Worth the Wait

Mike Bercovici's final act is just the beginning

by Brad Denny


Hurry up! Let’s go, let’s go, let's go! Get set!
OK, we have a chance.
We’ve practiced this.
We’ve prepared for this.
We’ve got this.
Here we go.
Let it fly.

The road that Mike Bercovici has traveled has been long, winding, and often uphill.

Before he authored one of the greatest moments in Arizona State football history, before a stadium chanted his name, and before he got the job he’s long sought, he battled. He waited. He prepared.

"He’s a Sun Devil. Committed. All in," said ASU head coach Todd Graham. "It doesn’t matter if things are right for him or not right. That shows you what he’s made of. He’s stayed. He’s persevered."

As the 2015 season looms, all signs point to it being Bercovici’s long-awaited breakout year. He finally has the job he’s always wanted: the starting quarterback for his beloved Sun Devils. He’s also a college graduate, and he’s arguably become the face of the program.

The only thing matching the anticipation for the upcoming season is the pressure now on his shoulders.

He’s a Sun Devil. Committed. All in.

After all, Bercovici is taking the reins of a team with College Football Playoff aspirations, and his career resume has three just starts on it. While many outside the program remain skeptical, those within it are confident that they have the right man behind center.

"Berco has that ‘it’ factor that quarterbacks have to have," said longtime ASU football broadcaster Tim Healey. "‘It’ is just that unspoken aura or presence that certain people have. In the realm of college football and commanding a huddle, it was clear to me from the get go that Berco had and has ‘it’."

Bercovici has waited a long time to take center stage for his beloved Sun Devils. The final act of his ASU career is here, and all eyes are on him.

It’s showtime.

A wise man once said to never tell him the odds. In order to succeed, you have to be willing to throw caution to the wind, get knocked around, and give everything you have, In short, you need to take some chances.

That’s the gunslinger's way. That’s Mike Bercovici’s way, and it’s been so since just about the beginning.

Photo Credit: Bercovici Family

"I started playing tackle football at five years old—illegally—with seven, eight, and nine-year-olds," said Bercovici.

To help him skirt the rules and get onto the field, he needed a partner in crime.

"It was me who said it was time to see what it is like to get hit a little bit and play a little football," said Ben Bercovici, Mike’s father. "He was the right guard and the smallest kid on the field."

Mike didn’t let his small stature hold him back. As a six-year-old with the West Lake Eagles, he played nose tackle, guard, linebacker, and wide receiver, but he always eyed a more prominent spot.

Unfortunately for Mike, the Eagles already had a veteran quarterback—a wily veteran all of eight years old—entrenched at the position. Nevertheless, Mike was still able to get a few reps under center at the end of some games. That experience helped to stoke a fire in the kid.

"My dad always wanted me to play quarterback, because I loved to play baseball and I had an arm," said Mike Bercovici. "It was tough. I think I did a punt, pass, and kick competition where I was substantially better at passing than anything else, so I figured I can hopefully make a career out of this one day."

Beyond having the requisite strong arm, Bercovici also had another quality that made him an ideal fit for the quarterback position.

"He likes to tell people what to do," said Ben Bercovici. "He always loved being the leader of a team, and he always thought the quarterback was the leader and the quarterback told everyone what to do. To this day, he still tells people what to do."

A year later, young Mike finally got his big chance at the position of his dreams when he became the starting quarterback for the Westlake Braves. Helping him in that transition was his dad, who also happened to be the Braves’ offensive coordinator.

"We would work out these plays, and we had signals," Ben Bercovici recalls. "The signal would be ‘Run play No. 1’ and he had a little wristband. He’d look at play No. 1 and call it. That’s what you do when you are seven and eight years old."

Well, that is unless you’re Mike Bercovici.

Photo Credit: Bercovici Family

"I’d call play No. 3, he’d give me the thumbs up sign, but he’d call play No. 5 because he thought it was better in that situation," Ben Bercovici said. "The funny thing about it was that the plays always worked. It looked like I was this genius offensive coordinator, but it was really Michael who knew what he wanted to do and what plays to run. Every once in a while, I’d get lucky and he’d call the play I told him to. He would audible his offensive coordinator all the time."

Even though he may not have always agreed with the calls, working with his dad was a perfect situation.

"It was a dream to engage in that kind of experience," Mike Bercovici said, before admitting, "He’d get mad, but when it worked, it was fine. If it didn’t work, he was upset. Nothing has changed from Pop Warner football to now. If it works, it’s fun. That’s just something that is priceless."

It’s also something that has become the standard for every other offensive coordinator Bercovici has ever had.

"That relationship I had with my dad translated to every offensive coordinator I had in high school and in college," Mike Bercovici said. "That’s the kind of relationship I want. The trust in one another and the family. There’s ups, downs, and mediums. I do make an offensive coordinator somewhat like my father, that’s how important they are to my life."

While the Bercovici duo had success on the field in those early days, the impact on their relationship proved to be far greater.

"Football brings people together, and it definitely brought Michael and I together," Ben Bercovici said. "Typically at that age, you just have a relationship because they are just so young, but the football between us made it so powerful. It built such a bond a bond between Michael and I, it’s unbelievable. Every day, we’d talk football at the table. The bond for father and son was tremendous. It was something that I’ll never, ever forget."

"Every once in a while, I’d get lucky and he’d call the play I told him to. He would audible his offensive coordinator all the time."

Those years laid the groundwork of the work ethic that would eventually become one of Bercovici’s calling cards. To some observers, growing up in Calabasas, Calif., a well-to-do town nestled in the hills west of Los Angeles, gave off the impression that everything was handed to him on a silver platter. That was a notion he was all too eager to dispel.

"There is a lot of discipline in that city," said Mike Bercovici of his hometown. "There’s a lot of people who have to work hard because you’re coming from the suburbs. It’s a different environment, because everybody expects that things are just given to you. I really did work my tail off to prove to people that I’m a grinder, that I’m a blue-collar kid."

His education included some stern lessons from his father on commitment to the team. In turn, the father learned some surprising things about his son.

"Sometimes he’d say ‘Dad, my stomach is hurting me,’" Ben Bercovici said. "I never let him miss a practice, because I knew he was a kid who just didn’t want to go. I made him go to practice because I knew he wasn’t sick. Practice would be over, he’d get in the car, and he’d turn to me and say, ‘Dad, thank you for making me go to practice. I had a great day.’ How many seven-year olds comprehend that type of thinking?"

Not many.

From the outset, Mike Bercovici knew the answer to childhood’s most common question.

"If you look at his yearbooks, they ask ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ His answer was always an NFL quarterback," said Ben Bercovici.

But first things first.

"I always had a goal to be a Pac-12 quarterback," said Mike Bercovici. "When it drew closer and closer, I started seeing some high school players, like Rudy Carpenter, come to ASU."

Bercovici began his high school career at Westlake High School. By his sophomore year, he had set a number of junior varsity records and had seen some time with the varsity team. However, it had become increasingly clear that for him to chase his dream, his best chance would not come at Westlake.

Photo Credit: Bercovici Family

"My parents decided to move towards that area, and it was more fitting for me to attend Taft (High School)," said Bercovici. "It was a completely different style of football, how they play and why they play. It was something that I embraced."

But that certainly did not mean that it was easy. When Bercovici moved on to Taft, he left long-time friends and teammates behind, including his go-to target Nelson Spruce.

"The transition was really, really tough. It was an extremely emotional time for him," said Ben Bercovici. "As a family, we talked about it. We also had the best friends who we trust more than anyone in the world over for a meeting at our house. We decided that the best thing to do was for Michael to transfer, and we did it."

Once the family had made that difficult decision, they set up a meeting with Taft’s principal and Matt Kerstetter, the head football coach. Kerstetter had previously seen Mike play with his 7-on-7 passing league team, B2G, but they had not spoken.

