Arizona State to start spring with 'clean slate' at quarterback

With new offensive coordinator Billy Napier on board, Arizona State's quarterbacks are preparing for a second consecutive offseason with a battle to win the starting job. On Wednesday, each quarterback offered their take on the team's competition.

Sophomore newcomer Blake Barnett set up shop in one corner of the expansive Hobbs Family Suite while junior returning starter Manny Wilkins sat at the opposite end. In between them sat their position-mates, sophomores Bryce PerkinsBrady White and Dillon Sterling-Cole, each at their own tables. 

Yes, quarterbacks were aplenty at Arizona State's spring media day. 

In a clear sign of the program's desire to promote an even playing field at the position, all of the players who will compete for the job were available to field questions from reporters on Wednesday. 

In total there were a dozen players at the event, five of whom line up at quarterback. 

Newly hired offensive coordinator Billy Napier was there too, speaking with media for the first time as a Sun Devil.

Napier, who coached wide receivers at Alabama last season, was deliberate in how he described the pending quarterback competition. When asked specifically about Barnett, the former 5-star recruit who started in Alabama's 2016 season opener against USC, Napier instead referred to the unit as a whole. 

"I think we're fortunate to have a really good group of quarterbacks in general to work with," Napier said. "More than anything it's not about the individual player, it's more about the unit. We'll go find a player within that group of players to go play winning football for Arizona State."

Even though Napier was at Alabama with Barnett just six months ago -- before Barnett's sudden transfer four games into the Alabama season -- there was great care in how the new ASU offensive coordinator conveyed his perspective. He wants a structured process in which everyone is fairly evaluated. 

There were also indications of how Napier described the situation to the quarterbacks themselves. He told reporters that it was a "clean slate" going into the spring, a phrase which was parroted by at least two of the players themselves in the 90-minute media session. 

However, one player who doesn't view the addition of Barnett and transition from former offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey to Napier as an effective reset of the quarterback battle is Wilkins. When healthy, he was the starting quarterback as a sophomore for ASU last season, and Wilkins wants to continue to build upon that in 2017. 

"I don't know what the coaches have said...but my mindset hasn't changed, my mindset won't change," Wilkins said. "This is my football team. I was leader of this football team last year and I will continue to be the leader of this football team. I'm not going to shy away from any competition. I never have and never will." 

Wilkins and the Sun Devils started their season 4-0 before he suffered an ankle injury in a 41-20 loss to USC on Oct. 1. From there, he missed two of the team's final eight games, and played through an assortment of ankle, foot and shoulder injuries in the team's other six games. 

For Wilkins, it's hard to not think about what might have been. At the same time, he's pleased by how he handled it. 

"It's very frustrating just how we were rolling (to start the year)," Wilkins said. "That was one of the most frustrating things, but there was never a moment where my character broke. There was never a moment where I wasn't positive with my teammates. I never showed any weakness to them. As leader of the team, once they see weakness, that's when things really sink down. It's more than football, It's more than wins and losses on a scoreboard through a season. These are guys I'm going to build relationships with the rest of my life as opposed to four and five years."

Wilkins, who finished the season by completing 63.3 percent of his passes for 2,329 yards and 12 touchdown passes with nine interceptions, is now going to have to hold off all the players he beat last year to earn the starting nod, and also Barnett. 

ASU coach Todd Graham and then-offensive coordinator Lindsey decided they wanted to improve their talent at the position by pursuing Barnett, the former No. 2 overall quarterback in the 2015 class out of Santiago High School in Corona, California. When they landed Barnett in December, it made certain the quarterback race would be even more competitive this year. When Barnett recently found out he wouldn't have to sit out the first four games of the season due to a successful waiver appeal, it only ratcheted up the sense of urgency for all involved. 

"It was really exciting," Barnett said of the immediate eligibility. "That was something I was looking forward to and hoping to find out. When I went through, I'm really excited. Getting those four games is really important, especially at the start of the season being in the position I'm in. Hopefully being able to make an impact right away. 

"I'm here to compete. They're here to compete. That's our job as quarterbacks. It's our jobs to do all we can to contribute to this time and find your role."

Just as Wilkins described himself as a leader, so too did Barnett. In fact, it was the first thing he expressed when asked about his makeup as a quarterback. 

"A leader, I would say, is my main attribute," Barnett said. "Being able to have influence on a team."

So, these Sun Devils are going to have multiple players vying for generalship in the months that follow. It'll be an especially important thing to track considering Graham has repeatedly indicated it's what he most looks for in a quarterback, along with the ability to manage an offense effectively. 

Perkins, White and Sterling-Cole all expressed their strong competitive disposition and interest in pursuing the starting nod this season. That's increasingly looking more plausible for Perkins and White, each of whom suffered significant injury in the second half of 2016. 

