Premium Podcast: Five key questions for Arizona State in spring football

Entering spring practices, Arizona State faces a long list of questions to answer if the Sun Devils want to rebound from back-to-back losing seasons. We've narrowed that list to the five most pressing questions the program hopes to answer by the end of April.

Editor's Note: To download this week's edition of the 'Sun Devil Source Premium Report,' click here. This week's podcast covers the post-Signing Day additions of Darien Cornay and Ceejhay French-Love, the 10 players who could benefit the most from coordinator changes, and the five burning questions facing ASU this spring.

1. Is Todd Graham comfortable enough to turn over the reins to Phil Bennett? And will that stick?

Entering his 12th season as an FBS head coach, Todd Graham is preparing to surrender complete control of his defense in an effort to save the direction of the Sun Devils' program. 

After arriving at Arizona State with a hyper-aggressive defensive approach predicated on pressuring opposing quarterbacks and creating a high volume of turnovers, Graham experienced instant success, winning 28 games in his first three seasons.

But over the last two years, ASU has suffered severe setbacks on the defensive side of the ball as opponents have picked apart a secondary that has ranked as the most porous in the country in consecutive seasons. 

After attempting to turn control of ASU's defense over to linebackers coach and longtime friend Keith Patterson in 2016, Graham struggled to come to grips with a changing role, which led to a behind-the-scenes power struggle that compromised the Sun Devils' on-field capabilities. 

Though Patterson was the defensive coordinator in title, it was Graham who served as the final decision-maker, audibling and changing play calls as he saw fit over the course of games and throughout the Sun Devils' 5-7 season. 

With the program's defense in disarray, Graham hired former Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett as the Sun Devils' new defensive coordinator this offseason, signaling a changing of the guard for ASU. A 39-year coaching veteran, Bennett has served as a defensive coordinator at eight different schools during his career, and also served as a mentor to Graham during his early days in the profession.

In hiring Bennett, Graham made the conscientious decision to entrust his defense to a veteran coach with more experience than he has, and a coach who --at least in theory-- Graham wouldn't second guess.

The expectation entering ASU's spring practice slate is that Bennett will have complete control of ASU's defense and be able to mold the unit in his image. For the second straight offseason, Graham has pledged to take a step back and allow a coordinator to take the reins, but this time, his status as ASU's head coach could depend on it.

Last year, Graham couldn't make it to the beginning of the regular season without reassuming responsibility and power within ASU's defensive structure. Will he be comfortable allowing Bennett to take the reins this year?

If Graham doesn't display full trust and confidence in Bennett's capabilities this spring, there's little reason to believe the Sun Devils will implement meaningful change in their defensive scheme and ideology in 2017.  

2. Does anyone emerge as the favorite at quarterback?

With new offensive coordinator Billy Napier taking over for Chip Lindsey, ASU is set to hold its third quarterback competition of the Graham era and the second in two seasons.

Even though 2016 starter Manny Wilkins returns after winning last year's competition and starting 10 of ASU's 12 regular season contests, the Sun Devils are opening up battles at every position and that includes quarterback.

Wilkins began his tenure as ASU's starter by winning the first four games of the 2016 season, showcasing dual-threat capabilities that helped the Sun Devils to a hot start.

But in week five, Wilkins suffered a sprained ankle that changed the course of ASU's season and hindered Wilkins' mobility for the remainder of the year.  

As Wilkins battled a slew of injuries, then-redshirt freshman Brady White and then-true freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole each started a game for the Sun Devils, while then-redshirt freshman Bryce Perkins sat out the entirety of the regular season with a neck injury he suffered in fall camp. 

By the end of the year, a season that began with an opportunity for ASU to find its quarterback of the future ended with the Sun Devils perhaps even more uncertain about their quarterback situation than they were at the start of fall camp.

With all four of ASU's quarterbacks from the 2016 season intent on returning in the spring, the Sun Devils' depth chart received another shakeup in December when Alabama transfer Blake Barnett announced his decision to transfer into the program.

The former five-star prospect began the season as the Crimson Tide's starting signal-caller, but was beaten out by true freshman Jalen Hurts before electing to transfer four games into the season. 

In the span of a few days in late January, the Sun Devils hired Napier away from his role as Alabama's wide receivers' coach and Barnett received a waiver from the NCAA making him immediately eligible to take the field this fall. 

With White set to miss the spring due to a foot injury he suffered in his first career start against UCLA, the Sun Devils will host a four-man competition this spring with Wilkins and Barnett the likely candidates to separate themselves from the pack. 

Though Sterling-Cole and Perkins should both benefit from having a fresh set of eyes reviewing their skill development and approach in ASU's offense, Wilkins' experience and Barnett's potential might outweigh the push either Sterling-Cole or Perkins can make this spring.

