter, but he’s got to improve. He’s got to take his game to the next level if we want to get to what our goals are."
This spring, Graham admits Bercovici is well ahead of the backup competition that includes redshirt freshman Manny Wilkins and early enrolled freshman Brady White — incoming freshman Bryce Perkins is finishing up at Chandler High and will add to the mix in the fall.
Bercovici has job security, which is not exactly a comforting setup. As his role change proved last season — when starter Taylor Kelly went down with a foot injury — ASU is a play away from needing a qualified backup.
Wilkins impressed in December in practices leading up to the Sun Bowl, and Norvell sees a more natural leader during spring ball. On Saturday, ASU’s defense was impressive in its first true scrimmage with pads, yet Wilkins responded by leading the offense on a long drive into the red zone. There, a quick toss on a slant route was jumped and intercepted.
"All I’m looking at is no negative play, 100 percent ball security, I’m looking at takeaways," Graham said of his evaluation of a backup. "This is how we picked Taylor Kelly as the starter. Taylor took care of the ball better, and every time he took the offense, he took the ball down and scored seven points."
So Wilkins got half of it right. Taking to Graham’s lessons in sports psychology, it’s also about how he responds with positive energy. Wilkins, who has taken his own leadership role, doesn’t get rattled like he did a year ago.
"Out here right now, I just feel older," he said. "I’m more comfortable with the offense. I feel more patient. I’m just trying to prove this team that if it comes down to it, I could lead this team."
Meanwhile, White could provide solid competition. One of the more heralded recruits in ASU’s most recent recruiting class, the early enrollee from Hart High in Newhall, Calif., is learning the playbook one installation at a time, he said. Norvell likes the youngster’s collective nature in the pocket, and White has gained about 15 pounds, putting himself around 195 pounds since enrolling at the beginning of the spring semester.
"It was just a key point for me to get here early," White said. "Throughout high school I was really looking into it. I always did extra classes, did summer work to get ahead, in order to be able to graduate early. I think it’s a huge advantage."
Of course, ASU’s preference would be for Wilkins, White and Perkins to wait in the wings.
To Norvell’s point, the man mentoring them, Bercovici, must also improve himself. His arm strength brings a different dynamic than Kelly, who got out of trouble with his legs. Now with the quarterback position his to own, Bercovici must adopt ASU’s biggest strength of 2014 while adding his own twist to the position.
Last year, the Sun Devils forced 27 turnovers and only gave it up 13 times, the margin of 14 ranking as the sixth-best mark in college football. Indeed, luck may have had something to do with it — ASU ranked third in turnover luck factor, according to FootballStudyHall.com — but nine combined interceptions by Kelly and Bercovici to 34 touchdowns thrown helped tremendously. Bercovici did throw four picks in three starts and limited action elsewhere.
Kelly initially won the starting job over Bercovici for three reasons: He drove the ball, finished in the red zone and avoided turnovers.
If they aren't laughing at your goals they aren't set high enough
— Michael Bercovici (@MikeBerco) March 22, 2015
Bercovici is continuing to grow as a leader, and that is important to ASU developing quarterback depth; Wilkins said the senior has been harder on his backups than Norvell. Bercovici has also penned two open letters to Sun Devil fans. The first, co-authored by senior teammates and roommates D.J. Foster and Jordan Simone, explained "The Grind" they promised would bring them a Territorial Cup and a chance at a championship. The second, written by Bercovici alone, detailed the quarterback’s commitment to remaining at ASU, even through tough times.
Bercovici says he’s adopted a leadership approach of "controlled intensity."
"I’m a real intense guy," Bercovici said. "I’m wired 24/7, but the controlled intensity is to know that … when you look at the quarterback, you can be confident."
The Sun Devils certainly are confident they’re on the right path to winning the Pac-12 and chasing an appearance in the College Football Playoff.
How their confident leader improves — and how he helps groom his backups — will determine much about whether the goals become reality.