For the first time since his debut season as head coach at Arizona State, Todd Graham is exiting spring practice without knowing who will take the first snap of the year at quarterback.
In the spring of 2012, Mike Bercovici, Michael Eubank and Taylor Kelly engaged in a three-way battle for the starting job, with Kelly ultimately winning out and leading the Sun Devils’ offense for three seasons.
It took Kelly until the final week of fall camp to outlast his fellow quarterbacks and earn the starting nod, and after Saturday’s final spring practice, Graham indicated this year’s competition is headed in the same direction.
With sophomore Manny Wilkins, freshman Bryce Perkins and freshman Brady White all taking reps under center this spring, Graham said the Sun Devils have had an opportunity to evaluate and understand what each player brings to the offense.
“I’m excited about those three guys, I’m excited because we’ve done a great job of recruiting guys that are great leaders, winners, I like the fact that they’re very diverse in their talents,” Graham said. “They can extend plays, all three of them. Each one of them brings something different.”
In 2012, none of the three quarterbacks created much separation during spring practices, which allowed Kelly to use the summer and early parts of fall to hone his skillset and establish himself as a leader.
Throughout the summer, Kelly’s work ethic impressed teammates and coaches. When Graham sat down to decide on a starter in in the fall, conversations with team personnel who observed Kelly played a pivotal role in the process.
“The first year I was here, I met with every single person in the program, and the person who won the job, it was very evident in those meetings,” Graham said. “We’re here every day, but we won’t announce the starting quarterback until the week of the game.”
Much like the 2012 competition, this year’s battle for the starting job features three quarterbacks working with a new offensive quarterback for the first time in their careers.
Chip Lindsey led Southern Miss to nearly 6,800 yards of total offense in 2015 and helped ASU to a 42-point performance in the team’s Cactus Bowl loss against West Virginia in January, and this spring afforded Lindsey the chance to see how the quarterbacks would mesh with his system.
Lindsey said after Saturday’s practice the Sun Devils focused most of the spring on implementing their base offensive package, with the goal of seeing how players, and particularly quarterbacks, fit the team’s scheme.
“We’ve got a lot, but it was more about our base offense,” Lindsey said. “Let’s get our base offense in, let’s figure out what we want to be good at, establish our identity for the 2016 team, and as you get into fall, you add things that fit and things that don’t.”
At Saturday’s practice, Wilkins looked in command of the base offensive principles, enjoying one of his best performances the media has seen this spring.
Wilkins has a small advantage in terms of overall experience in the program compared to Perkins and White, but Lindsey said all the quarterbacks underwent an adjustment period when he came on board as a coach.
“Every coach that coaches quarterbacks probably has a little different style, a little different way to coach it,” Lindsey said. “There’s things that I want to make sure we do, and don’t do, depending on what we see, and I think our guys are getting more comfortable with my style and how we’re approaching the game.”
While the Sun Devils do return a handful of experienced players from last season’s offense, ASU used the spring to break in four new offensive linemen.
Senior left tackle Evan Goodman is the only returning starter along the offensive line, and he was joined on the first team unit on Saturday by sophomore left guard Sam Jones, junior center Tyler McClure, senior right guard Stephon McCray and sophomore right tackle Quinn Bailey.
The offensive line figures to be fluid throughout fall camp, but Lindsey was pleased with the unit’s overall progress this spring. Even though the unit helped ASU’s running backs break through to the second and third levels of the defense a few times on Saturday, Lindsey is eager to see how the offensive line responds in live situations.
“We’ve got some inexperienced guys, especially on the O-line, so you’ve got to figure out what can we do, what are they capable of doing, and understanding that a lot of these guys haven’t played yet so it’s going to be interesting to see how they react.”
The starting five along the line remained consistent for much of Saturday’s practice, but during a team segment later in the morning, freshman Zach Robertson replaced Bailey at right tackle. Robertson and junior college transfer A.J. McCollum, who was in attendance at Saturday's practice, are the two players who could lead to a reshuffling of the line this fall if ASU continues to tinker with personnel up front.
ASU returns last year’s starter in senior Kody Kohl at the 3-back position, but an injury to Kohl allowed junior Raymond Epps and sophomore Jay Jay Wilson valuable opportunities to rep with the first offensive unit this spring.
