ASU backup QB competition ongoing

Three Arizona State quarterbacks are jockeying for position for position on the depth chart behind senior starter Mike Bercovici, in a narrative that may continue for another year or perhaps longer.

During Taylor Kelly’s tenure as the starting quarterback, the Arizona State football program enjoyed a luxury few programs in the country have benefitted from in recent years. That luxury was the presence of a dedicated and able backup in the form of current starter and fifth-year senior quarterback Mike Bercovici.

Though outsiders will never know whether Bercovici could have handled running offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s scheme to the same degree Kelly did during the 2012 and 2013 seasons, a foot injury Kelly suffered against Colorado last September gave Bercovici the first chance to prove the depth Graham has coveted at the position.

After somewhat of a rough performance against UCLA in his first career start, Bercovici helped save the Sun Devils’ season by leading the team to victories over USC and Stanford before Kelly returned for a contest against Washington.

Much like the past two fall camps, ASU entered this season with a capable veteran entrenched in the starting role at quarterback, although this year it’s Bercovici, not Kelly, leading the offense. Still, the Sun Devils are at least outwardly entertaining a wide-open competition for the second-string spot, as last year’s circumstances served as a reminder quarterback health is often volatile.

This year, three different quarterbacks are vying to see their name listed second on the depth chart. Redshirt freshman Manny Wilkins, true freshman Bryce Perkins, and true freshman Brady White are have learned on the fly and offensive coordinator Mike Novell has divvied up second-team reps. Bercovici has remained politically neutral but maintained that each member of the trio could step in and help ASU win games this season.

“They’re all individual, they can all make plays, and they’re all great leaders so whoever it is, I have full trust in anybody who can back up myself and go win a championship for this team,” Bercovici said.

Though he’s just a redshirt freshman, Wilkins could have a leg up on the competition due to the additional year spent learning the nuances of the offense. Wilkins said he’s gleaned a considerable amount of knowledge from standing on the sidelines and watching Kelly and Bercovici operate, and believes the mental reps have given him an opportunity to see different components work within the offense.

“Those are almost some of the best reps for me,” Wilkins said “I think it’s great during 7-on-7s to just sit back and take a knee or sit back and view the safeties and adjustors, look at alignment of guys and that’s where I’ve really grown as a quarterback in seeing things.”

Prior to arriving at ASU, Wilkins was a key member of the 2014 recruiting class. He committed to the Sun Devils more than eight months before Signing Day, and his ability to inspire other recruits to gravitate toward the ASU program demonstrated leadership.

After spending his first year at ASU as an understudy to a pair of veteran quarterbacks, Wilkins has taken more initiative and said his leadership skills have transferred into more on-field settings.

“Just growing up, seeing things from a different perspective, being able to help guys learn on the field and being a facilitator,” Wilkins said, when asked about the biggest difference between his first and second seasons. “Basically, being a leader out there, I know the offense pretty well and there’s stuff to learn all the time, but when somebody asks me a question, I feel confident in my answers and confident that when I tell them something the play is going to work out.”

While Wilkins is in his third semester at Arizona State, White is already on semester two after enrolling early this spring. The Newhall, California, Hart High School product spent the spring practice slate adjusting to the rigors of college life while getting an upper hand on learning the offense.

White looked poised beyond his years at times this spring, and believes the time he spent in an on-the-field learning environment was an essential part of his overall development. A motivated student, White also has his sights set on pursuing his master’s degree later on in his ASU career.

“To me, it was a big deal,” White said about enrolling early. “Not only just for football, for football you get a head start, you get an early look at the playbook and get experience in the spring and all that. But on top of that, you get ahead in school, I’m probably going to be able to graduate within three years, and then work on my master’s so I think that’s a big deal especially because I take pride in my academics.”

White’s fellow true freshman Perkins didn’t have the same chance to enroll early, but as a local product hailing from Chandler, Perkins spent a number of Saturdays observing ASU practices on the field this spring.

Wilkins and White owned a competitive advantage in terms of the number of reps they entered camp with, but in terms of feeling comfortable, perhaps no one feels more at home than Perkins does as his parents are often on the sidelines at ASU practices.

After his brother Paul elected to play college football at UCLA, Perkins said the chance to stay home and play in front of his mother has been an especially rewarding part of his early college experience.

“I know it’s easier on them (parents) because my other brother is out there at UCLA and it was hard for my mom especially when he left so me staying home helped her out and gave her a sense of comfort,” Perkins said. “Knowing that I’m right up the road and she can come and see me whenever she wants to.”

