For quarterbacks who have spent the better part of their college careers handling snaps from shotgun formations, transitioning to taking snaps under center is like shifting from the driver's seat of an automatic vehicle into a car with a manual transmission.
The objective of maneuvering an offense to a final destination, the end zone, remains the same, but the manner in which quarterbacks navigate toward that destination changes.
Under first-year offensive coordinator Billy Napier, Arizona State's quarterbacks wasted little time learning the intricacies of their new stick shift, as the Sun Devils' signal-callers began working on drop backs from a under center during the first week of the program's spring practice slate.
Under Mike Norvell, who spent four seasons with the Sun Devils from 2012-2015, ASU's quarterbacks were rarely asked to handle snaps under center, as Norvell's offense relied primarily on shotgun formations. Following Norvell's departure, ASU head coach Todd Graham hired Chip Lindsey to coordinate ASU's offense, and Lindsey used even fewer formations requiring his quarterback to go under center than his predecessor.
When Lindsey left ASU to accept the same title at Auburn this offseason, Graham set out to hire a replacement who would help ASU integrate a run-oriented approach to the program's offense, and he settled on Napier, who spent the last four seasons working at Alabama.
In the earliest days of Napier's tenure at ASU, it's clear the former Crimson Tide wide receivers' coach plans on utilizing various pro-style concepts similar to those employed by Alabama and many other SEC programs, and one of the first steps in doing so is ensuring his quarterbacks are comfortable working under center.
"We’re a run, play-action pass team," Graham said. "You can’t tell me a naked is not better from under center than it is from the gun. You can’t tell me that a play-action shot is not better from under center. You can’t tell me you can’t get the quick game pass out quicker from under center than in the gun. And when I sat down and interviewed Billy in a hotel room in Dallas, Texas, we were just on the same page on those things and with his background, it’s something that he wants to do as well.”
After the first day of ASU's spring practice slate, senior running back Demario Richard said Napier's offense has an SEC flair to it, but the Sun Devils' returning starter at quarterback, Manny Wilkins, was cautious not to characterize the scheme as one drawn from a particular conference.
“Stanford does a lot of that so I don’t know if it’s just SEC, but you know whatever he (Napier) brings in, whatever offense that we run, obviously that’s what we’re going to run," Wilkins said. "I don’t say it’s an SEC offense or an SEC type of offense, it’s the offense we’re going to run now and I’m excited, man. I’m very excited to get under center, take five and seven step drops, and that’s old-school football."
Before Napier arrived from Alabama in January, the Sun Devils had already signed former Crimson Tide quarterback, sophomore transfer Blake Barnett, to compete for the starting job. Though Napier wasn't responsible for calling plays or developing the scheme at Alabama, much of his offensive background has been influenced by the coordinators he's worked under.
Over the past several seasons, head coach Nick Saban has employed Jim McElwain, Doug Nussmeier and Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinators, all of whom worked on staffs that included Napier and all of whom have experience developing pro-style schemes. Last season, however, the Crimson Tide introduced more spread concepts to fit freshman signal-caller Jalen Hurts' skill set after Hurts beat out Barnett for the starting job.
So while Barnett has an understanding of pro-style concepts gleaned from his one-plus season at Alabama, he said the terminology and concepts Napier is using at ASU is different than what Barnett learned with the Crimson Tide.
“It’s a transition, it’s a little bit different, concepts in the offense are normally always going to be fairly similar but terminology changes a little bit so it’s just getting the hang of things and getting used to the differences here and the similarities and applying it all," Barnett.
After training primarily in shotgun formations during the first three seasons of his ASU career, Wilkins said he's excited about the opportunity to take snaps from under center and play in an offense that should feature a strong rushing attack.
"I think the game has changed so much, the years now, it’s a lot of gun, it’s a lot of spread so it’s cool to get in a lot of two-tight end sets, running back and just smash mouth football," Wilkins said. "That’s what I grew up on, I grew up running the Wing-T, and all we did is run the football and I would make up a play and just run a play on my own just because I wanted to run something."
Though Graham maintains the Sun Devils' offense will remain a spread, no-huddle, 11-personnel scheme, Napier has the freedom to work within the guidelines set forth by ASU's head coach and adapt his playbook to meet the strengths of the program's players.
One of Napier's goals this spring is determining what exactly qualify as the strengths of ASU's offense, and so far, he's been diligent his pursuit of them. All of ASU's quarterbacks have spoken about the intensity that Napier brings to both meeting room and practice settings, and sophomore quarterback Brady White said the Sun Devils' new coordinator brings a detail-oriented approach to every aspect of the offense.
“He’s definitely a guy who’s meticulous with what he does and very detailed and holds the quarterbacks to a high standard," White said. "He can get on you when it’s necessary but I think he’s bringing something to our program that’s going to benefit us and be helpful with where we want to go and that’s win every game possible and be a championship contender.”
Much like Graham hopes new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett's sharp, determined mindset is personified in the Sun Devils' defense this season, Wilkins said he hopes Napier's intensity is reflected in the Sun Devils' offense this year.
“I think it’s just a different philosophy, different coaches, they all have a different mindset, and at the end of the day, everybody just wants to win," Wilkins said. "Like I said I’m excited about what coach Napier is bringing in, I’m super excited about the intensity he brings to the football team and I think it’ll echo out through the football team and it’s a domino effect.”
Injuries force ASU quarterbacks to regroup
After starting 10 games during his sophomore season, Wilkins is the Sun Devils' returning starter at the quarterback position, but with Napier in the fold, ASU is entering the spring with a clean slate on its depth chart.
