Offensive coordinator Billy Napier inherits intriguing quarterback situation at Arizona State

First-year Arizona State offensive coordinator Billy Napier inherits a quarterback depth chart loaded with highly touted, but mostly inexperienced options.

Billy Napier may not have the keys to a Rolls Royce or a Bentley, but he's not exactly dealing with a rickety old pickup truck either.

Though Napier only has a general idea of what type of unit he'll inherit in his first season as Arizona State's offense coordinator, this much is certain: Napier hasn't held a pair of keys since 2010.

The former Clemson assistant was the youngest offensive coordinator in the country when Dabo Swinney hired him in 2009, and after being ejected from the Tigers' vehicle following the 2010 season, Napier has been sitting in the passenger's seat ever since.

Seven seasons after leading the Tigers' offense, though, Napier has earned another chance to get behind the wheel, and he'll do so at ASU, where the Sun Devils are reeling after stalling out in 2016.

While ASU finished sixth in the Pac-12 in scoring offense last season with an average of 33.3 points per game, the Sun Devils finished 10th in the conference in rushing offense and last in sacks allowed, using three different starting quarterbacks for the first time since 2009. 

So when offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey departed ASU to take the same position at Auburn in late January, Sun Devils' head coach Todd Graham hired Napier to jumpstart the unit in what's shaping up to be the highest-pressure season of Graham's tenure. 

After posting back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014, Graham has suffered through consecutive sub .500 campaigns that has the program in a turbulent period entering his sixth season. 

To keep his vision for ASU intact, Graham turned to Napier to become the Sun Devils' third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, hoping his previous experience working under Swinney and Alabama coach Nick Saban can help him engineer a quick turnaround in Tempe.

Though Napier hasn't spoken publicly about the direction he plans on taking the Sun Devils' offense since his hiring, Graham was emphatic about the program's philosophical approach on offense during his press conference on National Signing Day.

"There's no wholesale changes, we're looking to improve everything that we're doing," Graham said. "We recruited these players to run certain systems. We're going to be a run, play-action pass team on offense. We're going to be a spread, no-huddle, 11-personnel team. We're going to have three wide receivers most of the time. We're going to be run, play-action pass."

Should Napier adhere to the guidelines Graham laid out on Signing Day, he would likely need to depart from some of the tendencies he showcased during his tenure as Clemson's offensive coordinator, when he incorporated more power formations than the Tigers were accustomed to running under Swinney, who is a proponent of spread schemes. 

When Napier was fired from his role following the 2010 season, Swinney replaced him with Chad Morris, who ran a true spread scheme as Graham's offensive coordinator at Tulsa prior to replacing Napier. 

Since departing Clemson, Napier has spent six of the past seven seasons coaching wide receivers at Alabama, which has undergone an offensive transition of its own over the past few years. Beginning in 2014, following the transition from Doug Nussmeier to Lane Kiffin as the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator, Alabama began using more 11-personnel, shotgun and pistol offensive sets, giving Napier a stronger sense of the offensive style Graham wants to implement at ASU.

Though Graham has remained firm in his belief that the Sun Devils should operate as a run-first, play-action offense, he's sometimes found himself at odds with Lindsey and his predecessor, current Memphis coach and four-year ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell.

Each coordinator's desire to open up the passing game in lieu of attempting to punish opponents on the ground, especially in short-yardage situations, contrasted Graham's preferred offensive approach.

One particular example came in the Sun Devils' 2015 triple-overtime loss to Oregon, when Norvell called two consecutive passing plays from the three-yard line when ASU had a first and goal situation and an opportunity to tie the game. ASU's quarterback, Mike Bercovici, wound up throwing a game-ending interception on a night where the Sun Devils had two running backs surpass the 100-yard plateau on the ground. 

Graham's public declaration of ASU's offensive philosophy at this point in his tenure makes sense, especially considering the situation Napier is set to inherit. 

An unsettled depth chart at quarterback 

Entering spring practices, ASU will have four healthy quarterbacks vying for the starting job, including 2017 signee and mid-year enrollee Blake Barnett, who spent time with Napier at Alabama. 

Barnett began the season as the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback before ultimately losing out on the job to true freshman Jalen Hurts. Four games into the year, Barnett elected to transfer and enrolled at Palomar College, and in early December, the No. 2 ranked quarterback in the 2015 recruiting class offered his commitment to ASU.

"Blake's a guy that was a five-star player coming out of high school, Elite 11 MVP, all of the accolades and obviously transferred from junior college and obviously transferred from the SEC Conference, so he's a guy that has a great pedigree but we think fits the mold of what we're about," Graham said of Barnett on Signing Day. "The character and discipline that he has, a smart guy, and a really athletic guy, a guy that can move and run and a guy that we're excited about him being here this spring. He's here and ready to practice for spring ball and ready to compete at the quarterback position." 

Initially, Barnett was expected to have to miss the first four games of the 2017 season due to transfer rules, but on January 31, Barnett received a relief waiver from the NCAA, making him immediately eligible to participate this year. 