Their first meeting would be the beginning of not only a productive partnership, but an important friendship.

"He came over and we started talking ball and started going over things on a white board," Kerstetter said. "I was intrigued by how much he had a mind for the game. We just started rattling through some things. The first time I was putting something on the board, he was finishing the sentence for me, I realized this kid has something to him. Boy, I hope his parents do move and that I get a chance to coach him."

Just when things were looking promising, the Los Angeles City Section issued a controversial ruling, stating that they felt the move was strictly for athletic reasons.

"They found the ruling where he was ruled ineligible for his junior year because of the transfer, which was ridiculous," said Ben Bercovici. "We did all of the things we need to do to make the transfer legal, but they still found us to be ineligible."

"The first time I was putting something on the board, he was finishing the sentence for me, I realized this kid has something to him."

"For them to still say he couldn’t play, when we knew for a fact there were other kids in the area that were living in both addresses and being allowed to play, it felt like we were under a microscope," said Kerstetter.

Adding salt into the wound was the fact that Bercovici would have immediately taken over as the starter for the Toreadors.

"Had he been cleared, he would have been the starter," said Kerstetter. "Within two weeks, he had proven how dynamic he was as a quarterback, and how how much he brought to the table with his great decision making. He was incredibly accurate with the football. He has such a quick release. Those are things you saw immediately."

The circumstances could easily have dealt a crushing blow to Bercovici and his hopes of college ball. Instead, it pushed him to work that much harder.

"It would have been really easy for him to take that frustration out by acting out or doing something stupid or feeling like he’s not part of the team and staying off on the side, but he never went down that path," said Kerstetter. "He attacked it and approached it as ‘I’m going to learn everything I can. I’m going to continue to be involved. Can I help signal? Can I be the best scout team quarterback you’ve ever seen?’ It endeared him to his teammates even more. I know the coaching staff loved him even more, because it proved he was a team player above everything else."

Mike and his sister, Danielle

Knowing that he'd have just one year to showcase his talents and make a push for Division I scholarship offers, Bercovici went all in with his preparation.

When the 2009 season ended, the newly eligible Bercovici was able to step off the sidelines and onto center stage in order to establish himself as the team's leader for the upcoming year. The first step was reworking a high school student's favorite part of the school day: lunch.

During the offseason, Kerstetter would hold lunch meetings with the team twice a week.

"The other three days, those kids went out to lunch. Not Michael," Kerstetter said. "Michael would be in my office watching film, going over stuff on the board so that he could get prepared and get ready for the upcoming season. He knew that everything he wanted to do was riding on his senior year. He took that leadership from Day One. He'd brown bag his lunch every day so he didn't have to waste any time. He'd come in, the film was on, and we'd be watching."

It wasn't long before that practice, with Bercovici at the forefront, became the new standard.

"We did that through January and February. By March, he had three or four wide receivers, plus one or two offensive linemen in there with him," Kerstetter said. "He'd bring them all on board. It wasn't optional. If you don't want to come along with us, we're going to grab you and pull you along with us."

Bercovici's leadership efforts didn't stop there.

"We had our playbook, but I never gave it out to anybody," Kerstetter said. "Our playbook was ‘I'll cover it, you write it down.' Michael took the playbook he created from notes and made copies for all the wideouts and they'd go over it together. You name it, he did it. He was a vocal leader, very positive."

As Bercovici established himself with his teammates during the early months of 2010, he also strengthened his bond with his head coach.

"We couldn’t wait to turn the keys over to him, and let him truly run that offense."

"If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be where I am at today," said Bercovici. "His discipline from the quarterback position is even harder than what I have to deal with now. He's a life-long coach, a life-long friend, and a life-long mentor for me. So much of the credit for me being here is because of him."

On the field, Bercovici rewarded Kerstetter's faith.

During the summer prior to the season, Bercovici earned tournament MVP honors as he led Taft to the championship of the USC passing league tournament. The helped push the expectations for the upcoming season to sky-high status.

"When he was finally cleared, we couldn't wait to turn the keys over to him, and let him truly run that offense," Kerstetter said. "He knew everyone's responsibilities. He knew if people were running routes at the wrong depths or the wrong steps. He understood progressions. He knew coverage beaters. It was ridiculous."

Finally, it was here. After sitting out an entire year, Bercovici was hitting the field to lead Taft in their season opener against Dorsey. He was ready to go...perhaps, too ready.

Bercovici completed just 15 of 34 passes for 160 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns in a 37-24 loss.

Photo Credit: Bercovici Family

"The first game out, I think he pressed a little too hard," Kerstetter said. "He was so excited to be back in a game. We had the conversation, ‘You're good. You're going to do some great things this year. Don't try to make the perfect throw. You can't be making the absolute perfect throw every single time or you're going to press too much and make turnovers.'"

With the first-game jitters out of his system, Kerstetter's message was able to hit home immediately.

The next week, Bercovici threw for a school-record 474 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-35 win over Notre Dame High School.

"From that point on, we hit the ground running," Kerstetter said.

Bercovici found his rhythm over the rest of the season, including a torrid five-game midseason stretch in which he topped 320 yards and four touchdowns in each game. He led Taft to the Los Angeles City Section semifinals and finished the year by completing just over 60 percent of his throws for 3,755 yards, 37 touchdowns and just nine interceptions.

After so much work, and with so much on the line, the senior season could be deemed a success on the field. Bercovici had proved his ability and formed relationships that would shape the course of his life.

"The relationship that I've built with that coach was something that I've never had at a high level of football," said Bercovici. "Being able to play with guys from the city of Los Angeles who are bussed in, it was something that has shaped me a lot playing with guys like Antwaun Woods and Michael Thomas. These are major Division I football players, and it taught me a lot about playing real football."

More importantly, college coaches had taken notice of Taft's strong-armed gunslinger.

Being a southern California kid, Mike Bercovici seemed destined to one day play at one of the traditional Pac-10 powers.

"I always was an L.A. kid, and USC and UCLA were the games I went to growing up," said Bercovici.

Yet there was something drawing him to the desert.

"For some reason, I just always liked Sparky," Bercovici said of ASU's mascot. "He was always someone who was cool to me. The devil just felt right."

It also helped ASU's case that his sister Danielle was an ASU student while Bercovici was at Taft. However, the Sun Devils weren't initially recruiting Bercovici, and with a year off due to the ineligibility ruling, getting noticed would be an uphill battle.

Call in Dad to the rescue.

"The devil just felt right."

"What I did was take that film of him (at Westlake) and put together a demo reel that I sent to multiple schools," Ben Bercovici said. "His junior year got a little scary because there was no film. What I did, we filmed every one of those tournaments he played in, especially that one in Las Vegas. We won a 7-on-7 tournament with B2G (a club team), and he was also named MVP of the tournament. We had that tournament filmed. I edited that piece and it was posted."

The tape found its way into the hands of ASU head coach Dennis Erickson, who requested a visit from the Bercovicis.

"I didn't have much varsity film on there, but that was enough for them to pursue me because of the intangibles that I had," said Mike Bercovici. "Being able to throw the football and be a leader with my mind, they obviously saw that."

A visit was set up, and the Bercovicis traveled to Tempe to attend a youth camp put on by the school.

During the event, Bercovici threw for ASU offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. In a painful display of just how strong Bercovici's arm was, Mazzone broke one of his fingers while attempted to catch a pass. Father and son then proceeded to a meeting with Erickson.

"The first thing Coach Erickson said to Michael was ‘I really like looking at your eyes. I can tell you're a quarterback. I want to let you know that we want you here at ASU. We'd like to officially give you an offer right now,'" said Ben Bercovici.

Erickson and Mike Bercovici then talked shop. It was then that the hours of study with Kerstetter, during which Bercovici learned to speak like a quarterback, really paid off.