Perkins suffered a neck injury -- what he described Wednesday as a multilevel spinal fracture -- during preseason camp last August. It kept him in an immobilizing brace for three months, but Perkins has been cleared for nearly full participation in the program's winter strength and conditioning program.

"I've never broken a bone in my body (before)," Perkins said. "The first injury I had was a two-level fracture in my neck. But it's part of football. You're going to get hurt sometimes. My parents did a great job supporting me, my brother also. My teammates did a great job supporting me, keeping me motivated throughout the whole process. I never really had a down moment through the whole process because I knew, time will pass and I would be back on the field eventually."

The arrival of Napier is an important fresh set of eyes for Perkins, who was expected to be outside of the two-deep at the position under Lindsey. In that respect, even though it's the third offensive coordinator for the quarterback in three years, it's not a negative development. 

"We've got one practice before we go on spring break and that's going to be the biggest first impression to get him to evaluate what's going on," Perkins said. "With a new quarterback coach I think everyone has a clean slate. It's not totally clean because there's still game film from last year they can go off of as opposed to me not being on the field. But it's who shines the most. Someone can come in that wasn't performing well and outperform everybody else. 

White started for the Sun Devils against UCLA on Oct. 8, a week after Wilkins was hurt, and ASU won 23-20. But White suffered a badly broken foot in the fourth quarter, which necessitated surgery and ended his season. Though he's not going to be able to participate in spring practices, White said doctors have told him he's on schedule for being medically cleared by late spring or early summer. 

"They've all said it looks and feels fantastic, keep doing what you're doing, it's going very well," White said. "Spring ball I'd like to be able to do some things. Obviously I won't be fully participating but I'd like to be involved at some level, some drills or whatever, and I've talked with coach Napier about that and he said he's going to help make sure I'm getting a lot of mental reps and all that."

Sterling-Cole, who was pressed into action when White down down against UCLA, and later started as a true freshman at Oregon on Oct. 29, feels he's up to the challenge. Even though he still has a redshirt year available, Sterling-Cole's mindset is to try to challenge for the starting spot in 2017. 

"Competition is one thing that I love," Sterling-Cole said. "I really, really love competition and adversity and the one thing that I'm going to push for this spring is to compete my butt off for this starting position. Regardless of what goes on, if I don't get the position or start or not, I'm going to cheer those guys on. At the end of the day, they're Sun Devils and they're my brothers, in order to be a true Sun Devil, you cheer on your other Sun Devil brothers." 

Stylistic variety and depth is something Napier certainly has in his coffers. He's articulated a plan to try to tailor the team's offense to whomever wins the quarterback job, and do so without making drastic changes in an ASU offense now under its third leader in as many years. 

"Better effort, better toughness, better discipline and more technique" are the things Napier is striving for, while building off what his predecessors installed, while at the same time not straying from Graham's philosophical requirements. The Sun Devils are going to be an 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back) base offense with a commitment to running the ball to set up the pass.  

"I don't mind if he comes in here and tells us he wants to run the friggin Wing-T," White said. "I would be like, 'what the heck?' But he's not going to do that. I'm just guessing that he might bring a little more pro-style to the program. Even last year, (at Alabama) they ran spread with Jalen Hurts so we might stay primarily that here. We don't know. Whatever he tells us he wants to do, I'm going to be 100 percent committed to. I'm sure whoever wins the job, he'll cater to that quarterback's strengths and put us in the best position to be successful."

Wilkins, who stressed a personal focus of being more committed to getting the ball in the hands of his playmakers and not expose himself to as many big hits, said he's confident Napier will help put the quarterback in the best position to be successful. 

"We're going to do what we're comfortable with," Wilkins said. "If you look at Bama in previous years, all they did was focusing on their play around the quarterback. Whatever their quarterback did well is what they did. (Quarterback) Jalen Hurts is a phenomenal spread offense quarterback and so they ran a phenomenal spread offense. It was really cool for me to see his pedigree, a guy like that as a freshman, who came in and just balled.

"It sucks to lose an offensive coordinator, especially like coach Lindsey. I had such a good relationship with him on and off the field, all four kids, his wife, his dog. I had such a good relationship with them all. It sucks to lose that. But on the bright side, having coach Napier come here with the mindset that he has and the hunger he has, and the conversations I've had with him, have done nothing but light a fire under me."

The clean-slate that Napier and several returning quarterbacks referenced is something even Barnett feels. This, even though he's the only one who has a preexisting relationship with Napier, and despite the fact he was just added to the program in an effort to inject another talented option into the fold. 

"I have a great relationship with coach Napier. Yeah I didn't sit in the same meeting room with him but that was a coach I saw every day for almost two years. So I have a great relationship with him and a foundation built. So coming here and finding out he's the offensive coordinator, I couldn't be more excited. But not because I feel like I have an unfair advantage. Everyone has to compete, everyone is on the same page right now."

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