Barnett's primary competition for ASU's starting job will most likely come from incumbent starter, junior Manny Wilkins, who started 10 games for ASU in 2016. Wilkins won ASU's first quarterback competition since 2012 in August, and led the Sun Devils to a perfect 4-0 start to the season.

However, in week five, Wilkins suffered a high ankle sprain against USC that sidelined him for the following contest against UCLA. After the Sun Devils dropped their matchup against the Trojans, the team rebounded behind the play of redshirt freshman Brady White, who made his first career start against the Bruins. 

White came on strong in the second half of the Sun Devils' 23-20 victory, but suffered a broken foot in the fourth quarter that forced ASU to burn the redshirt of true freshman quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole

With White out for the season and Sterling-Cole largely unprepared for action, Wilkins rushed back for the Sun Devils to play against Colorado, but wasn't close to playing at 100 percent. The following week, Wilkins suffered a shoulder injury in a loss against Washington State, and Sterling-Cole provided relief. 

Sterling-Cole wound up making his first collegiate start against Oregon in late October, but after ASU's bye week, Wilkins returned to the lineup and started the final three games of the regular season for the Sun Devils. 

Wilkins finished the year completing 64 percent of his passes and throwing for 2,329 yards, but he never returned to full health following his injury against USC. After leading ASU to four victories, all six of Wilkins' remaining starts were losses.

White, meanwhile, played in just one game during his redshirt freshman season, and likely won't be able to return until the beginning of ASU's fall practice slate at the earliest. 

Sterling-Cole lost his only start against the Ducks, and joins Wilkins as the only returning quarterbacks with in-game experience healthy enough to practice this spring.

Barnett, Wilkins and Sterling-Cole will be joined by sophomore Bryce Perkins, who missed the entirety of the 2016 season after suffering a neck injury during fall camp. Prior to suffering his injury, Perkins had requested transfer paperwork to pursue an opportunity elsewhere, but after his injury, Perkins elected to stay at ASU. On January 30, Perkins tweeted that he had received medical clearance to resume football activities. 

As of now, four quarterbacks will enter spring practices with the opportunity to make a case for the starting job, while White and 2017 four-star signee and local Basha (Chandler) quarterback Ryan Kelley are poised to enter the fold in August. 

Kelley is the only scholarship quarterback poised to enter the program this fall, and even with a crowded depth chart, the Sun Devils were able to land the highly-regarded local product who finished the recruiting cycle as a member of the Scout300.

"Ryan Kelley is a young man that we had targeted several years ago and a guy that had tremendous talent and is a great fit for our system," Graham said. "A guy that's extremely smart and disciplined, he's a four-star prospect and one of the higher-rated quarterbacks on the west coast. He's an Under Armor All-American and a guy that we think has great promise for us and bodes well for the future of our quarterback position."

With six quarterbacks listed on the Sun Devils' roster, ASU's depth chart has never looked as wide open as it does right now. Additionally, the Sun Devils have never had as many highly-touted options to choose from as they do entering the spring.

With Barnett, Wilkins and Sterling-Cole able to participate this spring, the Sun Devils will have three former four-star prospects on the field as well as Perkins, a three-star recruit who formed a formidable duo with ASU's Freshman All-American wide receiver N'Keal Harry, at the high school level.

Though quarterback is considered one of the most difficult positions to evaluate prospects at, the Sun Devils have done an excellent job stacking the roster with some of the top-ranked quarterbacks in each signal caller's respective class and have put Napier in a position to work with a diverse group of options.

Furthermore, Barnett's approved waiver provides clarity to ASU's quarterbacks situation, allowing Graham, Napier and the rest of the coaching staff to oversee a straightforward competition through the spring and the fall that ensures the program enters the regular season with the best option to lead an offense charged with making significant improvements after a down season in 2016.

The foundation for a run, play-action pass offense

Even after finishing the 2016 season with the 10th-best rushing offense in the conference, Graham and Napier have reason to believe that a run-first approach is better tailored to ASU's personnel than a wide-open passing attack.

In Lindsey's lone season as the ASU offensive coordinator, the Sun Devils' most significant deficiency was an inexperienced offensive line composed of four first-time starters. To make matters more challenging, only two of ASU's regular starters remained injury-free through the duration of the season, leading to a severe lack of continuity up front. 

In 2017, ASU returns seven of the nine linemen who earned significant playing time last season. While the Sun Devils enter the spring without a proven option at left tackle, regular starters such as junior left guard Sam Jones, senior center A.J. McCollum, and junior right guard/tackle Quinn Bailey are all back, while primary reserves and players with starting experience like sophomore guard Steve Miller, sophomore guard/tackle Zach Robertson, sophomore tackle Cohl Cabral and senior center Tyler McClure all return. 

Historically, the most successful linemen in the Pac-12 have been returning starters and upperclassmen, and after a disappointing season in 2016, the Sun Devils are trending upward along the offensive line. 

