ASU football: Mike Bercovici-led offense has high expectations in 2015

Senior Mike Bercovici will be handed the reins of an Arizona State offense that, despite losing Jaelen Strong, should have plenty of weapons in 2015.

Kirby Lee/Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. — When a college football program hits the double-digit win mark twice in two seasons and that coincides with two top-25 recruiting classes, positive momentum is more than wishful thinking.

The Arizona State Sun Devils, after the third season under head coach Todd Graham, step into 2015 with progressively higher expectations. That’s because both the offense and the defense return the majority of their starters, and because the program has retained not only its head coach but the highly regarded members of his staff.

Arizona State hasn’t yet inked its 2015 recruiting class, let alone hit spring ball. But it’s never too early to look ahead.

First, a crystal ball peek at the offense, which, despite losing its starting quarterback and leading wide receiver, should be formidable once again.

Few teams in college football will have as easy of a decision replacing a starting quarterback next season, especially considering how productive the departing quarterback was during his time at school. With senior Taylor Kelly gone, junior Mike Bercovici finds himself locked into the starting position.

Bercovici started in three games while Kelly was injured and replaced the struggling starter in the regular season finale vs. Arizona. He completed 62 percent of his passes while throwing 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. The production and the eye test make it clear that the Sun Devils are in good shape with Bercovici moving forward.

Who’s behind him makes Graham’s decision to hand the reins over to Bercovici that much easier.

Those challenging for the backup spot are either true or redshirt freshmen. Manny Wilkins impressed Graham during the month leading into ASU’s Sun Bowl win against Duke, and he probably has the best shot of giving Bercovici a challenge. Fellow redshirt freshman Coltin Gerhart could be in the mix to play backup. Yet to be evaluated is highly touted incoming freshman Brady White.

While replacing Kelly seems clear-cut, replicating the production of receiver Jaelen Strong, who is leaving for the NFL Draft after his junior season, is more difficult.

BIG LOSSES

QB Taylor Kelly, WR Jaelen Strong, OL Jamil Douglas, OL Tyler Sulka

KEY RETURNERS

RB Kalen Ballage, QB Mike Bercovici, WR/RB D.J. Foster, C Nick Kelly, RB Demario Richard, WR Cameron Smith

Arizona State can make up some of the lost production by playing D.J. Foster more at slot receiver than at running back.

Still, fans often wanted Graham to call Bercovici’s number over Kelly’s because of his powerful arm, and displaying that part of his skill set next season will depend on which ASU receivers develop into a deep ball threat a la Strong. Replicating Strong’s production with a single player isn’t likely to happen, but how the throws are divvied among the receivers — and where on the field — lingers as the big question.

Redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson has the size to make himself a viable option as a Strong replacement, and 6-4 junior starter Gary Chambers, who caught 10 passes for 208 yards in 2014, could take advantage of more balls thrown his way. Coming in with a reputation similar to Strong as a junior college transfer, Eric Lauderdale could finally become part of the conversation in 2015 after being a non-factor in his first season.

Expecting one of those players to step up in a significant way is clinging to the assumption that ASU needs to find a replacement for Strong.

Truth is, there’s quite a lot of continuity elsewhere in the Sun Devils’ receiving corps that also includes returning tight end Kody Kohl. Sophomore Cameron Smith, the team’s second-leading returning wideout with 596 receiving yards in 2014, could team with Foster to put the emphasis on speed rather than size. It wouldn’t be surprising for him to finish on an All-Pac-12 team next season. 

Perhaps ASU will succeed with more yards after the catch next year rather than relying on the ol’ back-shoulder throws to pick up big gains.

The Sun Devils’ early decision to move Foster away from the backfield opens our eyes about how NFL teams view him. But it also says everything about how Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell feel about the freshman running back tandem of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage.

At a powerful 203 pounds, Richard averaged 5.7 yards per rush, totaled 478 yards on the ground and showed versatility with 156 receiving yards in his true freshman season. The more upright Ballage, who stands 6-3, appears to be more of a project at this point, but his athleticism and speed makes him a unique change-up option.

It’s hard to imagine that those two won’t take on more carries in lieu of Foster and departed senior Deantre Lewis.

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Foster’s decision to play in the slot more next season also opens up opportunity for a number of young backs.

Junior college transfer De’Chavon Hayes could get a look, and incoming freshman Jaason Lewis would bring in a power option at 6-4 and 241 pounds (though it remains to be seen if he could be used as an H-back or tight end a la the departing De’Marieya Nelson). Mountain Pointe High School product Paul Lucas is another of the youngsters who could enter the conversation with a strong spring.

Arguably, Arizona State’s offensive line will have the most holes to fill among position groups on either side of the ball.

Left tackle Jamil Douglas and right tackle Tyler Sulka will depart, but on the inside of the line center Nick Kelly, redshirt junior guard Christian Westerman and junior Vi Teofilo return. Reserve Stephon McCray, who took quite a few snaps for Kelly during a late season injury, will be called upon as well.

Graham will also consider giving a starting tackle spot to promising redshirt sophomore Evan Goodman, who was listed as Douglas’ backup at left tackle. Freshmen Sam Jones and Quinn Bailey were mentioned as two offensive line standouts during the month of Sun Bowl prep.

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