"One of the reasons that I got a scholarship to ASU is because one of the first times that I came to this football facility, the dialogue in which I talked about plays impressed the coaches enough to pursue recruiting me," said Mike Bercovici.

Bercovici signs with ASU / Bercovici Family

Bercovici now had a coveted offer in hand, but he still had trips scheduled to visit Washington and Oregon State. On the way out of his office, Erickson gave the Bercovicis some parting words.

"Coach Erickson said to me as we were leaving his office, ‘I expect you to call me on Monday and let me know you are committing to ASU,'" Ben Bercovici said. "After that, he said to Mike, ‘As soon as you leave Washington to come home, don't let all the rain hit you in the ass.'"

Bercovici made those trips, working out with future Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota in Washington. Utah also offered, as well as a school down south.

"U of A really wanted him, but there was no way he was going there," Ben Bercovici said.

The following Monday, June 14, 2010, Mike Bercovici called Erickson and accepted Arizona State's offer.

Bercovici wasted no time in jump starting his Sun Devil career.

He graduated from Taft early, joining the ASU program as a mid-year enrollee that winter. Doing so enabled him to get a headstart on adjusting to college life and learning the Sun Devil playbook. It also gave Bercovici a chance to learn from and compete with three veteran quarterbacks on the roster who had starting experience: Brock Osweiler, Steven Threet, and Samson Szakacsy.

Not long after his arrival, however, the depth chart ahead of Bercovici quickly thinned out.

In January, Szakacsy left the program to pursue other interests. The next month, Threet retired from football due to issues brought on by concussions. Suddenly, Bercovici had a great opportunity to vie for the No. 2 quarterback job behind Osweiler.

Bercovici experienced the steep learning curve that every true freshman faces, but managed to edge out redshirt freshman Taylor Kelly for the backup job. While his on-field game was still very much in development, his intangibles quickly stood out to both the coaching staff and his teammates.

"He was a leader right from the start," said wide receiver Gary Chambers, a fellow member of ASU's 2011 recruiting class. "I came to the spring game and he was already here. The first thing he said to me when I met him, after he gave me his phone number was ‘Hit me up, we're going to go over these plays. Let's hop in the film room. We can start getting ready to play.'"

Photo Credit: Bercovici Family

Bercovici appeared in two games that season in mop up duty, completing two of three passes for 15 yards. The major takeaway from that 2011 season was the experience gained in practice, and in watching Osweiler's much-lauded leadership in action.

"Both Brock and Steven Threet played a huge role into who I am right now," Bercovici said. "One of the things that I learned from Brock was the true meaning of being a leader on Saturdays. Unlike anyone else that I've been around, he got a team to believe in him. One of the main things I learned from him is when you mistake a quarterback, you need the ability to shake it off and have confidence in yourself. If he did throw an interception, he came to the sideline as if he threw a touchdown. That is something that will stick with me forever."

Bercovici also received a painful lesson in how a team-first mentality is essential to winning football games, no matter how talented the players may be.

That season, ASU jumped out to a 6-2 start, rising to No. 19 ranking in the polls. The Sun Devils had the Pac-12 South division title there for the taking, but a crushing loss to UCLA began a five-game losing streak that derailed the year and fractured the locker room.

"Being battle tested wasn't something that we harped on. Strategic situations were not something we harped on," Bercovici said of the 2011 team's failings. "Our resilience in those types of situations caused the team to stray away from each other instead of that tightness you have at the end of summer. It was more the relationship building. Those types of things were not nearly as stressed as the importance of the game, because you're a team. You're not a bunch of classes that play collectively on Saturdays. It wasn't scheme, a missed tackle, or a missed kick. It was the essence of being a team."

The ramifications of that collapse would shake the Arizona State program—and Bercovici's career—to the foundation.

On Nov. 28, 2011, two days after the regular season finale, the axe finally fell.

Dennis Erickson, the man who had brought Mike Bercovici to Tempe, was fired.

A fortnight later, a new era of Sun Devil football began when Todd Graham was hired as the next Arizona State head coach. The search for a new coach had been a mess, with the university at one point nearly hiring June Jones before fan backlash prompted an embarrassing about face.

Likewise, the program that Graham inherited was in disarray. Erickson was known as a "player's coach", and over his five-year tenure, discipline fell by the wayside.

Under Graham, that changed immediately. From dress to workouts to academics, the game was now radically changed. That came as quite a shock to the returning players.

"It was extremely difficult. Like anything, transition is not easy to embrace," Berocvici said. "It's hard to accept the fact that when we walk into the stadium that you have to take your hat off, you have to take your earrings off. The understanding of that wasn't clear. It was something that they asked us to do. In the early stages of the coaching change, a lot of stuff didn't make sense. It felt like we were getting picked on. The way that we trained as quarterbacks, we had to bench, power clean, and squat. If you told me that four years ago, I would have told you that you were crazy. It felt like we were being harped on for no reason. It was really difficult."

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The transition process became more difficult three weeks after Graham's arrival when one of the few known quantities on the team decided to move on.

"I remember waking up to a text saying that Brock is gone," said Bercovici of Osweiler's decision to enter the NFL Draft, bypassing his senior season.

Osweiler's decision made ASU's rebuilding efforts that much tougher, but it also opened the door for Bercovici to become the Sun Devils' starting quarterback.

That spring, Bercovici began an intense competition with Kelly and redshirt freshman Michael Eubank for the open job. In addition to the battle on the field, the quarterbacks were learning an entirely different system put in place by new offensive coordinator Mike Norvell. Unlike the prior offense scheme under Mazzone, Norvell's offense incorporated zone read elements and often asked the quarterback to make plays on the run. Those were not strengths of Bercovici's game.

"I embrace football and love to learn new stuff, but at the same time, the new offense for me was very similar to the weightlifting. ‘You want me to do what?,'" said Bercovici. "Being in the first-year of anything, you want to repel from anything you don't want to do. You don't want to squat, you just give yourself that negative energy. I don't want to run that zone read. It was something that was a new transition."

Much of the new responsibilities proved to be difficult, but when he wasn't on the practice field or in the classroom, Bercovici dedicated himself to learning everything he could about the new offense.

"I knew that there was not going to be a quarterback or player that knew more about the offense than me," Bercovici said. "I make sure that I'm never unprepared."

Following the conclusion of spring practice, Bercovici emerged with the lead in the three-man race, but the distance separating them was slim.

"When we got done with spring ball going into fall camp, I thought Mike Bercovici would be our starting quarterback," admitted Graham.

As fall camp opened in August, Graham clearly outlined the eventual winner's top priority.

"The one that's going to play is not going to be the one that has the best physical skills, it's going to be the one that will take care of the ball and manage the offense," Graham said. "That's it. That's how simple it is."

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After easing the quarterbacks into the system during the spring, Graham and his staff began to ramp up the difficulty the trio faced in practice, or as Graham called it, "scripting adversity". Defensive pressures increased, and the blitzes the trio faced became more complex.

Things soon began to unravel for Bercovici, despite his preparation and handle of the offense.

"That part of the game wasn't hard," Bercovici said. "It was more what I was asked to be doing, which was something that I was not mentally or physically mature enough to do at that time."

The turnovers began to mount, and a resurgent Kelly took the lead.

"He came in the first four days of camp and jumped out there," Graham said of Kelly. "He was playing at a different level and then moved up in a hurry. He just stayed there."

Bercovici and Eubank made improvements late in fall camp, but it would not be enough. Ten days before the season opener against NAU, Graham named Kelly as the starter, but not by much.

"When we named Taylor as starting quarterback, it was just for a week," Graham recalled. "That's how close it was. We couldn't really decide."

That margin only widened as Kelly established himself as the clear starter as he led ASU to a 5-1 record to begin the season. Eubank took on the No. 2 role, seeing spot duty as a situational quarterback.

