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With Kelly out, Bercovici gets his chance

9/25/2014

TEMPE, Ariz. -- On Jan. 6, 2012, Mike Bercovici was chilling with some friends when he got a call from then-Arizona State receiver Aaron Pflugrad. There was some big news for the Sun Devils' backup quarterback. In a surprise to many, junior Brock Osweiler, the team's starting quarterback, had decided to enter the NFL draft.

That is how an article began in advance of Arizona State spring practices in March 2012. Thirty-two months later, Bercovici can still recall exactly how he felt upon hearing the news of Osweiler's departure.

“It was an opportunity I had been waiting for my entire life," he said this week.

In 2011, Bercovici had beaten out Taylor Kelly for the backup quarterback spot. That made him a slight favorite to win the job over Kelly and redshirt freshman Michael Eubank in advance of the 2012 season. When spring practices ended, Bercovici was viewed as slightly ahead of Eubank, with Kelly a fairly distant third option.

Things changed. Dramatically. Kelly won the job -- coach Todd Graham even admitted at the time that it was a surprise -- and has played his way onto Arizona State's all-time top QB list over two-plus seasons. Bercovici has had to settle for being considered one of the conference's more talented backups, not that he ever got comfortable viewing himself that way.

“My hunger to be a starting quarterback hasn’t changed since I lost that competition," he said.

Just as the vice president is a heartbeat from the Oval Office, so a backup quarterback is an unfortunate play away from taking over an offense. The backup quarterback is the irrelevant mop-up guy with a backward baseball cap on the sideline -- until he becomes a team's most important player.

For Bercovici, that transition happened when Kelly hurt his foot on the Sun Devils' final possession of the third quarter Sept. 13 at Colorado.

Bercovici, who has thrown 24 career passes, will therefore make his first career start this week. As if that isn't big enough, it will be Thursday night against No. 11 UCLA.

So, yeah, big stage for a first start. But the relentlessly upbeat Graham said he is completely comfortable with Bercovici starting.

“We feel like we’ve got one of the best one-two quarterback combinations in the country," Graham said.

“He’s one of the last guys I’m worried about," he added later. "If this happened to any other team -- or any other team I’ve had -- it would be devastating.”

There's a significant distance, however, between being theoretically good and proving it on the field. While Bercovici is well-versed with the Sun Devils' offense and has an undeniably strong arm, he remains an unknown commodity. The chief concern is that he too often believes he can use that strong arm to fire a pass through a window in the secondary that isn't much larger than a keyhole. He knows this just as well as his coaches. In fact, he recalls how it might have cost him the job during 2012 preseason camp.

“At the start of camp, something in the minds of every quarterback is not turning the ball over," Bercovici said. "That’s what we stress here at Arizona State. If you go back and look at film, I threw two interceptions. I knew from there I was playing catch-up. Taylor didn’t throw any interceptions.”

Said offensive coordinator Mike Norvell: “That’s huge. That’s part of his development. Obviously, he has a tremendous arm. He can make every throw on the field that needs to be made. But it’s also understanding progressions and getting to when it’s time to go to that next progression and taking what the defense gives you.”

Bercovici can't try to overcome two-plus years of frustration on every pass of every drive. Against UCLA, he needs to distribute the ball to his playmakers, of which he has plenty, and not force the action. Although he might get a few more shots downfield -- and fewer runs -- than Kelly, Bercovici's first priority is to protect the football. Considering the past two games between these teams have come down to the final possession, every miscue figures to be as critical -- if not more so -- as every big play.

It's probably a good sign, then, that Bercovici doesn't sound like a guy looking for personal vindication.

“I feel like it is my duty to have no setbacks with me at quarterback," he said. "It’s my duty to make sure we’re still undefeated when [Kelly] comes back. I owe that to him, and I owe that to the team.”

Such thinking shouldn't be too surprising, considering Bercovici's decision not to transfer already revealed him to be an unselfish guy. While many college quarterbacks quickly go looking for starting jobs after losing a competition -- Eubank is now the starting quarterback at Samford in Birmingham, Alabama -- Bercovici opted to stick it out. Yes, he thought about leaving, but those thoughts lost.

“Obviously, those thoughts race through your head, but it [would have been] a bitter taste to put on different colors," he said.

While the present is big enough for the 15th-ranked Sun Devils, there also is the future. Bercovici stuck around because he saw himself as the starter in 2015, when Kelly heads to the NFL. If anyone knows that's not a given, though, it's Bercovici. For one, there's a potential challenge from touted incoming freshman Brady White.

Playing well and winning while Kelly is out for what might be a month or more would significantly bolster his case for next year. Bercovici knew that question was coming.

“In theory, it would," he said. "But for these seniors, these guys I’ve been around for four years, it’s their time right now. My 100 percent focus is I want to be the best quarterback I can be on Thursday night for those guys.”

In other words, the future is now for Bercovici. It's not how he envisioned things 32 months ago, but he has too much on his plate this week to quibble with the whims of fortune.