SAN DIEGO — These days in Tempe, there is a quarterback battle being waged to decide who will start for the Arizona State Sun Devils when they open up their season against Northern Arizona on Sept. 3.
It’s an intriguing situation, and at this point no one knows who will be taking the snaps in Week 1.
One year ago, there was no such story line coming out of ASU camp. No, back then fifth-year senior Mike Bercovici was the unquestioned starter and, in some eyes, a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate for a team that was expected to compete for a Pac-12 title.
Of course, we all know things did not go quite according to plan, as Bercovici was good but not great and the Sun Devils slumped to a disappointing 6-7 record.
He passed for 3,855 yards and 30 touchdowns with nine interceptions in his lone season as the full-time starter, and though he was not selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, he was given a shot after signing with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent.
And so far in his brief tenure with team, so good.
“It’s been awesome — the day-in, day-out grind of seven days a week, it’s a full-time football job,” he said. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid. To sit there every day and have a Chargers logo on my helmet, it’s surreal.”
Having grown up in California, Bercovici was a Chargers fan long before he was a member of the team, and getting to be in the same quarterback room as Philip Rivers is something he is definitely enjoying.
One of the best passers in the game, seeing what goes into being a successful NFL QB has been an eye opening experience for Bercovici.
“I’ve always envied quarterbacks growing up — you watch them on TV, you see all that they’re doing, but I guess you don’t really see the amount of responsibility these guys have out here on the field,” he said. “Being one of the guys, obviously I’m new and I’m young and the standards aren’t as high for me, but if I want to be able to impress these coaches you’ve got to show that type of responsibility, that understanding of not only just the offense, but the defense.
“And those are the type of things that stick out to me, that when 17 (Rivers) is in there, it’s like wow, this guy can get to any play at any time.”
For Bercovici, the goal right now is to get to the season, either on the roster or maybe the practice squad. He is part of a deep and experienced quarterback room that is led by the starter Rivers, but also features backups Kellen Clemens and Zach Mettenberger, both of whom have started games in the NFL.
Given that the Chargers are not looking at him to be a starter anytime soon, the key is for Berco, as he is known, to show he is improving and has enough potential to warrant being kept around.
“Who’s Berco,” Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt asked, before being told it was the rookie QB. “Is that his name?
“I knew that, I was just kidding.”
It would have been a bad sign for the QB’s chances if Whisenhunt did not know who he was.
“He’s done a nice job,” the coach added. “I think coming from seeing him run around and make plays at Arizona State and do a good job there, he’s working hard in the transition to the NFL and he’s made good progress.”
Bercovici said it’s all a different perspective for him, as he went from being the old guy in the Sun Devils’ QB room to being the young one in the Chargers’, but at the same time he’s enjoyed the experience.
If there is one thing from his time with the Chargers that has surprised him, though, he said it’s the amount of preparation that is necessary in order to be ready for practices.
He admits that he always thought practice was practice, and that he had a good handle on what was required of him.
“When it comes down to it, if you want to be successful out here there’s so much more that goes into it,” he said. “Late night, you’ve got to sacrifice a little bit of sleep, both night and in the morning.”
Bercovici has noticed how players like Rivers and Clemens prepare, making sure they are constantly reviewing the script.
“And it’s practice,” he said. “I’ve never been accustomed to that, but just kind of starting to get acclimated to that lifestyle.”
Life as a quarterback is significantly different in the NFL than in college, even at a Pac-12 school. It wasn’t long ago where Bercovici had confidence as a fifth year senior that he knew the entire playbook, but in the NFL, it’s almost as if no one can have complete mastery of the offense.
“But Philip, who’s been here for 13 years, he’s still kind of in that playbook getting after it,” Bercovici said of the 34-year-old five-time Pro Bowler. “And what’s been so amazing is that he’s been able to teach me a lot of his thought process. He’s not worried about sharing his thought process because he’s extremely active with that, and that’s what’s been so great.”
None of this is to say Bercovici felt ill-prepared from his time working under Todd Graham and Mike Norvell at Arizona State. To the contrary, he feels like his time in Tempe “absolutely” prepared him for what’s facing now.
“Besides the X’s and O’s of football, it’s more about the type of person you are,” he said. “If you’re going to be in this facility for years on end, you’re going to have to have high character, and that’s all of what Coach Graham preaches.”
As Bercovici continues in the next phase of his career, he said he is still keeping an eye on what’s happening with his former team, especially when it comes to the quarterbacks. Though his career in Tempe ended on a bit of a sour note with a sub-par season and a loss in the Cactus Bowl, he has nothing but fond memories of his time at ASU.
“Oh man, I love it,” he said. “I miss it so much — I just miss being in the locker room, messing around with those guys; the fans and everything. I’m excited to go back and watch on the other side, I guess you could say.”
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