Just months after having the coveted starting job as his for the taking, Bercovici had dropped to No. 3 on the depth chart and was now redshirting.

More importantly, he also faced a decision. Stay or go?

"I'm one of the most competitive people you will ever meet in your entire life, so losing is not in my vocabulary, nor do I want it to ever be," Bercovici said.

Yet here he was. He had lost the battle. Once again, he found himself relegated to the sideline, backing up a rising star who had two additional years of eligibility.

"I'm not going to sit here and say that losing that competition was like ‘Oh, I'll just wait until I'm a senior,'" Bercovici said. "There's a million people in my support staff, my friends circle, and family who told me to do everything that you'd expect someone who loses a quarterback competition to do."

"He thought about transferring. He came into a program with one type of system, and that entire staff goes," said Ben Bercovici. "A brand new staff comes in, so Michael had an option. Transfer and compete again, or does he compete hard at the school he loves more than anything and learn the new system."

"I’m a Sun Devil through and through. It was nearly impossible to get myself to wear a different logo."

As he pondered the situation, Mike Bercovici had frank discussions with the coaching staff, seeking clarification on their plans for his future.

"I did have conversations with Coach Graham and Coach Norvell to express my desire to be on the football field," Bercovici said. "Whenever I saw something that I felt I could do better, I came to them and said ‘Listen, I'm ready to go. Please give me an opportunity. What can I do to propel myself to be on the field on Saturdays?' Those were constant things that I had with them. I never threatened them with the thought that I'm going to leave, but in the back of my mind I wondered what is their plan for Michael Bercovici in the Sun Devil offense that I can hopefully look forward to. If not, then this is not the place for me, because I do want to be the person leading the team out of the tunnel."

On his own, Bercovici compiled a pros and cons list of transferring. When he was done, he met with his family to show that one side of the ledger far outweighed the other.

"Being a captain of the Sun Devil team, being a Master's student, being someone that if I never played a down of football after my career here that there would be people who would want to hire me, nothing else made sense," Bercovici said. "I'm a Sun Devil through and through. It was nearly impossible to get myself to wear a different logo."

"What he really learned was how to be a Sun Devil," said Ben Bercovici. "He bled those colors. He knew he'd rather play for ASU for one year than play anywhere else."

Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

He would be a Sun Devil for the duration, but Mike Bercovici was never going to be content being a backup quarterback. Instead of letting the frustration create problems, he used it to become the best teammate he could be.

"He was pissed, like any competitor would be," said ASU wide receiver D.J. Foster. "He understood what he had to do. He channeled his energy into being the leader that he is. He didn't change anything. He was still was helping out. He was still coming out to practice and competing. He was helping out the young guys, making people better. It never changed for him."

"He handled it how he was supposed to handle it," said Chambers. "He worked harder. He was attentive. He learned. Not being in the spotlight doesn't necessarily mean that you're not important to the team or have a big role. He stayed in that leadership role without being on that field."

Slowly but surely, the dividends of that renewed commitment began to pay off.

"He made the most of every opportunity whether he was on the field or on the sideline," said Norvell. "That's what you encourage guys to do, and that's what you challenge guys to do, but Mike's a guy that has actually done it."

"It was huge, being able to see the ups and downs of a season, seeing how leadership affects the product on Saturday," Bercovici said. "That redshirt year, we had to do a lot of things in order to fit what we had. It was intense to watch how the schemes would work week to week and how'd they'd change, and how we were finding our identity as a program. The biggest thing from that redshirt season was finding who we wanted to be."

A year after the program appeared to be in ruins, the Sun Devils had surpassed all expectations by finishing the year 8-5. It proved to be validation that the direction Bercovici, and the entire ASU program, was on the right path.

"It wasn't easy, but when we saw the production on the field of eight wins, we realized something must be right."

Good things come to those who wait, but Mike Bercovici continued to approach every day and every practice as if he did not have that luxury.

"As parents, we felt he should be the starter," said Ben Bercovici, "but Michael said, ‘Dad, no. This is how it's going to happen. We have to support the starter, but more importantly, we have to buy in to Coach Graham's system and believe in what he is doing. My time will come.' He wasn't the starter, but he practiced like he was. He practiced and worked hard, and never missed a practice."

Mike Bercovici's commitment to his craft not only brought out the best in himself, but it also helped the man he was chasing. Taylor Kelly, a one-time two-star recruit, would go on to become an All-Pac-12 performer and one of the most prolific quarterbacks in school history.

"I'm really impressed with how he handled it then, and how he handled being Taylor Kelly's backup for three years," said Tim Healey. "He showed a lot of class in the way he handled it and in the close relationship that he and Taylor developed. They clearly leaned on each other. The competition between them inspired and improved both of them as players."

"We were always in the film room, out on the practice field competing, but we were always great friends on and off the field," said Kelly.

After redshirting in 2012, Bercovici became the team's primary holder and saw spot duty at quarterback in 2013, completing three passes for 18 yards, but his contributions to the team went beyond the box score.

"He really matured as a person and learned a lot playing behind Taylor and showing the character that he has," said Graham. "Character. Smart. Disciplined. Tough. That's how I describe Mike."

Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

"I call him ‘Coach' sometimes because of how knows the offense and his maturity out there," said Foster. "He's one of the guys who have been here the longest. He knows the ins and outs of the offense, and it helps a lot of younger guys. It helped me tremendously when I came in."

"He came in with arms wide," said wide receiver Ellis Jefferson, a freshman in 2013. "He was the second-string quarterback, and he knew that he had to get me started. He helped me out with everything I did. We always watched film together. Even though I was a freshman and he was an older guy, he always respected me."

Bercovici's dedication and attention to detail soon became the standard for his teammates.

"He doesn't make the same mistake twice," Chambers said. "He makes sure he keeps his play at a high level, which makes everyone around him up their play which is huge for our team because as our quarterback, he has to be the one to lead us. Over the years, he's done that more and more."

"The resilience that I decided to commit to has prepared me for this any situation," said Bercovici. "I don't think that there is anything that I haven't seen. I've seen a big win. I've seen a big loss. That has helped me, because I have been through the thick and thin."

The Sun Devils took another step forward in 2013, winning 10 games and taking home the Pac-12 South division championship.

That success put significant expectations on the program. ASU began the year ranked No. 19 in the AP Poll. Everyone in the team had their eyes set on a Pac-12 championship, and Bercovici prepared accordingly.

"Going into this season was the most excited I had ever been because I felt that I had value to the team. I was ready," said Bercovici. "I was at the most mature state of my physical condition."

That turned out to be a season saver for the 2014 Sun Devils.

ASU opened the 2014 season with a pair of easy wins over Weber State and New Mexico. In the season opener, Bercovici came on in relief of Kelly and threw his first career touchdown pass, a 15-yard strike to Ellis Jefferson.

In Week 3, they hit the road to open Pac-12 play against Colorado.

It was a chilly Saturday night in Boulder as ASU was putting the finishing touches on a victory over the Buffaloes. The Sun Devils were up 38-17 late in the third quarter, so they could be forgiven if they were starting to turn their attention to their next game, a crucial Pac-12 South battle against UCLA.

On a third down run, Kelly scrambled for what seemed to be a ho-hum four-yard gain. Only it wasn't. Kelly was slow to get up, and he soon went back to the locker room for evaluation. When he returned, he was on crutches.

Uh oh. Sun Devil Nation held their breath.

Sizeable lead in hand, Bercovici came on to finish out the game, and ASU improved to 3-0, but that wasn't on anyone's mind after the final whistle.

With a potentially season-defining game up next, Kelly's injury was the top concern. What was the injury? How long would he be out? Was Bercovici ready to replace an All-Pac-12 quarterback who had 30 consecutive starts on his resume?

