Arizona State's first full-blown scrimmage of the month is Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium and could serve as an opportunity for its coaching staff to narrow its focus to two of the three scholarship quarterbacks competing for the Aug. 30 starting nod against Northern Arizona.
"We cannot rep three people (long term)," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "We're hoping to get this done by this weekend. [Today] is a big day for them. We're further along. I feel good about where we're at. That's going to be really key for us, getting someone who can operate and not turn the ball over, just distribute the ball to our players."
Sophomore Mike Bercovici entered camp as a slight favorite according to offseason comments by Graham, but after being interception-prone in the first few practices, things appear to have changed.
In the last week, sophomore Taylor Kelly has worked with the first-team in the period of practice media is able to observe much more frequently than Bercovici or red shirt freshman Michael Eubank. Bercovici has been third more often then the other two players.
"It gave me a little chip on my shoulder to go out and compete," Kelly said of Graham's suggestion that Bercovici had a bit of an edge. "It's not over yet, We're still out there competing and I've got to go out there and get better every day."
If first-team reps can be taken as a sign of the current pecking order, it's hard to believe Kelly isn't best positioned among the three going into Saturday's scrimmage. He received the first reps in four of the last six sessions.
But the competition still appears close, with Eubank claiming to have not thrown a single interception in team periods to this point, something the coaches repeatedly point to as a key in determining who will emerge victorious.
"It's great especially coming from the spring where all I threw was interceptions," Eubank said. "Being able to secure the ball and have good ball security is really big for me and it's giving me a lot of comfort in the offense."
Don't count out Bercovici, as its already been proven by what happened to him in the first week of camp that things can change quickly. He's looked better of late and is building confidence.
"I felt the first couple days, everybody is coming out rusty, but I didn't complete enough passes and the last few days I've gotten my feet underneath me and started completing more passes and trusting the offense," Bercovici said. "I watched a lot of film on my team plays and it's all about predetermining my throws. A lot of times I like what I see in the coverage and my eyes are there and that's where I throw the ball instead of going through my reads and that's where I felt I struggled."
Arizona's summer inferno isn't the only wilt-inducer, as pressure in August has led to a lot of quarterbacks melting down over the years. In 2005, the Sun Devils had two impressive quarterbacks in camp, Rudy Carpenter and Sam Keller, but both struggled all month before each lit up opposing defenses repeatedly during the season that followed.
"It definitely is a huge thing but I don't pay attention to it," Eubank said. "I just come out and play every day. I look at it as coming out here and playing with my brothers. I'm on the sidelines going over plays with T.K. and Berco. I don't look at it like that's my completion so I'm not going to help them. We all want the same thing which is the best football team we can have and I just hope I'm the person the coaches feel can be that guy."
Kelly's emergence no doubt comes as a surprise to some observers but his offensive coordinator and position coach Mike Norvell isn't one of them.
"Really an improvement in the timing aspect," Norvell said, when asked how Kelly has developed. "He's getting it out on time and being able to really have some force. I think he had a great summer in the weight room, I think he's throwing the ball a little harder than he was in the spring, able to complete more of the vertical downfield shots. He's a great operator. He's a guy who does a lot of good things. I'm excited about how he's progressed and what he's doing so far."
Overall, Norvell believes the group has been noticeable strides from the spring, when it was just working to learn the scheme and get on the same page with receivers.
"They're coming along," Norvell said. "We're charting everything they are doing. The key thing is finding the guy who is going to put us in the best position to win football games. That's something we're working on and getting closer and closer every day. They're out here competing and are all great guy sand good players so we'll see how they do in the scrimmage."
Kelly and Eubank have more of an ability to make plays with their feet, the importance of which in this offense is self-evident due to the time quarterbacks spend running through a piece of equipment called "the gauntlet" which acts as several would be tacklers' arms reaching for the tackle and a strip of the football. For Bercovici, who has the best arm of the three, the key is not turning the ball over.
"I've always had a bit of a gunslinger mentality," Bercovici admitted. "I feel like it doesn't matter the size of the window I can get the ball in there. It's helped and hurt me. Coach has said that before. He knows I can make any throw on the field but sometimes instead of hitting that back leg and just ripping it in there between three defenders I can take a hitch and take a check down."
Saturday could be the biggest day in the football careers of all three to this point and Kelly knows he's put himself in a position where a strong performance could give him the edge at the position as the team heads to Camp Tontozona Tuesday.
"It's a dream come true," Kelly said. "I've bee dreaming about this and I've got to keep working and I've got to keep grinding."