ASU’s QB battle approaching turning point
TEMPE, Ariz. — With a week of fall camp in the books, the Arizona State coaching staff hopes to trim the three-man quarterback competition to a two-player race after Saturday’s scrimmage and ahead of Tuesday’s departure for Camp Tontozona.
“We need to,” offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. “We can’t go much more past Saturday repping three guys with the (first-team offense). You get to this point, you get through 10 practices, and we’ve got to start preparing for the season.”
Coaches see Saturday’s closed scrimmage, the first of camp, as the first turning point in the race for the top job among sophomore Michael Bercovici, redshirt sophomore Taylor Kelly and redshirt freshman Michael Eubank.
“It’s huge,” Graham said. “It’s the biggest evaluation so far.”
The quarterbacks also recognize that the scrimmage, which will take place inside Sun Devil Stadium and feature game-like situations, provides a key evaluation point as the halfway point of camp approaches.
“I think if you do very well (Saturday), you’ll separate yourself from the rest,” Kelly said.
Norvell runs the quarterbacks through drills daily but has thus far been tight-lipped about how they stack up. Even the quarterbacks admit they have a limited sense of where the competition is headed. Because ASU’s practices are only open to the media for an hour, it’s not even known if one player is getting a greater number of repetitions with the first team.
In the one session of team drills open to the media, though, Kelly has emerged as the front-runner. Through seven full-squad practices, Kelly has taken the first repetitions with the first-team offense five times. Bercovici and Eubank have each done so once.
That information is somewhat incomplete, though, as Bercovici and Eubank could be getting first-team snaps later in practices. So while the division of repetitions with starters remains unclear, it shouldn’t be that way much longer. Coaches want the likeliest candidate or candidates to start building on-field chemistry.
“The timing, the meshing with receivers — all that stuff is so important and it takes so many reps, so it’s hard to do with three guys,” Norvell said. “We’re going to have to start positioning guys for who’s going to be our quarterback.”
Eubank said Friday that sharing time evenly isn’t hindering his chemistry building, but Kelly admitted that it makes the process more difficult. Kelly added that it’s also important that the eventual starter establish chemistry with the second-team offense to be prepared in the event of an injury.
While Graham and Norvell might not reveal after Saturday’s scrimmage if one quarterback has been eliminated from the competition, it should become evident once the team gets to Camp Tontozona. The team’s first practice there Wednesday will mark the halfway point of camp, and all practices there are open to the public and media from start to finish.
During a Pac-12 coaches conference call in early May, Graham said the Sun Devils “need a starting quarterback” by the time they wrap up their stint at Tontozona, although that plan could have changed with Kelly’s emergence from dark-horse status. ASU’s last day at Tontozona, which will feature a morning scrimmage, is Aug. 18. The decision as to who starts at quarterback in that scrimmage could be an indicator as to who will start the opener against Northern Arizona on Aug. 30.
Coaches have maintained since spring that all three quarterbacks have strengths that fit Graham’s offense. Eubank might be best equipped to run that offense due to his athleticism but might not be polished enough yet to be the starter. Graham has said, though, that he can’t foresee a scenario in which Eubank doesn’t see the field this season, so ASU could conceivably start one of the other two quarterbacks and use some packages tailored to Eubank’s skill set; given his size and mobility, that could mean goal-line situations.
Bercovici was seen as the favorite to win the starting job when fall camp opened, particularly with his experience as Brock Osweiler’s backup last season, but he scuffled early in camp.
“I didn’t start off like I wish I could’ve early in camp,” Bercovici said. “But I’ve felt like these last couple days, I felt really confident.”
Bercovici has indeed looked better over the last few practices — at least the open portion — but Eubank appears to be excelling most in the criterion established by the coaches: ball protection. Eubank has yet to turn the ball over during viewable team drills. While that means much, it must be coupled with effectiveness.
“What we’re looking for is the guy that manages the game, doesn’t turn the football over — but has to move the ball down the field,” Graham said of what he’ll look for in Saturday’s scrimmage, adding again that it will be the most important evaluation yet.