"Seeing Taylor for four years here, it really did hurt me to see him go down like that," Bercovici said. "I remember going on that airplane from Colorado back to Tempe, I tried to sleep but my mind was racing. I felt like I had a duty to the seniors, a duty to the fans, a duty to anyone involved with Sun Devil Nation that the goals did not change."

It soon became apparent that Kelly would not be ready for the UCLA game, but thankfully Bercovici had the luxury of a bye week for extra preparation time. Not only did he get time with the starting offense, he also adjusted to life under the spotlight.

"It felt great. It felt right. It felt like I was ready," said Bercovici. "The bye week obviously helped. A lot of the attention that I got from family members, media, friends, and students felt great. That is always something that I have cherished. The end result was to be one or 50 ahead on the scoreboard. I felt the weight on my shoulders of being the starting quarterback. It was something that I embraced."

"I felt like I had a duty to the seniors, a duty to the fans, a duty to anyone involved with Sun Devil Nation that the goals did not change."

Losing a starting quarterback is a devastating blow to any football team, but given how active a role on and off the field Bercovici had taken over the prior three years, the confidence of the team in the quarterback position never wavered.

"It's hard for anybody to come in and start playing, especially having such a big role leading our offense," Chambers said. "All of our players rallied around him, because we knew what he was capable of, and he went out there and did it."

"We didn't hesitate. We didn't lose a step," said Foster. "That's the thing about Berc, we knew what he was about. Even though he was our backup, we see him every day at practice. We already knew the leadership was there. When that went down, he looked us in the eye and said ‘Nothing is changing. We're going to go out there and compete and win this game.' We knew the kind of quarterback and leader he was."

Then it was game day. A Thursday night battle between No. 11 UCLA and No. 15 ASU. All eyes on him.

Bercovici was ready.

He started off hot, complete nine of his first 14 passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns as the Sun Devils ran out to a 17-6 lead by the early second quarter. ASU's defense then had a few key lapses, resulting in a pair of Bruin touchdowns that allowed UCLA to take a 20-17 lead late in the first half.

Bercovici then led ASU on a last-ditch drive, looking to get some points on the board before halftime.

The Sun Devil were able to move down into the Bruin redzone. Facing a third and 12 from the UCLA 17-yard line with just 19 seconds left, ASU was primed to tie up the ballgame. All they had to do was take what the defense gave them, and not do anything risky.

But a gunslinger doesn't often settle for the safe play.

Bercovici fired a pass to Cam Smith as he ran a skinny post into the endzone. However, Bercovici did not see UCLA cornerback Ishmael Adams lurking underneath. Adams jumped the route, made the interception, and raced 95 yards for the soul-crushing touchdown.

Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

"Absolutely unacceptable on my behalf, 100 percent on me," Bercovici said of the play after the game. "I have to understand the situation. We have three points there. We got a great field goal kicker. We can't put the ball in jeopardy. It's a learning experience. I'll never do it again."

It would prove to be the key play in an embarrassing 62-27 defeat for the Sun Devils.

"I don't think you can ever truly prepare yourself for the speed on game day," Norvell said of Bercovici's performance against UCLA. "You have to go out there and have that experience. There were some plays in that first game that he'd like to have back. It was a great experience for him. We challenged him and he challenged himself as a staff."

There were, thankfully, some positives.

Bercovici set school single-game records with 42 completions and 68 attempts, and his 488 yards were, at the time, the fifth-highest single-game total in school history.

"I was really proud of Mike," said Graham after the game. "I think he did some great things tonight. Obviously, there are a lot of things we can improve, the biggest thing being the turnovers. I thought he made some big plays and showed tremendous promise."

In his first career start, Bercovici and his Sun Devils had taken a beating, and the road ahead was not going to be any easier. In just nine days, they would be traveling to USC to take on a resurgent Trojan team who had eyes on taking ASU's South division crown.

Bercovici had no time to sulk.

"The loss lasts until midnight. The bad taste in your mouth fuels you," Bercovici said. "That Sunday, we had to move on. We didn't have any time to look back. There wasn't any time to reflect about what happened. It was something that I proved to myself that I did. I went through four quarters of a football game. I went through the ups, through the downs.

"I think I had more confidence after that game moving in to the next than I have ever had in my career here."

As a kid, Mike Bercovici participated in a youth football camp that was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, home of the USC Trojans.

After the camp, Bercovici and his father were walking off the field, when he looked up and said, "Dad, I'm going to play here one day."

It's funny how things sometimes turn out.

ASU found themselves trailing 27-18 late in the fourth quarter in that key battle at USC. The offense had been scuffling for much of the second half, and ASU was taking over the ball with just 6:26 left on the clock. Worse, the ball was at their own two-yard line. With time running out both in the game and possibly in their reign as division champions, Norvell gave his quarterback one command.

"Just give us a chance. Give us a chance. Throw the ball. Get rid of it."

"Continue to go out there and do your job," Norvell said. "There was a point in the game that I had to get up with him. We had a couple of drives that had stalled, and it was just focusing on that next play, knowing we were going to win the game if we got that chance."

Bercovici took those words to heart.

Two completions to Smith and Jaelen Strong pushed the ball out to midfield. He found Strong again for a game-saving 14-yard gain on fourth and 10. Three plays later, he connected with Foster for a 21-yard touchdown.

That momentum was short lived, as USC, following a failed onside kick attempt, scored a touchdown on their first play of the ensuing drive, a 53-yard run by Buck Allen.

34-25 Trojans with 3:04 left. Statistically speaking, the Sun Devils had just a 4.2 percent chance of victory.

Never tell a gunslinger the odds.

Photo Credit: Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

On the first play of the drive, Bercovici zipped a pass to Smith on an out route. USC defensive back Kevon Seymour dove to make the interception...and missed. Smith made the grab, turned upfield, and raced for the improbable 73-yard touchdown with just under three minutes left.

OK, so you're saying there's a chance.

The ASU defense then did their job, forcing a punt, but USC had drained most of the remaining clock. ASU took over at their 28 with just 23 seconds left and no timeouts remaining. ASU needed a miracle.

Bercovici's first pass was batted away, but his second found Chambers for 26 yards to get just inside USC territory.

There was time for one more play.

"We didn't have any timeouts, and I think that is something that worked in our favor," Bercovici said. "After spiking the ball, there was a tempo in what we had to do. There was no question to what play we were running. We practiced situational football, and thankfully there was a lot confusion on the USC end."

As he dropped back to make the pass, one thought was on his mind.

"The only thing that was going through my head, it's like the cardinal rule, when you tell a quarterback to throw it as far as you can, you throw a duck," Bercovici said. "That's exactly what I did. I threw a duck. I think. We worked on situations. We approached it like a two-point conversion. Just give us a chance. Give us a chance. Throw the ball. Get rid of it. That's the way I approached it. I warmed up a little bit, and I just let it fly."

The rest is now well known history to Sun Devils, but from Bercovici's perspective, he had no idea what happened after he launched the pass.

Photo Credit: Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

"I thought there was a penalty," said Bercovici of his Hail Mary attempt. "It was so quiet, I thought something happened, like we went offsides or something."

It took a moment for him to realize that Strong had hauled in the desperation pass for the game-winning score.

"I looked around a little bit, then I saw our sideline take off. That's when all the emotions started coming through," Bercovici said. "It was a blur."

As his teammates swarmed Strong in the endzone, the FOX television cameras captured a jubilant Bercovici dive headfirst and lay prone on the ground. The celebratory pose quickly became known in ASU circles as "Bercoing", but it was actually the result of something far more practical.

"It was exhaustion," said Berocvici with a laugh. "I was so glad that we did it. We did it when nobody would give us a chance the rest of the season. We did it. This was something that would propel us to something amazing. I remember getting up and (ASU Associate Athletic Director of Media Relations) Mark Brand came to me and said ‘Make sure to be humble. Be humble.' The next thing that is in my face is a camera. I was being interviewed and I look at the scoreboard, which we were down all game, and the whole team is by the student section. I just wanted to go with the students. It was crazy."

