Arizona St.-Texas A&M Preview
(AP) - Arizona State coach Todd Graham is eternally positive, whether it's praising his team to the media, boosting the morale of a player or praising an assistant coach.
He's got plenty of reasons to be optimistic with a proven quarterback who knows the Sun Devils' system inside and out, but Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin doesn't have that luxury under center.
After four seasons of hoping to get an opportunity, Mike Bercovici will trot onto to the field for Saturday night's opener against the Aggies in Houston as the starter and No. 15 Arizona State's unquestioned leader.
''I've got a tremendous belief in this football team,'' Graham said. ''It's the best football team that we've had since we've been at Arizona State. The character, the discipline, the speed, the athleticism, just being in our fourth year, it's just a special time and special group of young men.''
Arizona State has gone through a revitalization since Graham arrived, setting a school record with 28 wins in its first three seasons under the fast-talking Texan. The Sun Devils won 10 games in each of the last two seasons and played for the Pac-12 championship in 2013. Last season, Arizona State beat Duke in the Sun Bowl and finished 12th for its highest season-ending ranking since 1996.
Expectations are even higher this season.
The Sun Devils still have dynamic offensive players, led by Bercovici, who proved to be ready for the spotlight when called into action last season. Versatile senior D.J. Foster skipped a shot at the NFL and running back Kalen Ballage could turn into a star after a solid freshman season.
Bercovici could have transferred from Arizona State without anyone really blaming him. Many of his family and friends urged him to go. Even his coach figured the big-armed quarterback would leave for another program where he could get more playing time.
But giving up is not in Bercovici's nature. He made a commitment to play at Arizona State and was going to stick it out, regardless if it meant holding a clipboard for his entire college career.
''It shows the type of man he is and that he's someone you want to root for,'' offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. ''He could have gone through this season and not played one down, but it wouldn't have changed his mindset.''
Bercovici made the most of his time as a backup, immersing himself in the playbook, treating every practice and game as if he were the starter. He even stood on the sideline during games with his helmet on, most of the chinstrap locked down in case he got the call at any second.
The preparation paid off last season when Taylor Kelly went down with a foot injury in mid-September.
Bercovici set school records for completions and attempts in his first career start against UCLA, throwing for 488 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions on 42-of-68 passing. He followed that up by throwing for 510 yards and five touchdowns against Southern California, giving him 998 yards in his first two starts, an NCAA record.
''He's like having a coach on the field,'' Graham said of Bercovici, who had appeared in 14 games in his first two seasons before playing in 13 in 2014.
Sumlin is going with sophomore Kyle Allen as the starting quarterback over heralded freshman Kyler Murray, and Allen has just a handful of games under his belt.
Allen started the final five last season and passed for 1,322 yards and 16 touchdowns with seven interceptions in nine games. In Texas A&M's Liberty Bowl victory against West Virginia, he passed for a season-best 294 yards and four touchdowns as the Aggies finished 8-5.
''He (deserved) to start off coming into camp as the No. 1 guy,'' Sumlin said.
On the other side of the ball, defensive end Myles Garrett had 11 1/2 sacks last season to break the SEC record for freshmen previously held by Jadeveon Clowney. But he was slowed in the second half of the season by a torn ligament in his left thumb that left him unable to use that hand. He had surgery to repair the injury this offseason and is eager to build on his success.
''I don't feel like I had a good enough season for myself,'' he said. ''I didn't reach my own standards so I'm just ready to get out there and prove I can be better.''
Asked why he wasn't satisfied with a season where he was named the team's defensive MVP, Garrett answered simply.
''If I'm not the best d-lineman, that's not good enough for me,'' he said.
Sumlin hopes he can be a leader for his team and has talked at length with him about embracing that role.
''Because of his talent and ability, when he talks, guys are going to listen,'' Sumlin said.