Prepared to lead

An uncompromising and atypical approach to personal growth and improvement has put fifth-year senior quarterback Mike Bercovici at the doorstep of potential greatness.

When redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici first arrived on campus as an ASU student, Brock Osweiler was preparing to begin his first full season as the Sun Devils’ starting quarterback, Todd Graham had yet to coach a game at Pittsburgh, and the then 17-year-old Bercovici was five months out from returning home to attend senior prom.

Four and a half years after his campaign to become the ASU starting quarterback first began, Bercovici has more than won over the support of his coaches and teammates, and is ready to take the field, or better yet, take office and assume a role he’s long dreamt about.

For four seasons, Bercovici was the Vice President of quarterbacking at ASU. A teammate who said and did all the right things in support of the No. 1, and a player who trained and prepared as if he was one heartbeat away from being thrust into the spotlight.

So often quarterbacks at the college level view one another as adversaries, challengers ready to snatch a rep, a snap, or a game away from their counterpart if any sign of failure of fatigue sets in. But not Bercovici, and not at ASU.

Even when Bercovici lost the starting quarterback competition to Taylor Kelly prior to the 2012 season after entering preseason camp as the clear favorite, Graham was stunned by the resiliency of Bercovici, who always prepared as if he were the one taking the opening snap.

“When Taylor (Kelly) won the job, we didn't tell you guys this, that was for the week,” Graham said. “That was for the week. They were just this close. Then obviously Taylor never -- nothing ever -- he never gave him a chance, and he was still right there. You wouldn't believe this guy. This guy would prepare every week like this was his team, every week.”

When Bercovici first arrived at ASU, there were expectations the 2012 season would be his coming out party. A more heralded recruit than Kelly, and a better fit for then-offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s scheme, Bercovici saw limited action as the second string quarterback behind Osweiler in 2011.

But following Dennis Erickson’s dismissal at the end of 2011, a newly hired Graham brought in Mike Norvell to run a high-octane, up-tempo offense that lent itself to a dual-threat quarterback.

The transition was tough on Bercovici, who sometimes looked like a forgotten piece to a puzzle that had already been completed. The contrast in offensive philosophies was so stark, in fact, that for the first time on Monday, Graham admitted publicly he thought Bercovici would likely transfer away from ASU after losing the job.

“I think, one, you look at what that says about his character, and, I mean, I think just being honest with you, I thought he would probably transfer, just being honest with you,” Graham said. “Everybody was like, hey, he's such a talented player. Obviously we didn't want him to, but that speaks volumes about his character.”

Speculation that Bercovici would transfer didn’t just exist internally at ASU, as it was obvious Bercovici had fallen behind both Kelly and fellow quarterback Michael Eubank on the depth chart.

But instead of exploring options elsewhere, Bercovici made an increasingly unpopular decision among college athletes in today’s landscape: He decided to stay put.

A company man from day one, Bercovici opted to survive and advance by adapting his skillset to the offense Norvell brought to the desert.

In the week leading up to his first season as a full-time starting quarterback, Bercovici hasn’t been goaded into answering the sentimental questions. While he could spend time embracing the “full circle” narrative, he echoed Graham’s statement that not much has changed in his preparation for Saturday’s contest.

“Not much has been different,” Bercovici said. “I think that obviously the team believes in this team. I think that's what is unique about this group. I think the people that sit in this room, when Coach Graham comes in to talk there is no doubt what our goals are, what our intentions are. So when we go out there and practice, we have an extremely veteran-led group, a lot of leaders that start, a lot of seniors that start, and that is our advantage right now.”

Bercovici’s story of perseverance is rare, but what might be more unusual is a team replacing a three-year starter at the quarterback position without holding an open competition.

After Kelly played in his final ASU game at the Sun Bowl in December, Graham turned to Bercovici in the locker room after the game and told him it was his team now. Graham opted to bypass an open competition, and in doing so, displayed the immense faith he has in a man who spent four years as a dedicated apprentice.

“As soon as the season was over, matter of fact, in bowl preparation, I told Mike (Bercovici) this is your team,” Graham said. “I mean, there’s not, obviously we have competition, but there was no, there was not anybody close to where he’s at. So this is definitely his team.”