Even though the competition for the Sun Devils will likely extend into the fall, if a quarterback emerges as the odds-on favorite to win the starting job this spring, it gives Napier an advantage in constructing his offense around a particular signal-caller's strengths. 

Wilkins said at ASU's spring media day that he hasn't changed his mentality and still thinks of himself as the Sun Devils' starter, while Barnett didn't transfer into the program to sit on the bench. Whether one of those signal-callers, or perhaps a dark horse candidate, separates himself as a favorite to emerge as the starting quarterback could easily become the most intriguing storyline to follow this spring.  

3. What shape does Billy Napier's offense take ideologically and what quarterback(s) will benefit? 

When Lindsey departed ASU to take the offensive coordinator position at Auburn in January, Graham set out to hire a replacement who would help the Sun Devils return to a run-oriented approach.

The Sun Devils' head coach settled on Napier, who spent five of the last six seasons working at Alabama under Nick Saban after serving as the offensive coordinator for two seasons under Dabo Swinney at Clemson. 

Over the last decade, Napier has worked under some of college football's top offensive minds, including Jim McElwain, Doug Nussmeier and Lane Kiffin which he said has helped inform his ideology as a play-caller.

Napier, however, hasn't called plays since 2010, his final season as Clemson's offensive coordinator when he and Swinney reportedly disagreed about the philosophical direction of the Tigers' offense. 

This spring, Napier will have his first opportunity in years to implement his own playbook and build out the ideological foundation for his ASU offense. Still, Graham has been adamant in making sure Napier adheres to the guidelines the head coach has laid out for the Sun Devils' offense, as he wants ASU to run a spread, no-huddle, up-tempo, 11-personnel scheme with a run-based identity.

Regardless of how Napier works to adapt his scheme to fit Graham's vision for the unit, the Sun Devils' offense will undergo changes from last season when Lindsey implemented some traditional Air Raid concepts into the playbook.

Based on his offensive background, Napier is likely to implement more pro-style concepts into ASU's playbook and introduce more power-based run schemes than the Sun Devils have used under Lindsey and his predecessor, Mike Norvell.

Napier will also likely be more willing to make the tight end a more integral part of ASU's offense, and could experiment by putting the quarterback under center more frequently than the Sun Devils have during Graham's tenure.

With change on the horizon, Napier's offense stands to benefit one or more of ASU's signal-callers, who each possess their own strengths and weaknesses as quarterbacks. 

While Wilkins may have been best-suited to a Norvell offense that was reliant on the zone-read and multi-level passing concepts, White could have been the player best served by having a wide open spread scheme under Lindsey that allowed him to read different sides of the field. If Napier does introduce pro-style elements to ASU's offense, Barnett and Sterling-Cole, who both have NFL-caliber arms and quick releases, could be the passers who stylistically benefit the most.

Though it's impossible to gauge exactly how different ASU's offense will look this spring, the change in coaches offers each of the Sun Devils' passers a fresh opportunity to push their way up the depth chart and highlight the personal strengths Napier's system will cater to. 

4. What will the back seven of ASU's defense look like?

In 2016, injury issues crippled the Sun Devils hopes of becoming bowl eligible during the second half of the season, as ASU wound up losing six straight games to round out the year.

The Sun Devils' injuries depleted the depth chart at quarterback, but also hampered ASU at the linebacker level and in the secondary where starters dropped like flies, leaving the coaching staff to mix and match personnel that wasn't capable of slowing down any Pac-12 offense. 

Though nearly every linebacker and defensive back should be back to full health entering ASU's spring practice slate, the Sun Devils will need to be creative in formulating the defensive depth chart to ensure that the program has enough capable depth at each position heading into the season. 

ASU has a dire lack of depth at inside linebacker, while the Sun Devils are attempting to recover from back-to-back seasons posting the worst pass defense in the FBS in a secondary without a wide array of obvious contenders to lock up starting jobs. 

If ASU is going to take a significant step forward under new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, it will need to do so with improved play at the back end of its defense and it will likely need a handful of players with limited experience to grow into important roles. 

One advantage ASU does have working for it this spring is that many of the program's best defensive players have positional flexibility to start and excel at multiple spots within the Sun Devils' defensive scheme. Juniors Armand Perry and Kareem Orr as well as senior Marcus Ball can all play various positions in ASU's defensive backfield, while junior Christian Sam can play both of ASU's inside linebacker positions, and might even be able to play Spur if necessary.

While each of these players will ultimately wind up starting the season with one designated role, it's the other players at inside linebacker and in the defensive backfield on ASU's depth chart that will end up determining how successful the Sun Devils can be defensively in 2017.

Is ASU going to be strong enough up front to move senior Koron Crump back to the linebacker level and pair him with Sam? Will redshirt freshman Chase Lucas and senior Maurice Chandler play well enough during the spring that ASU can consider bumping Perry from the field side safety spot to Bandit safety? 