Whether or not new offensive line coach Josh Henson, who cut his teeth working under offensive line guru Les Miles, can turn the players' potential into production remains to be seen, but ASU does have the pieces in place to generate a considerable improvement up front, especially if the Sun Devils can stay healthy and maintain some semblance of rhythm. 

In the backfield, the Sun Devils return a pair of seniors, former 1,000-yard rusher Demario Richard and NCAA single-game touchdown record holder Kalen Ballage. After posting subpar numbers during their junior campaigns, Richard and Ballage will now be running behind a more experienced offensive line. 

ASU had planned on leaning heavily on Richard and Ballage in 2016, but the offensive line's inability to generate a push at the point of attack stopped the Sun Devils' backs in their tracks. 

Additionally, the Sun Devils seemingly have the talent at wide receiver to become a more explosive offensive team in 2017, especially if the quarterback play is demonstrably improved. Given the fact Wilkins has a year of experience under his belt, ASU's quarterback play should be at least slightly improved from 2016 if he maintains his starting job. If the Sun Devils turn to Barnett or another option, though, it will likely be because the Sun Devils feel their offense is even more capable with a different player under center.

With Harry back, senior Cameron Smith, junior Jalen Harvey both returning, and sophomore transfers John Humphrey Jr. and Ryan Newsome now eligible at receiver, Napier has a wealth of options at wide receiver to take advantage of in the play-action and drop back passing games. 

Perhaps most importantly, though, with proven playmakers back at running back, potential breakout options at wide receiver and anticipated collective growth along the offensive line, Graham and Napier now have schematic versatility to adapt their offense to their starting quarterback's strengths. 

ASU has the personnel to run power concepts out of spread sets, read-option plays out of pistol and shotgun formations and should be able to develop enough of an identity on the ground to open up looks in the play-action passing game. 

Now that Graham has settled on Napier as his coordinator, the Sun Devils can begin taking steps toward determining the team's offensive identity. This spring, Napier will have the opportunity to test drive ASU's offense with different quarterbacks showcasing different skills, and by the time the Sun Devils settle on their signal-caller, ASU should have a much better idea of what type of horsepower their offense will come equipped with in 2017. 

The options

Who will wind up leading ASU's offense in 2017? SunDevilSource examines the six quarterbacks on the team's roster and examines what each player brings to the table.

Blake Barnett: A former Elite 11 MVP, Barnett was one of the top quarterback recruits in the country when he signed with Alabama in 2015. After losing out on the starting job to Jalen Hurts in 2016, Barnett transferred out of the Crimson Tide's program to Palomar College, which made him eligible to sign as a mid-year enrollee with ASU. After receiving a relief waiver, Barnett is now able to play immediately at ASU, which changes the dynamic of the quarterback race and opens the door for him to step in and become the starter from day one. 

Ryan Kelley: A local four-star recruit out of Basha (Chandler), Kelley signed with ASU's 2017 recruiting class and will arrive on campus this fall poised to take a redshirt year. A member of the final Scout300, Kelley has the size at 6-foot-4 and the tools to become a polished passer for the Sun Devils. With a big arm and above-average mobility, Kelley is exactly the type of quarterback Graham wants in ASU's system.

Bryce Perkins: After falling behind during the 2016 quarterback competition, Perkins was approached by ASU's coaches about a potential position change. At first, Perkins wasn't amenable to such a change, and began the process of requesting transfer paperwork. However, after that process began, Perkins suffered a season-ending neck injury that left him in a brace for most of the season. With a new offensive coordinator and another competition on the horizon, Perkins appears intent on re-joining the race for the starting job. 

Dillon Sterling-Cole: After being forced into action midway through his first collegiate season due to injuries, Sterling-Cole made his first career start for the Sun Devils in a loss against the Oregon Ducks. Though Sterling-Cole didn't have as strong of a command for the playbook and the offense as the other quarterbacks on ASU's depth chart, he does boast a NFL arm strength and the ability to make a wide range of throws. If Sterling-Cole doesn't win the job, he still has a redshirt year available that the Sun Devils may elect to use in 2017.

Brady White: The backup to Wilkins in 2016, White saw his first meaningful action of the year when Wilkins went down with a high ankle sprain against USC. Though White struggled against the Trojans and in the first half of his first collegiate start against UCLA the following week, White finally found his rhythm in the third quarter of the Sun Devils' 23-20 win over the Bruins. However, White suffered a season-ending foot injury in the fourth quarter of the contest that will prevent him from practicing this spring and give his counterparts a leg up on the quarterback competition.

Manny Wilkins: The winner of the Sun Devils' 2016 quarterback competition, Wilkins began the year by leading ASU to four consecutive victories --three of which came at home-- before he suffered a high ankle sprain that changed the course of his season. Wilkins lost his remaining six starts, battling ankle, toe and shoulder injuries for much of the season. Like many first-time starters, Wilkins struggled to go through progressions and too often tucked the ball to run early in his drop backs. That tendency backfired after injuries limited his mobility, as he wound up taking more sacks than all of his fellow Pac-12 starters. Wilkins should enter the spring completely healthy, though, and with a year of experience under his belt, will likely have a great opportunity to win the job. 

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