Epps demonstrated considerable improvement throughout the spring relative to last season, when he was not assignment sound and appeared overwhelmed at times within the offense.
Wilson also showed growth this spring, and appears to have found a home on offense after switching back and forth at 3-back and inside linebacker last fall.
“Both those guys, with Kody (Kohl) being down this spring, it gave those guys a lot more opportunities and I think they both did a great job,” Lindsey said. “I bragged on both of those guys in earlier interviews and today they showed up.”
On Saturday, Wilson made a few nice catches and flashed the potential of becoming one of ASU’s most physical receiving targets.
If either Epps or Wilson develops into a consistent complimentary piece to Kohl, ASU could have its most versatile group of 3-backs since Graham arrived in Tempe.
Though Jaelen Strong is now two years removed from the program, the Houston Texans wide receiver was at Saturday’s practice and spent time catching up with some members of his old position group.
ASU missed Strong’s presence last season, and likely won’t have anyone come close to matching his production level this season, but the unit is finally trending upward as a whole.
Junior wide receiver Cam Smith missed all of 2015 with an injury, but Smith returned this spring as a man on a mission and he cashed in on a number of opportunities during Saturday’s final practice.
Smith is just 5-foot-11, but carries a physically imposing frame and the speed to stretch defenses over the top, which will be critical for a group that missed his presence last year.
“I feel good, I think we’ve made some good progress at that position, it was good to see Cam (Smith) hit some and have some big plays and have some touchdowns and I feel good about it, I think it’s much improved,” Graham said.
ASU also returns its second-leading receiver in senior Tim White, who amassed 57 catches, 633 yards and eight touchdowns playing primarily out of the slot. White might be ASU’s most impressive overall athlete, and because of that, the Sun Devils are in a predicament as to how to use him.
After all of spring, ASU is still looking for answers in the secondary, and last week, the coaching staff asked White to experiment with working at cornerback.
On Saturday, White began practice as a wide receiver, but quickly switched to the other side of the ball to help shore up the secondary. Though flipping from offense to defense will cause White to cut down on wide receiver repetitions, Lindsey is confident in White’s ability to make plays within ASU’s system.
“I know Tim (White) can play the wideout position, obviously there’s things he can improve on, but we needed to spend some time and get him reps on both side of the ball so we can see where our team is,” Lindsey said.
With White and Smith, ASU has a pair of established playmakers that should be able to aid the transition process once the team does name a starting quarterback this fall.
The Sun Devils also saw flashes of brilliance on Saturday from freshman Terrell Chatman and sophomore Jalen Harvey, who each made tough catches. Chatman’s progress could have a significant impact for ASU, because he has an NFL body type and proved he could make defenders miss after the catch on multiple occasions Saturday.
Chatman and Harvey possess great upside, but ASU can also lean on veteran receivers in senior Fred Gammage and junior Ellis Jefferson this year. Gammage, who played the slot in high school at Brophy, actually fits quite well into Lindsey’s scheme whereas Jefferson had a tough practice on Saturday and may find himself in an uphill battle for playing time.
Just like the other offensive units, the receivers are still adjusting to the slight nuances of ASU’s new offense, so the summer months and fall camp will allow quarterbacks and receivers to develop chemistry.
“I think the way we’re utilizing receivers is a little different (this year), so I think there will be a lot of guys who will have an opportunity when the ball gets in their hands to make a play,” Wilkins said.
Both Graham and Lindsey praised ASU’s running backs for the stability they bring to an offense that has rotating pieces at nearly every position group.
Juniors Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage each averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry in 2015, and both players possess outstanding physical attributes.
For Lindsey, the most challenging aspect of working with the running backs this spring has been reeling in his excitement to incorporate them in the offense. With new quarterbacks, four new offensive linemen and a handful of inexperienced receivers, Lindsey said he has to avoid the temptation of relying too heavily on the veterans in ASU’s backfield.
“I like those guys a lot, the biggest thing you got to keep yourself from doing especially in practice is handing the ball to them every single step,” Lindsey said. “You have to see the big picture, you know. We want to work on this, we want to work on that, and that’s what we try to do. That’s what happens when you have young quarterbacks who haven’t played a lot.”
Though 15 spring practices have come and gone, ASU exits the spring with many of the same question marks it began the offseason with. Now, the Sun Devils have a better idea as to how to address those questions, and they’ll begin forming answers when they take the field again this fall.