Arizona State's quarterbacking inconsistency is becoming a constant. For the fifth straight season, the Sun Devils will have a new quarterback starting the season opener.
Brock Osweiler's ascension in 2011 from question mark to second round pick has opened the door for that dubious streak to end. All three contenders battling to replace him to be that fifth new starter all have at least three seasons of eligibility left. So whoever should win this competition may be able to hold onto the job for a while.
Each player had their ups and downs during spring practice, and while the battle will continue into fall camp, it was sophomore Mike Bercovici who emerged as the narrow leader. While both of his talented competitors--Michael Eubank and Taylor Kelly--offer tantalizing skills with their mobility, it has been Bercovici's passing ability that has helped him gain the early edge.
I sat down with Bercovici to get his thoughts on the new offense, the weapons around him, the challenges ahead, as well as his thoughts on why he is the best choice as ASU's quarterback now and in the future.
Brad Denny: Since Coach Graham's arrival, it seems every effort has been made to completely revamp the culture of the program on every level. What is your opinion of that shift and how do you feel that has been progressing thus far?
Mike Bercovici: I feel that as a program we've made so many strides since the end of last season, as far as the way we walk, the way we talk, our entire presentation. One thing I've noticed about Coach Graham is that he is truly a man of his word. He has a vision, we have a vision of what we want to be as a program. Everyday, it's really inspiring to know that things are going on downstairs. We're rebuilding. As far as how much time and effort they put into recruiting to make our team better. It's more exciting to be a part of this program every day. There's new things going on here all the time.
BD: Given the success both on the field and the NFL Draft, you appear to have had a great and up close example to follow in Brock Osweiler. What impact did Brock have on you as a quarterback?
MB: Brock taught me a lot. I've been in contact with him a lot lately, just chiming in. Being on a sideline and being able to watch an entire season was very interesting for me. I feel like Brock has a very different attitude than I have on the field. What I learned from him was that he was very mellow coming to the sideline. He could throw an interception, come off to the sideline and sit on the chair he always had and exert his energy that way. He never got too excited and he never got too down on himself. It was good to watch. As a young quarterback, you can sometimes be a rollercoaster. It was more his emotion on the sideline is what I picked up from him.
BD: From a quarterback's perspective, compare the offenses of last year with this year.
MB: The biggest difference as a quarterback was our footwork. Last year was more of a free-for-all and more focused on reads rather than footwork. Coach Norvell, from his first day here, has been very focused on the type of footwork we have. We have essentially three different types of dropbacks depending on coverage and depending on what play we have called. A lot of the same routes and schemes are designed in a spread offense. As a quarterback, my footwork has changed a lot, which relates to the discipline they brought in.
As a whole for the offense, I feel like our run game is going to be a lot more dominant this year. Going from roughly three run plays last year, which mainly consisted of inside zone, to going to up to 10 plays with counter, power, stretch, read stretch, read zone. I feel like that's where we are going to make our biggest strides, picking up first down with the run game.
BD: Which elements are you finding most exciting and which are proving to be the most challenging?
MB: We have our base plays which our coaches introduced us to during spring ball and before spring ball. How we game plan for teams, where we have our base plays, but using so many different formations to get receivers in those spots and we can attack and leverage strengths against defenses to our advantage. That's the most exciting thing. Our playbook from something really condensed to something very large. I feel like I became a better quarterback when we have a broader array of plays, and we can use that to our advantage. It goes hand in hand. It helps being simple, but being diverse with discipline instilled, it's really exciting for a quarterback like me where I can use all parts of the field and every player on the field and every formation.
On the flipside of that, the biggest challenge we are going to face is depth. We have a lot of solid players right now, but the development of everybody in their position is going to be essential to how well we do. As we saw last year, we went down like bowling pins. It was sad to watch, but that's the reality of this division. It's major, major college football. You look at the top teams in the nation, and they have the most depth. These coaches are going to prepare every one of us as a starter, and that's where we will strive in that category.
BD: What's it been like working with offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Norvell?
MB: It's been very inviting. He's a reflection of Coach Graham, and he's like our personal head coach. Coach Graham chimes in bits and pieces. Obviously, he's the head coach and he knows everything from left tackle to the gunners on punt team. He's amazing at that. But Coach Norvell has really taken all four of us quarterbacks under his wing and treated us like family. We've talked to him about the emotional parts of football, about our footwork, about reads. Working with him is truly a blessing because he expresses to us how much he cares about what he does and why he coaches. It's truly a blessing to have a coach like that that is not just in it for the glory of being an offensive coordinator. He loves us. It's a blessing to have a guy with that much passion to work under.
BD: Quarterback is the premier position of leadership on a team. How do you feel you are developing in that crucial area?
