Arizona State's Billy Napier 'more prepared' for his role as offensive coordinator

Arizona State offensive coordinator Billy Napier said he's more prepared than he's ever been to be a play-caller after working with some of the game's brightest football minds.

In his 11 seasons as a head coach at the FBS level, Todd Graham has made a name for himself with a hyper-aggressive, attacking defensive scheme.

At its best, Graham's scheme has worked wonders, leading to high takeaway and sack totals. At its worst, the approach has backfired, putting defensive backs on islands and making his units susceptible to big plays. 

While Graham's teams have had their ups and downs defensively, he's remained consistent with and committed to his approach. And while his defensive philosophy has gained plenty of notoriety, Graham is as set in his ways with an offensive ideology as he is defensively.

Charged with hiring the third different offensive coordinator of his tenure at Arizona State this offseason, Graham has repeated that there should be no surprises about the style of offense the Sun Devils will run in 2017. Regardless of who's calling the shots on the offensive side of the ball, Graham believes his "spread, no-huddle, 11-personnel, run, play-action pass" scheme should be as synonymous with the Sun Devils as their hyper-aggressive defensive strategy is to them.

With ASU's spring football practice slate set to start in less than a month, the Sun Devils hosted a mini media day Wednesday, allowing many of the program's new coaches and most prominent players to share their thoughts on what they expect in the season ahead.

Wednesday's gathering offered Graham his first significant opportunity to reflect on the hire of new offensive coordinator Billy Napier, who joined the Sun Devils' staff after working under Alabama head coach Nick Saban as the Crimson Tide's wide receivers' coach. 

Graham offered plenty of praise for Napier's credentials as an offensive coach, but was adamant that even with new blood in the program, Napier's arrival wouldn't signal significant change.

"If you'll look, we have been a spread, no huddle, run, play-action pass team, a team that's committed to running the football since '06, so we ain't going to change," Graham said. 

Though Graham has insisted in the past he wants a run-first approach, he expressed that his goal in hiring Napier is to help ASU return to the type of offensive attack the Sun Devils used in the earliest, most successful days of his tenure.

Over the past two seasons, and especially in 2015, the final season in which Mike Norvell served as the program's offensive coordinator, Graham believes ASU at times strayed from the run in favor of the pass too often. Graham said that by hiring Napier, he found a coach who feels as strongly about his offensive philosophy as he does.

"We will get a little bit more back to where we were in '13," Graham said. "And also too, when you go to hire somebody, that's part of the process. You hire someone that believes the things that we believe. Because I think we got away from it a little bit in '15, and then it's hard to evaluate last year because we were doing some good things and we were 5-1, but when you start getting down to fourth-team quarterbacks and got guys 50 percent on the field trying to play." 

ASU's mini media day also marked Napier's first opportunity to meet with the media since he was hired to replaced departed offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who left the Sun Devils to accept the same position at Auburn. 

Though Napier spoke mostly about developing the Sun Devils' offensive culture and less about the specifics of his scheme, he and Graham both expressed a critical point Wednesday. Moving forward, the Sun Devils will maintain a running back-focused approach that highlights multiple backs and creates opportunities for a variety of ASU ball carriers.

"The big thing with my background is we're not going to have one running back that's the guy," Napier said. "We're going to be running back-by-committee, feature two and three running backs and those guys are going to have to share the load. I think it's best for our team and it's best for the long-term career and we're going to need each and every one of those guys throughout the entire season. That's a position that gets banged up quite a bit, we're going to need a pool of players at that position to play winning football on that side of the ball."

With two seniors returning this fall, Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, the Sun Devils have a pair of the Pac-12's most experienced running backs at their disposal. Additionally, Napier praised last year's third running back, sophomore Nick Ralston, for his work ethic in offseason training, and highlighted the way the Sun Devils recruited the position during the 2017 cycle.

This fall, ASU will add four-star mid-year enrollee Eno Benjamin and three-star back and fellow Texas native Trelon Smith to the mix, while redshirt freshman Tre Turner will be eligible after redshirting in 2016.

Graham said Napier's role as a coordinator and play-caller is to adapt to the existing talent in the Sun Devils' offense, because ASU's players have been recruited to run the specific scheme Graham expects all of his coordinators to adhere to. 

"We've recruited, we're a running back-centered offense," Graham said. "Those guys are going to run the ball, and then we're going to throw the football to them obviously, we're a run, play-action pass football team. We're going to adapt to N'Keal Harry's talents, to Ryan Newsome, to John Humphrey, to Kalen Ballage, to Demario Richard, to Nick Ralston, Jay Jay Wilson, all of the guys that are guys that we want to get the football to. But he (Napier) will come in and adapt to the players. Why would we do it the other way?"

Napier's arrival at ASU marks his first job as a play-caller since a two-year stint as Dabo Swinney's offensive coordinator at Clemson from 2009-2010. At the time of his hiring, Napier was the youngest Power 5 offensive coordinator in the country, and even though the Tigers enjoyed a record-setting season in 2009, Napier said he wasn't necessarily prepared for the role.

"I think the big thing there is, in my opinion, maybe I wasn't quite ready for that role," Napier said. "Sure, did we have a great first year in 2009? Yeah, we were very productive, we set some records, but I had limited exposure to that role."

Over the last six seasons, however, Napier has enjoyed new opportunities to prepare himself for a play-calling role, working with some of the most prominent coaches in college football. 