Or will the Sun Devils need to use Crump strictly at Devil backer, keep Perry at field safety, and hold open auditions for starting roles among players like Tyler WhileyDas Tautalatasi and Chad Adams who have yet to demonstrate they have what it takes to be every down players at ASU?

Bennett's ability to spark an immediate turnaround in ASU's defense could hinge on whether or not he and the rest of the coaching staff are able to find enough capable options in the back seven of the Sun Devils' unit this spring. Because if ASU heads into fall camp desperate for reliable depth at inside linebacker and in the secondary, it's unlikely Bennett will be able to make major headway even if Graham does surrender complete control of the unit.

5. Who is the odd man out on the offensive line? 

After finishing last in the Pac-12 in sacks allowed in 2016, ASU's offensive line will attempt to regroup with a new coordinator, Napier, and a new position coach, former Louisiana-Monroe assistant Rob Sale, leading the way.

The Sun Devils graduate two of their starters, Evan Goodman and Stephon McCray, off of their line from last season, but ASU should begin to see improvements along the offensive line in 2017 as many of its key young assets build upon the experience they gained last year.

While Goodman and McCray were serviceable linemen, they didn't bring the same type of physicality and explosiveness to the table that some of the younger linemen in ASU's program have the potential to showcase. 

As SunDevilSource has documented, the most successful linemen in the Pac-12 are often the most veteran linemen with the most experience, as the All-Conference First and Second-Team offensive lines are dominated by juniors, seniors and multi-year starters. 

This season, ASU may end up starting just one senior, but the offensive linemen in contention for starting roles this spring all earned critical experience in 2016 and should be able to capitalize on those reps moving forward.

The question remains, though, what will ASU's line ultimately look like?

Without Goodman and McCray in the picture, the Sun Devils essentially have six linemen battling for five starting spots.

Juniors Sam Jones and Quinn Bailey are practically locks to earn starting roles, as both players rank among ASU's most consistent and most physically mature linemen on the roster.

Where Jones and Bailey end up on the line remains a mystery, but Jones played well at left guard before missing the second half of last season with an ankle injury while Bailey has the flexibility to line up at either tackle or guard.

With those two players accounted for, which players among the group of senior A.J. McCollum and sophomores Steve MillerZach Robertson and Cohl Cabral end up earning starting spots and which player becomes the primary alternate on the offensive line? 

While the Sun Devils have six other scholarship linemen on the roster, barring a surprise push from a tackle like junior Tyson Rising or a guard like Connor Humphreys, it's unlikely any of the players lower on the depth chart are capable of beating out McCollum, Miller, Robertson and Cabral for a starting role.

This spring, it's likely Napier, Sale and the rest of the offensive staff will experiment with various combinations along the offensive front to determine the five best players ASU has at its disposal. The key for the four linemen battling for three spots is the versatility they bring to the table, as ASU desperately needs to find a left tackle capable of protecting whichever quarterback wins the starting job.

Of the four candidates, Cabral might have the best opportunity to start at left tackle, as he played behind Goodman last season as a true freshman after beginning his career at center. 

Cabral has the size and athleticism to seemingly plug in and play anywhere on the offensive line, but because he played as a true freshman, he's a year younger than Miller and Robertson and has had less time to progress from a skill development standpoint. 

Miller and Robertson are both mammoth offensive line prospects with the type of natural size ASU hasn't seen in many of its offensive linemen in recent seasons. However, both players struggled at times during their first taste of live game reps, as neither player appeared consistently proficient playing at full speed against Pac-12-caliber defensive linemen. 

Even though they have some of the biggest frames on the team, Miller and Robertson are both more inclined to play guard than tackle, which could create a conundrum for the Sun Devils when they're experimenting this spring. While both players are bigger than Jones and Bailey, Jones and Bailey might be better equipped to handle some of the talented edge rushers ASU will face because they boast more experience and are more technically advanced than Miller and Robertson.

The final player competing for a starting spot is McCollum, who is the oldest player along ASU's offensive line and perhaps the least versatile. McCollum might be able to play guard in a pinch --as he was forced to late last season-- but he's ideally suited to play center and could be the odds-on favorite to win the starting job at center entering the spring.

A former junior college transfer, McCollum arrived at ASU in poor physical condition, but wound up working his way into the starting lineup last season because of a rugged mentality and tough, physical disposition in the middle of the Sun Devils' offensive line. If McCollum uses the offseason conditioning program to get in better shape, he should be able to lock himself into a starting role given his abilities, but that's easier said than done for McCollum.

Ultimately, the Sun Devils will be best served testing their young prospects against pass rushers like Crump and Doug Subtyl on a daily basis this spring, and determining which players on the roster have the capabilities of handling speed and strength off the edge. Once the Sun Devils find capable offensive tackles, they can begin building their line from the outside in and determining how their pieces up front fit in ASU's offensive puzzle. 


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