Aside from having to fend off Barnett, a former five-star prospect coming out of high school, Wilkins will also compete with White, sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole and sophomore Bryce Perkins for the chance to lead the Sun Devils' offense onto the field in 2017.
Though he won ASU's first open quarterback competition since 2012 last August, Wilkins was unable to create a deep layer of separation between himself and the other signal-callers on ASU's roster last year in part due to injuries.
After leading ASU to victories in each of the first four starts of his career, Wilkins suffered an ankle sprain against USC that changed the course of his season. By the end of the year, Wilkins would battle foot and shoulder injuries, while his primary backups, White and Perkins, each suffered season-ending injuries that have impacted their ability to battle for the starting job this spring.
A foot injury suffered against UCLA will keep White from being cleared at least until the start of the summer, while a severe neck injury suffered in training camp last year has Perkins donning a green non-contact jersey this spring.
Wilkins said he's playing with a clean bill of health right now, but said the 2016 season was frustrating because injury issues impacted him mentally.
“I think getting injured, the most negative thing about it is they tell you you’re okay but mentally you don’t know if you’re okay or not because something feels different or the way you’re playing is different," Wilkins said. "But it’s all about taking it day by day, baby steps and when the opportunity presents itself, just attack it."
Perkins didn't even make it through the first full week of training camp before suffering an injury that left him in a neck brace for more than two full months, but said his return this spring has helped him appreciate playing football on a different level.
“It definitely makes me appreciate the game more, make sure that now, every rep, you never take it for granted because you never know if you’ll get a next one so after that happened to me, I’m coming back and saying, as I say, I get it from my brother, the vision is clear now," Perkins said. "God allowed me to come back from an injury like that so I won’t take it for granted and I’ll make the most of it.”
Sterling-Cole was the one ASU signal-caller who didn't fall prey to the injury bug last year, but because three of his teammates did, the Sun Devils were forced to burn the redshirt of the highly touted, four-star recruit from Texas.
After ASU tossed Sterling-Cole's redshirt in the fire pit during the program's 23-20 victory over UCLA last season, Sterling-Cole said he was forced to grow up on the fly. Now that he's in his second season with the program, Sterling-Cole said he's more comfortable with handling an offense, even though he's now forced to learn an entirely different playbook.
“Coming in now, I feel more comfortable with everything, with the system, but now that we have a new offense, you have to adjust, you’ve got to be able to adjust to the adversity, new competition coming in, being able to learn new plays and new concepts," Sterling-Cole said. "Quickly, because there’s not too much time to get used to it. To grasp it as well as we can."
Quarterbacks embracing competition
Following a season in which ASU's top three signal-callers entering fall camp all went down with injuries, the Sun Devils understand the inherent value of having multiple capable options lining the depth chart at quarterback.
Nevertheless, the program now has four players battling for repetitions --White isn't taking reps this spring-- with the goal of earning the opportunity to be the first player on the depth chart to receive an extended chance in 2017. And even though spring has just begun, ASU's quarterbacks said the competition is already ramping up.
“Definitely, there’s great quarterbacks here and I knew coming in as a freshman that I would have to compete regardless of who is here or not so just having that mindset, competition, adversity, handle it," Sterling-Cole said. "That’s just been my mindset, so I just have to keep that steady mindset as I continue on through the competition.”
Though Sterling-Cole is the youngest of the five quarterbacks currently on ASU's roster, he possesses a high-caliber arm and plenty of upside that make him an intriguing candidate for the position.
Meanwhile, ASU signed Barnett knowing it already had three former four-star recruits returning to the program at the quarterback position this spring, and Barnett said even though the Sun Devils are still adjusting to Napier's new playbook, each of the quarterbacks is making an effort to stand out.
“There’s absolutely competition, that’s the name of the game," Barnett said. "We’re all out here to compete but we’re still learning as well. We’re on our second day here, we’re still learning new plays, everyone is. It’s not just the quarterback position, it’s not just me, everyone is learning new plays but with that there’s still competition and there’s going to be competition no matter what.”
While Sterling-Cole and Barnett acknowledged the heat of the competition, as the returning starter, Wilkins has offered a slightly different take on the race for the starting job.
Prior to the start of spring practices, Wilkins said he still felt as though the Sun Devils were his team, and he'd enter the spring with a starter's mindset. After Thursday's practice, Wilkins said instead of focusing on competing with the other passers sharing reps with him, he's solely dedicated to self-improvement and working to make sure he's in the best possible position to lead ASU's offense this fall.
“Every day is just competing with myself, competing with the goals I have in front of me, the goals I have set in front of me for the day, the goals I have set in front of me for the week and the goals I have set in front of me for spring ball," Wilkins said. "Very excited to get out there, it feels good to be healthy, it feels good to have emotions going, everybody flying around and just playing ball.”
Though the Sun Devils aren't close to naming a starter and likely won't do so until late in fall camp, Wilkins has handled the first-team repetitions at quarterback in portions of practice open to the media so far this spring.
While the addition of Barnett, the maturation of Sterling-Cole and the healthy returns of Perkins and White figure to raise the level of competition at the quarterback position, Wilkins has as much confidence as he's ever had and hopes to keep that level of confidence high as the battle heats up.
“I’m as confident as I’ve ever been, I’ve worked my butt off this offseason just to get bigger, get stronger, get mentally stronger, being out there and throwing with a quarterback coach and all that stuff, just the little things that I need to get better on that I need to take myself to the next level," Wilkins said.