All three quarterbacks competing to become Bercovici’s backup have certainly achieved a level of comfort early in their careers at ASU, but the pair of true freshmen are still working to match Wilkins in terms of having a true feel for the difference in the speed of the game.

“Personally, I’m happy with how my transition has gone from spring to fall, still a lot of things to work on, still have to keep mastering the playbook, but it’s all those reps which help you learn it and get to the point where [Bercovici's] at so I’m just going to do all I can,” White said.

And even though three players are battling for one coveted spot, the quarterbacks are doing everything possible to make sure each player is on the same page when it comes to running the offense.

For a unit that appears to buy into teamwork as much as it does individual success, it’s no surprise they’ve developed trust in one another and aren’t afraid to lend each other tips that could pay dividends for the entire team.

“It was cool because they know a lot and it helped me out, helped my game out,” Perkins said about his initial transition. “Seeing everything, not just one part of the play, but I think the whole aspect of a play, and it just is amazing how much everybody knows everything in this offense and they did a really good job of catching me up to speed and not being selfish about it and I’m grateful for that.”

The Foundation for the Future

After spending an ample amount of time demonstrating his talent and preparation at dress rehearsals, Bercovici’s patience and persistence finally paid off last fall. The maturity Bercovici displayed during his redshirt junior season is rare at the college level, and his poise set the foundation for the expectations placed on backup quarterbacks into the future at ASU.

Because Bercovici spent so much time honing his craft away from the spotlight, the fifth-year player has invested time and energy into making sure each of the three backups feels ready to produce should they hear their number called.

“I think if you ask any of those guys, I love them like my family,” Bercovici said. “I have a special interest in backup quarterbacks as you guys probably could understand, but those guys hold a real special place in my heart. I can’t wait to be an alumnus one day and see them play because they can all do their own thing.”

All three quarterbacks cite a special bond with Bercovici as a driving factor in their confidence, especially Wilkins, who had a first hand opportunity to watch Bercovici’s hard work materialize into an opportunity last season. Though Bercovici was thrust into an unfamiliar role, Wilkins said he learned a significant amount about the quarterback position simply through the way Bercovici interacted with teammates.

“One of the biggest things Berco has really taught me is that you’re not always friends with your teammates,” Wilkins said. “There are times where you have to let a guy know what he has to do and sometimes it’s not nice, but sometimes the hardest information to give is the mean stuff. It’s just about knowing who you’re talking to and how to talk to them.”

Bercovici has taken Wilkins under his wing in the last year or so, but few people know that Bercovici has actually taken Wilkins into his flock altogether. While Wilkins waits for an apartment to become ready, he is biding time living at Bercovici’s house and studying film with the field general.

“I’ve been watching a ton of film, I’ve been putting in countless hours there especially with Berco, right now I’m living at Berc’s house so you know I’m kind of just taking a step back to let the game come to me and show my team how much this program really means to me,” Wilkins said. “And I think that’s the biggest step that I had to take is realizing that I’m very blessed to be in the shoes that I’m in. Without these guys, I would be nobody.”

Bercovici’s friendship with Wilkins has flourished in the last year, and so has the relationship he built with White. The duo has deep Southern California ties, and White admitted he looked up to Bercovici as early as his days in junior high.

While White hadn’t yet matriculated to Hart High School, Bercovici was gaining notice through the region for his success as the starting quarterback at Taft High School.

“It’s meant the world to me,” White said of his relationship with Bercovici. “Him being a Southern California kid, I grew up watching him, his junior and senior year, I was actually probably still in junior high, so I grew up watching him. I knew him before coming out here when I was in high school, and obviously once I got here, the relationship has grown stronger. He’s a guy who’s a man of great character, he’s obviously a leader on this football team and is a great guy outside of the lines as well,” White said.

As the season draws closer, ASU will continue to evaluate its options behind Bercovici. Graham said the backup quarterback position is one that is of some concern for him entering the season. Though the Sun Devils would obviously prefer to have their starter remain healthy all season, 2014 taught the program a valuable lesson in how to ensure the program stays afloat in the midst of a critical injury.

No matter who is the No. 2 quarterback, there's probably no reason for ASU to burn the redshirt year of Perkins or White for mop up duty as long as Bercovici remains healthy. But in the event the senior starter does go down with an injury, someone will have to step into the lineup and that player remains undeclared by ASU coaches.

Perkins maintained Norvell simply wants to continue breeding competition on a daily basis well into the 2015 campaign.

“He just told us to compete every day, come to every practice and compete and that’ll take care of itself,” Perkins said.

Ultimately, it may not take care of itself until this time next year, or perhaps even later. Almost certainly it will be re-visited in the spring.

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