Though Bercovici’s only extended experience as a starting quarterback came after Kelly suffered a foot injury midway through last season, the promise he showed and the command with which he engineered drives gave the coaching staff assurance Bercovici would be ready for this season.

After a difficult opening act against UCLA, Bercovici led the Sun Devils to back-to-back victories over USC and Stanford and culminated the season with totals of 1,445 yards and 12 touchdowns. The monstrous numbers for such limited time suggest Bercovici has the potential for a prolific season if he can stay healthy, but he insists he’ll be nothing more than a facilitator for the rest of the team’s playmakers this year.

“I consider myself a manager as a quarterback of this football team,” Bercovici said. “Coach calls it a lot of different terms, operator, surgeon, anything that you can do, and that involves your arm and your legs. One of the biggest things I've learned working with [offensive coordinator Mike] Norvell is when an opportunity calls to run, that's how you can make this offense go. Whatever the situation calls for, we have an incredible offensive line, and receivers that can make plays and running backs that can block and catch.”

Installing Bercovici as the starter eight months prior to the season-opener could have bred a sense of complacency for the first time in Bercovici’s career, but that doesn't seem to be the way the quarterback is hard-wired. Bercovici insists time on the sidelines and in the film room the past four years has inspired him to want to push even harder during his final season at ASU.

Like a businessperson who finally experiences success, Bercovici is exploring every possible way to expand that prosperity and continue growing the model, or in this case, his team’s potential.

“Something that Coach Graham talked to me about is every single day you step on that practice field you get better, and he says if I can continuously get better every single day, this football team will achieve the goals that we want to achieve,” Bercovici said. “I've really tried to go out there in fall camp right now and whether it's encouraging offensive linemen if they go offsides, whether it's talking to Gump (Hayes) and making sure he knows what he's doing, talking to D.J. (Foster), making him more of a leader.”

Bercovici has had plenty of opportunities to bask in the preseason accolades ASU has received or to soak up a moment he’s worked so hard to realize, but part of why Graham believes his quarterback can be successful is because he’s not doing those things.

The entire Sun Devil team has been especially tight-lipped in the weeks leading up to the season-opener, with most interview answers leading back to a central theme that all ASU cares about is moving to 1-0.

Downplaying the big-game atmosphere and downplaying the notion that Saturday’s game has national implications is emblematic of the way Bercovici wants to approach each week this season, and that type of intense focus is part of the reason Graham believes both Kelly and Bercovici might one day have futures as lawyers.

“I think the strength of Mike Bercovici is not his physical talents, it's the intangibles,” Graham said. “It's his character. It's his ability to handle adversity. It's how hard he studies the game and how smart he is. He walks the walk. That's how he's earned the respect of our players. So mental maturity would be how just really mature in how he approaches every day.”

As the Sun Devils progressed down the stretch of the 2014 season, Graham saw the mental maturity he knew Bercovici possessed emanating once again. After leading ASU to a pair of season-saving victories, Bercovici returned to the sidelines and his role as a backup to allow Kelly to reassume the starting job down the stretch.

Though Kelly’s final games produced mixed results, Bercovici stayed true to his Vice President persona, supporting his colleague and preparing every day just in case his number was called upon.

In his fifth and final year with the Sun Devil program, Bercovici has evolved from a wide-eyed teenager to a grizzled veteran, a company man stumping on behalf of a coaching staff that once thought Bercovici might opt to transfer elsewhere.

When Bercovici finally does stand ready to take the first season-opening snap of his career on Saturday, it’ll be just another day at the office for a player who has prepared himself for this moment each day he’s spent with the program.

That’s why it’s no surprise that after watching just three of Bercovici’s starts, Graham shut down a quarterback competition before it got started, and it’s why he believes Bercovici can be the best quarterback he’s ever coached.

“I know one thing, if I was an NFL coach, that's the kind of quarterback I'd look for is a guy that's not just talked about character but has demonstrated it by his walk,” Graham said. “So Mike's (Bercovici) getting better every day. He's like having a coach on the field. All the things that Taylor (Kelly) did, he's at that level and expanded on that level. I think Taylor's the best I've ever coached and I think that Mike's got a chance to be better.”

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