MB: I feel like I've made great strides over the last couple of years. A lot of quarterbacks come in and say they want to be a starter the first year. Obviously, that was my goal to come in and compete and play everyday, but being able to sit back and watch how it works helped me a lot. Being able to do that, to learn from Brock and everyone who has helped me be the quarterback that I am right now. I feel like I've connected with the seniors on the team, with the leaders on the team. I feel a lot more confident. It starts in the weight room with Coach Gris who took over our weight program. I was able to emerge as a leader there, when we have one more sprint and one person needs to be inspired. Coach Graham has taught us a lot about that; yelling at someone versus inspiring someone. I feel that's what I try to do every day in that weight room. That's where our grind starts. We know what type of team we are going to be by how we are in the weight room.
BD: Arguably the team's biggest strength at this point is at running back. I talked to James Morrison the other day, and he said that he and Cameron Marshall have made it a point to help ease the burden on the new quarterback. What are your thoughts on the backfield and how big a role they'll play in the team's success this year?
MB: It's fun to be back there in shotgun with backs like Deantre, Kyle, Cameron, James. Those are guys who have been around the game, a couple of years under their belts. They are considered veterans on this team, especially a guy like Cam. His presence on the field, he's so confident. Everything starts with Cam. They all listen to Cam. It makes me so much more comfortable back there at quarterback with guys like that. You know what they are capable of, you know they are arguably the hardest working guys on the team. They are going to fight every last second in pass protection, fight for every last yard in the run game. Those are some of the happiest guys on the team with the new offense coming in, because they saw bits and pieces of it in the spring, of how explosive they can be back there and how each of them are tailored to different packages and playcalls. As a young quarterback, your best friend in the running game, and that's going to be unstoppable this year.
BD: On the flip side, the wide receiving corps lost several key players and is a major question mark. How do you feel those players have developed, and who do you think is poised for a breakthrough season?
MB: With this new offense, and moving guys like Jamal Miles outside and being bale to motion a lot, guys like Chris Coyle have a spot to explode this year. Using our speed, which I feel is our greatest strength as a wide receiving corps, I feel like this offense is absolutely perfect for the style of wide receivers we have. You don't need a prototypical 6'5", 195 pounder. This offense is based on getting four yards every single down, then taking a shot 50 yards down the field. The greatest strides we've made since spring ball ended has been in our knowledge of the passing game. We're a high tempo offense. The wide receivers have the hardest job to remember, with all the playside and frontside of our pass game. They're not thinking as much, they're just reacting. They see the play and they are going. I've learned that from coach, just push the tempo. When I'm calling a play for Mike or Taylor, I'm saying "Let's go, let's go!" That's how the receivers start learning and thinking quicker. They're not thinking about their depth, they just get set and they know where they gotta be.
Guys like Chris Coyle at our 3-back position is going to be a real threat this year. I played around with him in high school. I know him very well, and know his capabilities on offense, and I feel like he's going to be a stud this year. Kevin Ozier in the slot, taking over for Gerell Robinson, has been one of our most productive receivers this spring. Jamal Miles, he's been through it all. He has the stats, he has the poise. He's one of those guys who, if the defense is tucked too tight, we can throw it out to Jamal, he makes one guy miss, and he turns a one-yard pass into a 90-yard touchdown.
BD: Why do you feel you should be Arizona State's starting quarterback in 2012 and beyond?
MB: One thing I pride myself is; there are people who like to win, and there are people who hate to lose. And I'm somebody who just hates to lose. I'm one of the most competitive people in the world, whether it's ping pong or the Pac-12 championship. I know by diagnosing these coaches and seeing what they want and adjusting my style to match what they want their quarterback to be. My knowledge of this offense, what it's going to be after fall camp, my chemistry with the players, and my ability to make every throw on the field is what I feel is going to separate me. I feel like I'm at a point where I am at the top of my game. Putting in the hard work, staying after practice and working on timing, the amount of time I put in in the film room, watching teams like Missouri, Illinois and Cal. I'm a very visual person. I know before we play UofA I'll watch even more film, because I don't want to lose. It's instilled in me.
BD: What are your thoughts on the return to Camp Tontozona?
MB: I'm really excited. I'm not from here, so it's nice to know that there is a tradition here. We had a meeting with Andrew Walter, Coach Norvell brought him in. He talked to use for about 20 minutes and he talked to us about how great of an experience Camp Tontozona was. You hate it while your'e there but it's great to talk about when you're done. We're going to be able to get away, away from all the media and stuff, and just come together as a team. Prove to one another that we can do something special this year. It doesn't matter if we're ranked or not. Maybe finding some cool weather will help us focus a little bit more [laughs].