Under Saban, the Crimson Tide haven't traditionally run an offensive scheme with striking similarities to the Sun Devils' approach, but Graham said when Alabama adjusted its offense in 2016 to fit the skill set of quarterback Jalen Hurts, Napier played a critical role. 

"Billy's a spread, no-huddle guy," Graham said. "He helped install the system there at Alabama this year because Lane (Kiffin) was not a spread, no-huddle guy. So when we went to do this, and I can tell you, I interviewed a lot of guys, I interviewed head football coaches, NFL coordinators, a lot of guys, but every guy that I talked to, I'm looking for a fit, they're going to be a spread, no-huddle, 11-personnel, run, play-action pass. And in the line of the things that we do, and there's no doubt he's a great fit from that standpoint."

Napier's familiarity at the Power 5 level to a spread, no-huddle approach dates back to his days at Clemson, but he said Wednesday he's learned offensive concepts and taken pieces of information from a long list of coaches he's worked with through the years that now make him more prepared than ever to coordinate an offense.

"I've worked for Nick Saban for five years, I've worked with Jim McElwain at Florida, I've worked with Doug Nussmeier, I've worked with Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic, had a chance to be around Steve Sarkisian, Mike Locksley this past year, and all are veteran coordinators, veteran play-callers," Napier said. "No matter what you say, those guys to go along with the numerous assistant coaches on the staffs, you learn a little bit from each and every person that you work for, we're all a product of the people we've met and the experiences that we've had. I'm more prepared now to be a coordinator than I've ever been and I'm jumping at the bit each morning excited about the challenges here at Arizona State and in this league." 

How Napier plans to evaluate quarterbacks

With a new coordinator comes a clean slate.

Though junior Manny Wilkins won ASU's first open quarterback competition since 2012 last fall and started 10 games in 2016, both Graham and Napier have indicated that the Sun Devils will hold yet another competition to determine the program's starting signal-caller in 2017.

ASU had five quarterbacks available to speak at Wednesday's mini media day, including returning sophomores Brady WhiteBryce Perkins and Dillon Sterling-Cole. Additionally, the Sun Devils had Alabama transfer Blake Barnett on hand Wednesday, as the 2017 mid-year enrollee is also set to join ASU's competition.

Napier worked with Barnett at Alabama in 2015 and during the first part of the 2016 season, and was asked Wednesday to offer a scouting report on the Sun Devils' newest passer. Instead of firing off an analysis of Barnett's traits, however, Napier elected to take a different path, and gave more general thoughts on ASU's quarterback unit.

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

Much like Graham said from the outset of the Sun Devils' competition last fall, Napier said ASU will select a starting quarterback that elevates the play of the other 10 players on the offensive side of the ball and executes better than his peers.

"I think the big deal in that quarterback room is we're looking for a guy who can have a tremendous effect on his teammates," Napier said. "Who plays quarterback this season isn't necessarily going to be about who can throw it the farthest or who can run the fastest, it's going to be about who can execute the best and who can put our team in position to play winning football."

Napier essentially refused to tip his hand Wednesday, speaking more in generalities about the ASU quarterback situation than he did about the Sun Devils' offense as a whole. 

Graham also spoke about the Sun Devils' signal-callers, and highlighted the importance of strong quarterback play and how it's a trait shared by every team that has a shot to win its conference.

Graham said the Sun Devils were at their best in 2013 and 2014 because Taylor Kelly operated as "an offensive coordinator on the field." Though Kelly didn't have the strongest arm in the conference, Graham said he was efficient and didn't turn the ball over frequently, which are pivotal factors for any quarterback looking to win the job at ASU this season.

"There's not a team that's going to win the South or win this league that doesn't have solid quarterback play," Graham said. "And what does that look like? Efficiency, you don't have to be the most dynamic, don't turn the football over, manage the game, get the ball to your best guys on their less guys."

For the four returning quarterbacks on ASU's roster, continuity hasn't exactly been a hallmark of their time in Tempe. Napier represents the third different offensive coordinator for Wilkins, White and Perkins, while Sterling-Cole will have to learn a new playbook for the second time in less than 12 months. 

With Barnett added to the mix and four-star signee Ryan Kelley set to enroll this fall, ASU has never had this crowded of a depth chart at the quarterback position, and has never had this much talent, either. Five of the six quarterbacks ASU could have on its roster in 2017 were four-star prospects, and Barnett was initially a five-star recruit coming out of high school.

With a fresh start and a new coordinator and position coach set to oversee their progress, the Sun Devils' quarterbacks each expressed their excitement for the competition that lies ahead.

"Having someone like coach Napier come in here with the mindset that he has and the hunger that he has, and the conversations that I've had with him have done nothing but light a fire in me," Wilkins said.

While Wilkins, Barnett, Perkins and Sterling-Cole will all have the opportunity to compete this spring, White is recovering from a foot injury suffered in the Sun Devils' 23-20 victory over UCLA in October that will keep him out of the race until fall camp. Nevertheless, White, like the rest of the quarterbacks, said he's enjoyed his early conversations with Napier, and looks forward to the opportunity to compete in front of a fresh set of eyes.

"I think we've brought in a great guy, a guy from Alabama who's been a part of plenty of national championships and he's going to bring a lot of positives to us and some changes that we may need, so that's really good," White said. "But so far, meeting him, talking with him, he seems like a great coach and a guy that's going to push you as a player and also as a man which is great." 

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