Last Saturday's debacle in Houston was the product of multiple influences for the Arizona State Sun Devils. Poor offensive line play, dropped balls from receivers and continued special teams woes hampered the Sun Devils against Texas A&M in what will be looked back on as a missed opportunity.
But despite the fact that they barely eclipsed 150 yards of collective offense in the first three quarters combined, the Sun Devils were within three yards of pay dirt to pull themselves back within one possession of the Aggies. Mike Bercovici took the shotgun snap, read the defense and handed off to Demario Richard, who was stuffed in the backfield. Any time a rushing play gets stopped short of the line of scrimmage, there's a collective frustration. In replays, however, it appears clear that if Bercovici kept the ball on the read and made his own gasp for the end zone, he would've had a much better chance than Richard.
The lapse in judgement from Bercovici on that play was not an isolated incident, as there were a number of instances on the night in which a quarterback keeper would've resulted in a better outcome than the handoff did. But Bercovici is not a running quarterback, and expecting him to make decisions in zone read plays is to expect him to be a quarterback he isn't.
So why is the offense still acting like Taylor Kelly's under center? There was an over-concentration of zone reads and horizontal throwing plays, both of which rarely found any success. We know from last season's that Bercovici's strengths are in his throwing arm, and yet the downfield passing didn't start until the Sun Devils were two possessions down in the fourth quarter. The ASU offense spent the entire night trying to spark a flame through screens and zone reads and didn't realize it wasn't working until they had their backs against the wall.
The challenge in college football is recruiting players that can play in a system. Taylor Kelly, despite only being a two-star prospect coming out of high school, earned his place at ASU and proved to be its best system quarterback for three seasons. He didn't excel because he was supremely fast or had a cannon for an arm but the play-calling and entire offensive philosophy fit him to a 'T.'
It's clear that Bercovici's better fit for a different philosophy, one that does away with the horizontal passing attack and opens up the vertical game. He does have a cannon for an arm, so the question now becomes does the offense adjust around Bercovici's strengths or does Bercovici continue to try and run a system he's not best fit for?
Schools like USC and Florida State use their pro-style offenses as recruiting chips for top prospects, as the opportunity to learn in a system similar to the NFL offenses is appealing to a recruit who might have realistic professional hopes. There's a reason why schools like Cal Poly, New Mexico and the military academies run the complicated option offenses that they do, they recruit those athletes and that's how they're able to hang with larger schools. ASU has a recruiting pipeline over the past couple of seasons that projects well for a return of the zone read offense as a consistent factor, with Manny Wilkins sitting in wait for his turn and Dylan Sterling-Cole coming in hot a couple years from now.
ASU's got elite dual-threat quarterbacks in the waiting, but as long as they're going to go with Bercovici, adjusting the play-calling to give him more downfield opportunities is the only way he'll develop a rhythm.