BD: The overriding theme since Coach Graham's arrival in December has been "Speaking Victory". How do you define that term?
MB: Speaking victory...I love that phrase. Anytime any one of us speaks, it's like Coach Graham is sitting right next to us. I have so much respect for him in the little amount of time he's been here. Regardless of how it turns out, he's the type of coach who, if I had a career-ending injury, I would want to play for him because he will make me a better person. Just like having your dad right there. You're not going to badmouth someone when your dad is right there. That's my version of "speaking victory" is that Coach Graham is watching me everywhere. [laughs] Sometimes I feel like he is watching us. He's everywhere.
BD: What do you feel is the one X-factor-whether it's a player, scheme, mentality-for this team to succeed this fall?
MB: Discipline. Discipline, discipline, discipline. That's been the one thing we haven't had. That's been our X-factor that has brought us down is discipline. Coach Graham said it correctly, "We've had such a style about us, that referees assume we commit penalties." Like the Oakland Raiders. We have referees assume we do things based on the past. From the start, when we invite referees to practice, we are going to treat them with more respect than they've ever had before. We're going to change their perception of us. That's not something that happens in every program. Discipline can be this much advantage [fingers half and inch apart] or it can be miles. If we can get that much advantage, that's all we need to win. Winning by one point or 100 is still a win.
Reader question: How would you compare the coaching styles of Coach Erickson versus Coach Graham?
MB: I would say details. Coach Erickson, I love those guys, I was recruited by those guys. I remember walking these halls for the first time as a Division I player, and they were very nonchalant. We know what we need to do and we got that work done. Wearing a hat was fine, having a goofy haircut was fine. Now, you take your hat off in the building because you're not bigger than anybody. You stay clean shaven, you get a good haircut because your presentation is really important. Our playbook went from this big [fingers an inch apart] to this big [much larger]. The amount of time each position coach puts in, and the knowledge they put into our brains, is so much more detailed. Like throwing a fade ball. Instead of three-step drop and letting it rip, now it's three-step drop, then seeing if it's a zone turn or a man turn. It's those little things.
Reader question: There's been a lot of talk how the offense favors a running quarterback. How big of an element do you feel that ultimately will be and how much does the playcalling change if say, you're under center or Michael Eubank?
MB: This offense is tailored to the style of the quarterback that is in there. I have different assets than the other quarterbacks, and there isn't anything I can do to change that. There are certain things they do with me to attack a defense versus a guy like Mike or Taylor. I've been working on my speed a whole lot to be explosive. Watching the film on guys at Pittsburgh and Tulsa, those guys aren't pocket passers because we do a lot of sprint outs and bootouts, but they are guys who make quick decisions, don't take sacks and never turn over the football. Those three things are huge in this offense. Being able to pull the ball and run in this offense is respecting the quarterback as a runner. Having six men with five linemen and a running back, or a seven men attack in the box. With the reps I had in spring ball, and the reps in fall camp, I'm getting more confident every day in running the football. But what separates me is not turning the ball over, quick decisions. I feel like one of my advantages over the other quarterbacks is my tempo. It's a high tempo offense, I'm a high tempo guy. We get that ball, hit a 50-yard post, and he gets tackled, I'm getting to that ball and we're snapping it in 15 seconds. We're going to run inside zone and run it right down your throat. Coach Norvell wants us to be a reflection of him on the field. There's going to be times I don't need to look at the sidelines, I know what he's going to say. We're going to get the ball snapped, Cameron Marshall is going to run over a mike linebacker.
Reader question: Do you have any concerns about the blazing pace of the offense being sustainable all season long?
MB: Not at all. All of our coaches are very high tempo guys, they talk a mile a minute. That's how I am. I've had them tell me to slow down, so that's my style of play. Being able to make those quick decision on those run/pass plays, whether to throw it out quick to Jamal or hand it to Cam, that's where our offense is going to start. We got three or four downs to get 10 yards, and I'm going to do that as fast as I can to get there. It's so simple how they are teaching this to us. I think that tempo will be no problem, because those guys up front have been working their tails off, and we've never been so prepared along the offensive line.
Reader question: Can you give us an example play call for a run and pass play?
MB: As the fans will see during the games, we have a "color board". We have a board up there that goes from one to nine and one to nine on each side. That color board determines whether the board is live or the signaler is live. When we call in plays from the sideline, we can have a play called "12" and we'll run play 12, or "78" and we'll run 78. But you don't know if it's the signaler or the board. That's how we've gotten our tempo so much faster. The wide receiver 50 yards across the field can look and see we have "12" on, and boom, we run the play. People will try to figure out what those plays are. We also have inside zone plays that we call "inside zone". It's going to be funny for the fans, because everyone is going to be looking at that board to think they know what's going on.