ASU forced to lean on 'Sparky' formation in wake of quarterback injuries

Arizona State junior running backs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard have notched some of the Sun Devils' most explosive offensive plays this season out of the team's "Sparky" formation.

After an intense competition for the starting quarterback job wrapped up at the end of August, Arizona State sophomore Manny Wilkins took the first snap of the season for the Sun Devils in the team's season-opener against Northern Arizona.

Though Wilkins began the year as ASU's starting quarterback, he's hardly been the only player handling snaps this year, as a rash of injuries at the quarterback position coupled with the Sun Devils' success out of the team's "Sparky" formation has given six different players the opportunity to catch snaps this season.

Wilkins, redshirt freshman quarterback Brady White and true freshman quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole have all started games for the Sun Devils this year, marking the first time since 2009 ASU has used three different starting quarterbacks in the same season. 

Meanwhile, with injuries forcing ASU into using its fourth-string quarterback -- redshirt freshman Bryce Perkins suffered a neck injury in August -- the Sun Devils have allowed their running backs to handle direct snaps out of a Wildcat formation the team calls its "Sparky" formation to give the team an advantage on the ground.

"It's something that we've done in the past and something I thought would be very productive," ASU head coach Todd Graham said. "Coach (Chip) Lindsey comes from the same coaching family so we mutually agreed we'd do it."

Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey unveiled the "Sparky" package against Texas Tech, and junior running back Kalen Ballage tied an NCAA single-game record with eight touchdowns, six of which came out of the "Sparky" formation, in the Sun Devils' 68-55 victory over the Red Raiders.

"I thought obviously any time you put something in there like that, you know the most successful it's going to be is right off the get-go," Graham said. "I've wanted to have, and I've wanted for several years to have a physicality about how we play and I think it's helped us have more of a physicality. But conceptually, it's something we had talked about and it's something when Coach Lindsey came in here, it's something that I talked to him about." 

Since that point, the Sun Devils have relied on their "Sparky" formation frequently, lining up in the package on a season-high 21 snaps in a 37-32 loss to Washington State a week and a half ago.

In that game, Wilkins suffered an upper body injury, and Sterling-Cole was pressed into action after the Sun Devils' starter lasted just two offensive series. As a result, the Sun Devils minimized the potential dangers of playing a freshman quarterback by relying on their run-based "Sparky" package, and it nearly helped ASU fend off WSU.

Against Oregon, Sterling-Cole earned his first career start as Wilkins was held out with the upper body injury he suffered against WSU, and once again, the Sun Devils utilized the "Sparky" formation throughout the contest. 

Midway through the fourth quarter, the Sun Devils pulled within five points of the Ducks when Ballage threw a pass out of the formation near the goal line, which resulted in a three-yard touchdown for tight end Kody Kohl.

With ASU needing to use the formation so often this season, a Ballage pass appeared to be an inevitable wrinkle for Lindsey to draw up, and twice against Oregon, Ballage throwing attempts worked for the Sun Devils.

"I probably percentage-wise didn't envision it (Sparky formation) being what it is, but things change throughout the year, circumstances change and maybe make you do some things that you maybe not thought were going to be big parts of the offense," Lindsey said. "Then obviously we had some success with it early, so that makes you want to do it again, but I think it's probably a little more than we thought but at the same time it's something that I've always wanted to have and just needed the right guys to do it."

Aside from dealing with injuries and inexperience at the quarterback position, part of the reason ASU has continued to design new plays and concepts from the "Sparky" formation is its ability to provide defenses with an element of uncertainty.

Over the past few weeks, Lindsey entertained some of the Halloween spirit by diving deep into his bag of tricks, drawing up reverses and double-passes for players like freshman quarterback Jack Smith, sophomore wide receiver Jalen Harvey and senior wide receiver Frederick Gammage, who have all attempted passes for the Sun Devils this season.

As a result, an ASU team down to its fourth-string quarterback and playing with a patchwork offensive line thinned out due to injuries has put up 67 points in its past two games. Even though the Sun Devils are in the midst of a three-game losing streak, Lindsey has found ways for ASU to move the football, which is a positive sign for a team hoping to use a bye week to improve its overall health.

"I've always done that, the first things, it's fun for the players, they like practicing it," Lindsey said of using trick plays. "It's obviously fun when you execute and hit one, and I think it's something that you have to do. Defenses are so much better these days on just defending your base stuff and I think you have to do things to keep them off balance and also, you need a shot in the arm sometimes and we've needed that some this year for a lot of reasons and I think that's something that we'll always do." 

News and notes

  • Wilkins participated in warmups at Wednesday's practice, but did not participate in any individual drills. After working with ASU's third-team offense in a tempo drill on Tuesday, Wilkins ran the first-team offense in an 11-on-air drill on Wednesday, but did not throw any passes for the second consecutive day. 
  • Sophomore left guard Sam Jones arrived at practice in tennis shoes and did not participate in warmups. Jones went straight over to Muscle Beach after warmups, where he was joined by senior right guard Stephon McCray. McCray did not participate in warmups, and is wearing a walking boot after hurting his foot on the first play from scrimmage against Oregon.
  • Sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr had his left quad taped up, but was a regular participant in individual drills.
  • Senior linebacker Salamo Fiso walked through warmups and had a thick sleeve on his right knee. Fiso did not participate in individual drills, and he missed Saturday's game against Oregon after injuring his knee against Washington State.
  • Junior wide receiver Cameron Smith remained in the injury line during warmups Wednesday and worked out at Muscle Beach instead of participating in individual drills.
  • Senior wide receiver Tim White and junior running back Demario Richard both participated in warmups and in individual drills after Richard missed Saturday's game and White only played on special teams. Richard participated in ASU's team tempo period while White remained on the sidelines.

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