Neither Arizona State's Mike Bercovici nor Utah's Kendal Thompson began the year as starters. But in a Pac-12 filled with elite passers, the two quarterbacks are thriving and getting their teams some key wins.
If it’s any consolation, though, Thompson didn’t know much about Bercovici either.
Such is life in a conference littered with quarterback talent, where Heisman frontrunners -- here’s looking at you, Marcus Mariota -- often take the spotlight and backups fade into the distance. Preseason Pac-12 talk centered on two things: a staggering 10 returning signal callers and the overall depth of the league.
Eight weeks into the season it’s clear that parity exists. As for those returning quarterbacks, they’re pretty good. But amid injuries and a need for greater consistency, two players have been forced into the spotlight and shined. Two players -- Arizona State's Bercovici and Utah's Thompson -- who got pretty much no coverage in July and August.
When Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly, one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, suffered a right foot injury on Sept. 13 at Colorado, the reaction was swift: Kelly’s gone and now so are the Sun Devils’ hopes for a Pac-12 championship.
But then Bercovici, a three-year backup who had thrown a whopping seven passes in his collegiate career, stepped in. His first start did not go well -- ASU was thumped at home by UCLA, 62-27. But even in the defeat, Bercovici showed potential, passing for 488 yards and three touchdowns. He brought the Sun Devils back the next week, connecting with Jalen Strong on a 46-yard Hail Mary in the final seconds to stun USC, 38-34 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
In a delirious post game sprint to the end zone, Bercovici went “weak in the knees,” falling face first to the ground.
“That fourth quarter was so hectic,” said Bercovici, who completed 27-of-45 passes for 510 yards and five touchdowns against the Trojans. “I was so fired up that entire time, and then we win and I’m on my way to the dog pile and my legs just give out.”
Though he’s watched so many replays he’s lost count, Bercovici said the fact that the Hail Mary worked “still doesn’t really click, still feels fuzzy.” He did a couple arm swings on the sideline to warm up for the longest throw he’d ever make on a football field and then ran out and became a main character in the Pac-12’s wacky season.
The moment was worth the wait.
A 6-foot-1, 200-pounder from Calabasas, Calif., who was originally rated a three star by Rivals.com, Bercovici realized early on that he’d be playing second fiddle for most of his career in Tempe. He didn’t care. Of course he wanted to start, but he felt a commitment to his teammates and loved the school. He decided to stay, and got a good view of some tremendous games in the process. There was the 37-30 overtime triumph over Missouri in 2011, the 2012 come-from-behind win over Arizona in Territorial Cup and last year's dramatic and controversial victory over Wisconsin, just to name a few.
“You can’t really put a price on the ticket I’ve had,” he said.
Arizona State hosts Stanford on Saturday. Kelly has been practicing, and will likely play, though only coach Todd Graham knows how much. Bercovici will likely step back into the shadows once Kelly is 100 percent, a position that earns him admiration around the league.
“In this day and age, the hard thing is to keep a quality backup at your school. Guys want to play right away, and are not overly patient. That’s why we have so many transfers,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. “I empathize with these guys, and I have so much respect for the ones who stick around.”
It’s a position Riley knows well. Two years ago, Oregon State jumped out to a 4-0 start behind then-sophomore starter Sean Mannion, only for the fan base panic when Mannion learned he needed surgery on a torn meniscus. For months, Riley had praised backup Cody Vaz -- who hadn’t thrown a pass in two years -- to mostly deaf ears. Then the Beavers traveled to BYU and against one of the best defenses in the country, Vaz went 20-of-32 for 332 yards and three touchdowns, and Oregon State rolled to a 9-3 season using two quarterbacks.
“We, as a conference, are attractive to quarterbacks because quarterbacks are attracted to production and, boy, we’ve got that,” Riley said. “Look at some of these scores, and these unbelievable numbers. If you’re a high school quarterback, trust me: You’re paying attention to what’s going on out here in the West.”
Such is the case with Utah’s Thompson, an Oklahoma transfer who Riley will deal with this week when Oregon State hosts Utah in a primetime Thursday matchup. Veteran Utes passer Travis Wilson shredded Oregon State on the ground last season, running 13 times for 142 yards in in the Beavers’ 51-48 overtime win in Salt Lake City. Cleared this offseason after multiple concussion problems, Wilson helped Utah to a 3-1 start. But it was Thompson who led the Utes to a stunning 30-28 win over then-No. 8 UCLA two weeks ago in Pasadena.
At Oklahoma, where his dad played quarterback from 1987-88, Thompson played in just two games last season. When it became apparent that then-freshman Trevor Knight was the quarterback of the future for the Sooners, Thompson got his undergrad degree in communications and started shopping for a new destination.
In Salt Lake City he found a program on the brink. The Utes have gone 10-18 in conference play since trading up to the Pac-12. They’ve lost a few heartbreakers but are good for one upset a year, like last year’s 27-21 shocker over then-No. 5 Stanford. Coach Kyle Whittingham built one of the most dominant programs in the Mountain West in the mid-2000s.
Thompson, who checks in at 6-2, 192 pounds, also liked Utah offensive coordinator’s Dave Christensen’s style and what he had done with other dual-threat quarterbacks, like Chase Daniel when Christensen was Missouri’s offensive coordinator.
“I did a lot of research with my dad, watched a lot of YouTube clips,” said Thompson, who also considered Louisville. “This system fits my skill set well, and coach Christensen has really emphasized taking what I’m given, not just throwing the ball away. At Oklahoma, they obviously have more of a history with true pocket passers. But what Christensen has reiterated to me is that the name of the game is ‘move the chains,’ whether you do it by throwing the ball, pitching the ball, running the ball, whatever.
“I thought this was a system I could thrive in.”
Through five games it appears Thompson’s instincts were right. He’s also proven to be a quick learner: After a pick six at Michigan, Thompson told himself his only job was to take care of the ball at UCLA. He did that, finishing an efficient 10-of-13 for 95 yards and one touchdown, with no interceptions. He added 19 rushes for 83 yards.
Whittingham has yet to name a starter for Thursday’s contest and probably won’t for the sake of gamesmanship.
“We’ve got a lot of good quarterbacking in this league,” Riley said, “and new guys are surfacing all the time.”
The preseason predictions were spot on, he added: The Pac-12 is indeed the conference of quarterbacks -- including a few most people didn’t know in August.