That night was also the 200th ASU football game called by Tim Healey, who also calls Sun Devil basketball and baseball. Over his career he has witnessed countless amazing and historic plays, but the "Jael Mary" was something even more special

"It's right at the top, if for no other reason but for the reaction," said Healey. "I don't think there is any other play that we have witnessed or call that I have made on the radio that has drawn more reaction. There have been a lot of nice moments over the years in football, basketball, and baseball, but that one immediately catapulted to the top of the list."

It was the biggest night of Bercovici's career. With 510 yards, he became the first ASU player to top the 500-yard mark since Andrew Walter in 2002. He also became the first player in history to throw five touchdown passes against USC.

Photo Credit: ASU Athletics

His name was now nationally known and in the record books, but in the immediate aftermath of his star-making turn, Bercovici's aims that night were simple.

"All I wanted to do was go upstairs and see my mom."

It was an instant classic, a memory that no ASU fan will ever forget. It was also the turning point for a season and a career.

"To be honest, I hope we don't have another Hail Mary, but that propelled us for the Stanford game," Bercovici said. "We wanted to win. Our goals were still there. After losing to UCLA, no one wanted to give us a chance. This is Pac-12 football. We knew we had something special. We knew that we can elevate our game. People believed in me, trusted me. It was my duty to prove to these guys that there's no reason that we're not going to go out there and beat them up."

Bercovici proved that the win over USC was no fluke the next week when ASU hosted No. 23 Stanford. The Cardinal had beaten ASU in last season's Pac-12 championship game, denying the Sun Devils' their third trip to the Rose Bowl. Revenge was the order of the day.

Facing a tough Stanford defense, Bercovici was efficient, throwing for 245 yards and a touchdown, all without a turnover, as ASU won 26-10.

"He competes every single day in practice, and it showed when he got his opportunity to shine," said Kelly. "He took advantage of that and did the best he could possibly do."

In three starts, Bercovici had completed 63 percent of his passes for 1,243 yards, nine touchdowns, and just two interceptions. More importantly, he had led two conference victories over ranked Pac-12 opponents.

But it was now time to head back to the bench.

Kelly's broken foot had healed enough for him to get back into the lineup, and he made the team's next start on the road at Washington.

It proved to be a shaky performance for Kelly and the offense in adverse weather conditions, but the Sun Devils emerged victorious. The next week against Utah, Kelly was again off his game, and an old adage proved to be true: the backup quarterback is the most popular guy in town.

With the offense sputtering against the Utes, certain portions of the Sun Devil Stadium crowd began chanting "Ber-co-vi-ci!" Despite the ASU's eventual 19-16 overtime win, the chants resurfaced the next week against Notre Dame, when the offense struggled in the second half of ASU's 55-31 win.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

"At times, it was a bit uncomfortable," said Bercovici of the chants. I appreciate all the love that people had for me coming off those two wins. I don't take it for granted by any means, because I play for the fans, I play for my teammates. It was extremely uncomfortable for me, because here I am supporting Taylor making sure that this offense is going. At times it was hard. I tried to block it out, but it's hard to block out when it's loud. It didn't have an effect on our production on the field."

The outcry from many ASU fans extended into the digital realm, as social media became flooded with calls for Kelly to be benched. Bercovici, a very active presence on social media, found himself in a precarious position.

"My family members and Coach Norvell and Coach Graham keep me very humbled," Bercovici said. "I know every time I walk into that meeting room, I always have something to improve on. My girlfriend did a great job keeping me off my phone at dinner. That's something that I am very thankful for, because I do need the support of others to keep me focused on what our goal is being national champions, not being mentioned in comments that are irrelevant. At the same time, I do feel like I've used my social media to increase what people think of the brand of ASU. That's my goal in doing that, and I do appreciate the love at the same time."

The calls for Bercovici would continue to simmer. Then, during the Nov. 15 game against Oregon State, they boiled over.

After the win over Notre Dame, the Sun Devils were ranked No. 6 in the College Football Playoff poll, and came to Corvallis as heavy favorites against the Beavers. ASU was in control of their playoff destiny.

Instead of taking another step towards a playoff spot, the Sun Devils tanked on that frigid Saturday night. A dreadful effort was capped off by a Kelly interception that was returned for a touchdown with ASU trailing by one with less than two minutes left in the game.

Bercovici, a very active presence on social media, found himself in a precarious position.

In the wake of the devastating loss, it appeared that the team had a full-fledged quarterback controversy to deal with.

Only, they didn't.

"There was a controversy with people outside of our football team," said Bercovici. "There was a controversy between fans. There was a controversy between whoever had a say in what they feel ASU should do. There was never a controversy between us, or with Coach Norvell. I knew that my goal since I was a football player here at ASU is to be ready at every single snap. There was no controversy with the football team."

The situation could have had a negative impact on the relationship, and friendship, between Bercovici and Kelly, but their bond was not broken.

"Between Taylor and I, there was never any animosity," said Bercovici. "He knew that if anyone supported him, it was me. Throughout practice, I can use any type of information I had to help him play at a Heisman level. He knew that."

Ralph Freso/Getty Images

"That's just the game of football. Me and Berc, it was never a problem for us," said Kelly. "That never got to any of us. All we could do was go out, compete, and put the team in the best situation."

"It was how they always worked," Norvell said. "They are two guys who are great competitors that work to make each other better. They had great communication, and helped each other with every situation."

The final situation the pair faced was perhaps the most trying.

In the Territorial Cup battle against Arizona, the Sun Devils found themselves trailing by 14 late in the third quarter. Beyond just keeping the state bragging rights and the Territorial Cup in Tempe, beyond winning a crucial tenth game, ASU also had a chance to clinch the Pac-12 South division title thanks to Stanford's upset win over UCLA earlier in the afternoon.

Kelly and the offense had once again stalled in the second half, and with time ticking away, Graham and Norvell were desperate for a spark. The went all-in.

"Mike (Norvell) and I made a change with Taylor because we just felt like we needed a spark," Graham said. "Being behind, we thought that Mike's ability to throw the ball would help us. We were trying anything."

Bercovici came on in relief of Kelly. On his second drive, Bercovici marched the Sun Devils down for a score when he connected with De'Marieya Nelson for a touchdown. The Sun Devil defense made a stop on the next drive, giving Bercovici a chance to tie the ball game.

Sadly, the gunslinger missed his mark. Bercovici threw an interception that soon led to a Wildcat touchdown. A last ditch drive ended when a miscommunication on fourth down resulted in a Bercovici pass sailing out of bounds.

It would be the final pass of the season for Bercovici.

"As a quarterback, it's unacceptable to turn the ball over, especially in the fourth quarter," said Bercovici. "We fell short, and it's unacceptable. I'm always going to put in on my shoulders."

The closing moments of his on-field time last season may have been painful, but 2014 was a success.

Bercovici threw for 1,445 yards and 12 touchdowns, electrified the fanbase, and most importantly, proved to himself and his team that he can be a difference maker.

"From recruiting, to our players, to our coaches, to the people on the sixth floor, it felt good to instill some confidence heading into the 2015 season," said Bercovici. "Ultimately, if I didn't get a chance to step on this field, this conversation would be quite different."

"That shows you that when you stay and you persevere, there's great payoff for that," said Graham. "I think you are going to see that this season. I think that development and what this program means to him is going to be indicative of what you see on the field this year. I think he's a guy that can lead us to win it all."

"The success he had bodes well for him as a person," said former ASU quarterback and NFL Pro Bowler Jake Plummer. "His teammates respect him. They all played hard and didn't miss a beat. That speaks volumes about him."

With Taylor Kelly's collegiate career over, Bercovici will get a chance to be the man. Finally, the Arizona State Sun Devils are now Bercovici's team.

