By James Romo for DieHardDevil.com
The 2011 Sun Devil football season marked the end of an abbreviated Brock Osweiller quarterback era when he unexpectedly declared himself eligible for the NFL draft after just one season as a full-time starter. After the initial shock wore off, Sun Devil Nation took a deep breath and collective sigh of relief knowing there is a cupboard stacked full of potential behind center in the years ahead. But potential is just the ability that has yet to be proven, and there exists only a handful of actual game repetitions between the three young men, all with different skill sets, vying for the starting job.
Redshirt Sophomore Taylor Kelly (6-1, 214) is a mobile, dual-threat quarterback named the 2009-2010 Gatorade Idaho Football Player of the Year. As a high school senior, he completed 182 of 265 passes (68.7-percent) for 2,509 yards and 22 touchdowns in addition to 1,005 rushing yards on 156 carries (6.1 avg.) with 10 rushing scores. Pretty solid numbers that remind many Sun Devil fans of another big time quarterback from Idaho nicknamed “The Snake.”
True Sophomore Michael Bercovici (6-1, 205) is a prototypical pocket-passer with a quick release and rifle arm. He is the least mobile of the three quarterbacks getting reps this spring, but widely regarded as the most accurate passer on the roster after completing 240-of-399 passes (60.2 pct.) for 3,755 yards with 37 touchdowns and only nine interceptions as a high school senior in 2010. This kid can flat zip the ball around the yard.
Redshirt Freshman Michael Eubank (6-5, 242) was the #8 ranked dual-threat quarterback coming out of Centennial High School in Corona, CA. He was recruited to Pittsburgh by Coach Graham, but ultimately honored his pledge to ASU and figures to be best suited to run Coach Graham’s “high octane” offense due to his combination of size, running ability, and arm strength. As a senior in high school, he completed 165-of-245 passes (67.3 pct.) for 2,831 yards with 22 touchdowns and only three interceptions and added 1,329 rushing yards on 136 carries (9.8 avg.) with 19 rushing touchdowns. Eubank looks the part, and has the size and athleticism to become a great quarterback.
All three quarterbacks have been given equal opportunity to run the first team offense throughout spring. Because this offense is not designed for a QB to sit in the pocket and pick apart a defense, Kelly and Eubank seem to be better suited due to their athleticism and ability to make plays with their feet and throwing on the run. Couple that with what will surely be a run-heavy philosophy due to an unproven receiving core and incredible depth at running back, Bercovici would have to be head and shoulders better at decision-making and passing efficiency to win the job. At the end of spring practice and the final scrimmage at Sun Devil Stadium, it is clear that no one has at this point. All three have made plays, but all three have also been inconsistent with regard to making the proper reads resulting in forced balls and turnovers. One common theme among the three is a tendency to lock onto their primary receiver on pass plays, and not make their way through progressions to find second and third options.
Overall, Kelly could be deemed the most consistent running the offense, but his inability to make big plays with his arm has left the offense a watered-down version of the “high octane” that Coach Graham has preached. He is fearless as a ball-carrier, but has been reluctant to throw the ball vertically to receivers deep down field.
Eubank has all the physical tools to be “the guy”, but repeated poor decision-making and ill-advised passes have kept the other two in the race. He also tends to tuck it and run before ever looking for secondary targets. However, he is very impressive when he does carry the ball due to his size, speed, and resistance to be tackled by any single defender. How that translates to game success if defenses decide to stack the box against him, and force him to throw is a rather scary prospect at this point. He does, however, look to throw the ball down field more often than the others demonstrating greater big play ability.
Bercovici , who has solid leadership skills, is the least mobile of the three and tends to force balls into tight spaces. He still throws the most “catchable” ball which helps a receiving core, devoid of any true super stars, make plays down field. With Pac-12 defenses recruiting more and more speed, Bercovici will have to make up for his lack of running ability with his arm strength to be able to execute this offense to its full potential. It is possible, with a run heavy attack.
Much of the improvement by all three quarterbacks moving forward is going to depend on how much time is spent with the receivers and playbook over the summer. Going into the fall, I am confident that the reps will not be spread out nearly as evenly as the coaching staff will have to give the majority of opportunities to the one they believe will be getting the nod on game days. Coaches and fans will need a higher level of patience and tolerance for error in the 2012 season. It will be exciting in one moment, and frustrating in the next due to a steep learning curve playing at the Division One level. The talent and depth at running back will go a long way in masking some of the inefficiency at QB, but this offense is built on a balanced attack. That means that someone is going to have to make huge strides between now and September 1st.
My best guess is that the coaching staff may not select the player who is outperforming the others unless he has clearly separated himself from the pack, rather selecting and developing the one who has the most potential to eventually maximize the offensive scheme. One thing is certain; spending another several months in informal workouts and film study over the summer is going to go a long way in developing greater consistency, timing, rhythm, and confidence. All of these players seem to be very highly regarded among teammates, and have the strong character with which Coach Graham has promised to fill his roster.
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