"I think he’s a guy that can lead us to win it all."

"I've been waiting for this for a long time," said Bercovici. "This is bottled up emotion for four-and-a-half years, and I'm ready to explode and give everybody my effort to a ‘T' so I don't leave anything behind. I'm responsible for 125 guys. It's my team. I can finally say that, and it feels so good to know that what I want to do is develop leadership throughout the entire team, from a walk-on freshman to a fifth-year senior."

Just like it was when he was a seven-year-old leading the Westlake Braves, it is Bercovici's leadership that has taken center stage in the build up to the 2015 season.

"Berco is a very different guy, in a very positive way. He's the definition of a leader," said Jefferson. "He does stuff to the next level. He's a such a big leader and I respect him all the way."

"He has that ability to command respect and draw other people teammates toward him," said Healey. "He has that quality that teammates look into his eye and believe that he will get the job done. With him in charge, they will get the job done. You could just sense the respect that they had. He seems to be a guy that the players can rally around."

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Bercovici has spent extra time working on the relationships and rapport with ASU's revamped group of wide receivers. Jaelen Strong, the team's leading receiver over the last two years, is gone, and Cam Smith, last year's No. 2 target, is out for the year with a knee injury.

"He's a very vocal leader, and that's what's different from TK (Taylor Kelly)," said Foster. "TK was more lead-by-example, but Berco is way more vocal. If he's pissed off, he'll tell you. He'll tell you what you need to do, what he wants to see. That's what we need with having a lot of young receivers out there. We need that quarterback to be vocal and demand perfection. That‘s what he's doing."

"He has a great relationship with all of us receivers," said Chambers. "I talk to him all the time. Off the field, we hang out. We eat together. We make sure we keep that closeness between us. He knows each of our personalities. He knows how to get through to us when things are going bad. He has a really good relationship with all the players on the offense, especially the wide receivers."

A critical component of leadership is also mentorship, and that is a role that Bercovici is also embracing.

The four other quarterbacks behind Bercovici on the depth chart—redshirt freshmen Manny Wilkins and Coltin Gerhart and incoming freshmen Brady White and Bryce Perkins—have yet to see game action at the NCAA level. Yet one of them is just one snap away from leading this ASU team should something happen to Bercovici, so the elder statesman of the group is doing all he can to prepare the next generation.

"Berco is something something special," said Wilkins. "I look up to him as an older brother. He's there when I need critiquing. He's there when I need someone to give me a line and get me in shape. He's there to make sure I'm ready in case something happens and I need to step in and be the leader of this football team. He's done a really good job of welcoming me into this brotherhood throughout this year. Now, it's not welcoming me. Now, it's getting me ready to step up."

"He's done a really good job of getting me introduced into the system, the terminology they use and the drops on specific plays," said White, who was a midyear transfer this past December." He's doing a very good job of making it a little easier for me, getting me ahead, and I'm very appreciative of that."

"That's me. Being a leader is not something that is hard for me," Bercovici said. "When I have the opportunity to reach down and be a leader, it's something that is going to be smooth sailing for me. That is the biggest thing that I'm excited about, being able to talk to 125 guys and they listen to me. That's my favorite part about football."

Now that Bercovici is at the forefront, the goals for the program have been raised.

"We're not talking about wins this year. We're talking about championships."

So as they aim for those championships, what exactly is ASU getting with Mike Bercovici at quarterback in 2015?

He'll tell you.

"Mike Bercovici is smart, disciplined, tough," said Bercovici of himself. "Those are three traits that Coach Graham looks for before arm strength, and before footwork. Those are the type of things that I am trying to embrace to be moving on to the next level. I'm not thinking about the next level, but my skills that I am developing right now are going to separate me from the rest of the country. Being able to train my mind to be the strongest-willed person, the hardest-working person. It's something that before any other skillset, I want to set it apart."

It's that growth in his mental aspects of the game that has impressed his coaches the most. Bercovici will always be a gunslinger, but now his coaches trust that he will take the right shots, not just what's available at any given moment.

"We’re not talking about wins this year. We’re talking about championships."

"He's always had a live arm and could make every throw, but the big difference is he's very careful with the football," said Graham. "He manages the game. He runs the offense. He takes what the defense gives us. He doesn't guess. You can have the greatest arm in the world, but you have to take what the defense gives you. You have to read and make sure you are doing what we are asking from a schematic standpoint. He has a true mastery of our offense, and he's a true veteran. That's where I have a tremendous trust in him. He really gets it. I think he can come in with Mike (Norvell) and coordinate the offense. It's his operation, his ability to manage the game that is his greatest strength now."

"His overall understanding of the offense has grown so much," said Norvell. "With time, a guy who studies like he studies, his confidence when he takes the field. He's a very intense quarterback and competitor, but he's done a great job of having a controlled intensity. It's not thinking he has to go out there and make every single play, but go out there, do your job, go through your progressions, and put the ball where it needs to be, and great plays will happen."

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

How about the physical tools? Watch Bercovici on the field for a minute, and one trait quickly jumps out above all others.

"That arm. He's got an extremely strong arm," said Plummer. "A very quick release. What really stands out is the way he spins it. That ball comes spinning out of there."

"His arm strength is out of this world," said ASU sophomore running back Kalen Ballage. "He can run 10 yards back and still throw it 80 yards forward."

During his tenure, Taylor Kelly proved to be an outstanding runner, as he ended his career as ASU's all-time rushing leader among quarterbacks. Bercovici will never be the running threat that Kelly posed, but he has made great strides in developing a different kind of mobility.

"I used to joke that the kid couldn't run out of a phonebooth, but in that pocket, he's got the fastest feet you've ever seen," said Kerstetter. "He used to take on wide receivers and defensive backs in ladder drills because he had great feet. That would be exemplified when he was in the pocket. He's not going to beat you with his feet, but he knows how to use his feet to buy time, to keep his eyes down the field and prolong the play."

Another of Bercovici's attributes is particularly appreciated by his receivers.

"He throws to every receiver. Not to bash on Taylor Kelly, but a lot of receivers didn't get the ball much," said Jefferson. "But with Berco, he throws to every single receiver. Everyone gets to touch the ball. He doesn't start down at one receiver, he looks at all the receivers."

"I think he opens up the offense so much more by the way he scans the field," said Foster. "That showed in the games he was in last year, passing the ball to all different receivers. That's what we need. That will open up our run game. It will spread the field and get more guys involved."

Of course, there is still much refinement to be done.

"He's got some work to be done on intermediate routes, taking a little bit off, and anticipation and not trusting that rocket arm," said Plummer, now an analyst with the Pac-12 Network. "Hopefully he can develop that and find that rhythm in that offense when he's not throwing the deep post or the deep or a backshoulder, he can take a little bit off of it and take a check down to the back. That's what I saw a few times where he just put a little too much zip on it."

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

As his history has shown, Bercovici is up for the challenge.

"I feel like my biggest strides are here to come," said Bercovici. "That comes with the confidence of being the man, being the man in this building, being the man in the locker room. I have a duty to this football team to be the most improved player."

With a veteran, strong-armed quarterback at the helm, the ASU offense expects to look a little different than they have in recent years.

"What Bercovici does so well is push the ball up the field, up the seams," said Plummer. "We saw them open up the playbook. I think they have an opportunity to open it up and let him chuck it around the field."

"We'll probably incorporate more on the run, getting him moving, getting the ball out of his hands quick, changing launchpoints," said Norvell. "We'll spread out a little bit more and let him dissect defenses with his arm. One of the things I've been really pleased with is when he is on the run, good things happen. He's able to extend plays and locate the football with his eyes down the field. Those are the things I think he's improved with, and they're things we're going to showcase."

Ultimately, how good can this Sun Devil offense be?

"The best it's ever been. That's the only expectation," said Bercovici. "We're going to be setting the standard for what's to come for these young guys coming in. You see who we have. If we can get the ball in space with any of our playmakers, we're a threat to score everytime we touch the ball.

"When this Sun Devil offense hits the field, you don't want to be lined up against it."

In the summer of 2010, Matt Kerstetter was watching Mike Bercovici lead his Taft teammates in a 7-on-7 tournament hosted by USC. Two games into the day, Kerstetter leaned over to then-USC recruiting coordinator and assistant coach Ed Orgeron and said, "This kid is a high school version of Drew Brees."

In his raspy Cajun drawl, Orgeron replied, "What? Oh come on Coach K, that's a big jump."

Six games later, Taft had won the tournament, and Bercovici was named tournament MVP. Kerstetter then asked Orgeron if he still questioned the Bercovici-to-Brees comparison.

"No, Coach. I see exactly what you meant," Orgeron told Kerstetter.

Five years later, Kerstetter is now an assistant coach at Westfield High School in Houston, and Orgeron is an assistant with LSU. During a recruiting visit to Westfield this past January, Kerstetter asked Orgeron, "How about our boy Berco?"

Orgeron replied, "Coach, everything you said about him, he's proven it to be true."

Comparing any quarterback to a perennial NFL All-Pro like Brees is a tall order to place on a player, but Kerstetter, a noted quarterback coach, knows that the similarities aren't just superficial.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Both Bercovici and Brees package powerful arms, unmatched intensity, and a high football IQ in frames that are shorter than the prototypical NFL quarterback (Bercovici is 6-foot-1, Brees an even 6-foot). With that skillset, Kerstetter believes that his former player will achieve his childhood dream.

"That kid is going to play on Sunday," said Kerstetter. "He's got the desire to do it. He's got the arm to do it. He's got the release to do it. He's big enough to do it. If he doesn't, I'll be shocked and devastated. All he is going to need is an opportunity. Whatever team brings him in and gives him that opportunity is going to find out he is a helluva worker, he's a helluva leader, and at the end of the day, he's great for their team."

Kerstetter is not the only one that thinks that Bercovici will be playing at the next level.

"There's the Tom Bradys and stuff, guys that played for maybe a year and that is it," said Foster. "I think he has the potential to be a first-round pick. His poise in the pocket. How he throws the ball. There are very few people like that in the country. I think he's going to put up the numbers this year. At the end of the day, you can't argue with that."

Those closest to Bercovici sing a similar refrain in their belief that the only limit on the gunslinger's future will come from within.

"He can be as good as he wants," said Chambers. "As much work as he puts in, as hard as he goes, and as hungry as he is, he can be one of the greats in college and in the NFL."

"He can be as good as he wants to be," Norvell said. "He's a hungry young man, and he approaches every day like it is the championship game. If he continues on that track, the sky is the limit for him."

The sky may not be enough, at least in his head coach's eyes.

"I think his potential is to be 15-0, lead us to a national championship, win the Heisman Trophy, and win the Campbell Award," said Graham. "I think he can be the Player of the Year in the Pac-12 Conference. I think he can be the scholar-athlete of the year in the Pac-12 Conference. He deserves that standard. This program is about winning championships, so how can our standard other than being the very best?"

Being the starting quarterback of a Top 25-ranked team brings with it major responsibilities and expectations, but that is just one aspect of life. After all, he's still just a kid in college, balancing schoolwork, football, and fun.

First and foremost, Bercovici strives to excel in the classroom. He has already graduated with his undergraduate degree, and is currently enrolled in the university's Sports Law and Business program. Last semester, Bercovici pulled in a straight-A report card.

"I love being a student-athlete, being able to excel in the classroom even greater than I would on the field," Bercovici said. "When I talk to my mom, she's more proud of the straight As than the Hail Mary. That is something that humbles me."

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The dedication for academics began with his mother Susan, who made sure that her children took the value of their educations seriously. Bercovici proves that mother knows best, and to this day, he has never missed a single day of school.

"I think football taught him that you don't miss school. You have to go to school," said Ben Bercovici. "To this day, he doesn't miss school. It's in his blood."

Bercovici's success in the classroom continues a legacy of outstanding scholars behind center for the Sun Devils. Last season, Taylor Kelly took home the Pac-12 Scholar Athlete of the Year award, and that's another area in which Bercovici is aiming to follow in his predecessor's footsteps.

"Taylor was the scholar-athlete of the year, and that's Mike's goal," said Graham. "Be the player of the year, win the Heisman, and win the academic Heisman. Taylor has laid the groundwork for those standards when it comes to the respect that we give others and the service we give. He and Mike are special guys. Both guys graduated, both are accepted into law school. Mike wants to be the best player on the country on the field, off the field, in the classroom, and in the community. He truly embraces that."

Over his time in Tempe, Bercovici has come to cherish the times when he isn't hitting the textbooks, studying film, or in the weight room. One of his indulgences is catching up on daytime talk shows.

"There is nothing like time off when you are a football player," he said. "When you have two hours between class to go home, it's life. You live and breath it. Getting to watch Ellen, it's like fun. It's only happens every couple of months. I love those type of things."

While a quiet hour alone with Ellen remains coveted, Bercovici understands that he is a man in demand on many fronts. As his public profile is only going to increase, he hopes that he can serve as an example to the next generation of Sun Devil Nation.

"I like to share my experience as a college athlete with everyone that I can," he said, "because if one kid in Pop Warner wants to Berco, that's something that just creates some smiles."

It was another fun spring break day for 12-year-old Caleb and his eight-year-old brother Jacob. After enjoying the sights and sounds of the Phoenix Zoo, their family stopped by the Tempe Oregano's location for some lunch.

As they sat at their table, something nearby caught the boys' attention.

Hey, over there. Could it be? Was it really him?

"We weren't 100 percent sure it was him, but we were pretty sure," Caleb said. "We were deciding who would talk to him."

Stephen Petersen/Facebook

While that debate took place, the man sitting at that adjacent table happened to overhear the conversation. He then did the only thing he could.

"He just turned around, pulled his chair up to our table, and said ‘Hey, I'll just sit with you guys for a while,'" said Caleb. "It was kind of cool."

Stephen Petersen/Facebook

Mike Bercovici spent about 15 minutes chatting with the starstruck admirers. Before he left, he gave them an autographed pair of cleats, an ASU hat, and a story that will stick with them forever.

"It shows he's a good guy, and that he's responsible and nice," said Caleb.

Their father Jason, an ASU graduate and season ticket holder, appreciated the selfless gesture from his sons' new favorite player.

"I was really surprised and blown away," Jason said. "It speaks volumes to the program that has developed over the past few years under Coach Graham and the football staff. That he takes the time to come over and meet with them means a lot to them. It's nice that he understands how much that means to little kids and how it can shape their future down the road."

Now that he's met his hero, how does Caleb think Bercovici will do this season?

"I'm pretty excited to see how well he's going to play. I think he's a very good player, and he'll do good."

Over the last four years, Mike Bercovici has become many things. A promising football player, a fan favorite, a college graduate, and a role model to many.

With just a few more months left in his Sun Devil career, he's looking to add a few more titles to the list.

"At the top is being 2016 national champions," he said. "The second goal is being Pac-12 champions. The third is to win the Heisman Trophy. The fourth goal is being a first-round draft pick. The fifth is to get my Master's degree in Sports Law and Business."

It won't be long until we know whether Bercovici was successful in reaching those lofty goals. A lot is riding on how he performs during his final season.

No matter what happens this fall, whether ASU returns to the Rose Bowl or falls short, Bercovici hopes that when fans look back upon his career, they remember him as one thing.

"A Sun Devil. I've embodied those words. What a Sun Devil is is a champion, not just a winner.

"People may remember the Jael Mary, but I just want people to know that if you remain a Sun Devil, good things happen to Sun Devils."