The last time Arizona State's Billy Napier was in charge of installing his own offense, he was making the leap from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator at Clemson in 2009.
At 29 years old, Napier was the youngest coordinator in the FBS, working under first-year head coach Dabo Swinney who had been promoted to the position following the resignation of Tigers' head coach Tommy Bowden.
Napier's stint as the Tigers' offensive coordinator lasted just two seasons, and since his dismissal at the conclusion of the 2010 season, he's worked in various capacities at Alabama, Colorado State and then again at Alabama.
After spending the past six seasons in non-play calling positions, shortly after his January hiring, Napier began assembling a detailed installation plan designed to help the Sun Devils' offensive personnel get up to speed with the offense he plans on operating.
Now that Sun Devils are one-third of the way finished with their 15-practice spring allotment, Napier said he's pleased with the progress ASU's players have made in picking up his offensive concepts and terminology and he's beginning to introduce various situations into the program's practices.
"We're moving right along in our installation plan," Napier said after Wednesday's practice. "We were really aggressive in our first three days, we went back and reviewed practice four and today we introduced some new areas and some new situations. We went into the red area today, we worked on short yardage today so we've got a very detailed plan and we're moving forward in that approach. I think spring is always going to be the execution level is a little bit lower than you want, but the key to the drills that is that you introduce all of your concepts so that you get everything established and you can go back and clean it up in the summer."
One of the keys of Napier's installation process is ensuring all of the program's offensive players are on the same page, and in the midst of a quarterback competition, that forces the coaching staff to divide repetitions equally.
Napier said that installing an offense and a playbook while holding an open competition at the quarterback position is a challenge, but also said that's why ASU is taking an aggressive approach to the installation process.
"It is one of the weaknesses of not having a starter and having a competition where so many guys are capable and are getting repetitions so that's one of the negatives of repping four guys," Napier said. "But at the same time, we're a long way from having to play a game and teaching is repetition. We're going to get a lot of reps in each and every practice. Our summer program will be very aggressive in terms of the number of reps we get as well."
While Napier hinted that the installation process might be simpler if the Sun Devils were allowing fewer players an opportunity to win the quarterback job this spring, he suggested that he doesn't expect ASU to be narrowing the competition anytime soon. Napier said that spring practices are such a small sliver of the overall picture and that the most important part of the spring is ensuring that every player understands the new plays and concepts being introduced.
"I don't think at that point is when you make the decision," Napier said. "There's just so much work. Spring practices are a very small percentage if you look at it from a big picture and see it from 1,000 yards away. You really want to get all of your concepts taught, you're evaluating every player on the team and that gives you a good idea of how you're going to manage your summer and how you're going to manage training camp. We're a long way from that decision, right now we're just going to wake up and hit that tree and keep hitting that tree and one day that thing is going to fall over and we'll have a starter and we'll have a guy who can lead our football team."
Through the first five practices of the spring, ASU's returning starter, junior Manny Wilkins, has taken the first team reps in every 11-on-air period media members have viewed. However, the media has yet to witness any seven-on-seven or 11-on-11 drills this spring, and both Napier and head coach Todd Graham have indicated all of ASU's quarterbacks have earned opportunities to climb the depth chart and challenge Wilkins.
While Wilkins started 10 games for ASU last year and appears to have a slight edge on his counterparts early in the spring, Napier said the competition at the position is alive and well and the coaching staff will make a decision on the Sun Devils' starting signal-caller based on every quarterback's entire body of work.
"We told them it was going to be a clean slate, we started the depth chart and the organizational chart at a fair place and we're working our way through that and there is competition each and every day," Napier said. "One day one guy looks the best, the next day another guy may look the best so it will be about the entire body of work and it will be about which guy can put our team in position to play winning football."
Aside from the battle at quarterback, Napier said he's also focused on ensuring ASU has enough talent at offensive tackle to protect the player the Sun Devils designate as their starter.
So far this spring, sophomore Cohl Cabral has worked with the first team at left tackle while junior Quinn Bailey is manning the right tackle position. On Wednesday, sophomore Zach Robertson earned his first reps in an 11-on-air period open to the media and debuted as the Sun Devils' second-team right tackle behind Bailey.
Napier said he wants his offensive tackles to be able to play other positions as well, and both Bailey and Robertson earned experience at guard last season while Cabral practiced at center in fall camp before transitioning to left tackle.
"I think we've got some versatility there, I think we've got a good group of tackles," Napier said. "I do think it's an area where we're kind of looking for that swing tackle. We'd like for those guys to play other positions as well. But I'm pleased with where our front is at, I think Coach Sale has done an outstanding job for that unit, we're making improvements each and every day, a lot of the concepts that we're running are new to them so I think as time goes forward, we're going to give them an opportunity to go dictate to the defense, control the line of scrimmage and be aggressive in our approach. We want to play with an edge up front."
Many of the offensive concepts Napier has begun introducing to the Sun Devils' offense this spring will stress ASU's offensive tackles and require them to hold their blocks for a longer period of time, but ASU is working on implementing blocking schemes that could ease the pressure on offensive tackles.
After Wednesday's practice, Napier said that ASU will incorporate max protection packages on certain plays where it sends three receivers out in patterns as opposed to four or five. Napier said there's various ways to neutralize a defense's pressure packages, but that in some cases, the Sun Devils will wind up using max protection looks.
"Any time certain situations in the game call for having protection and being able to take shots and have answers for the blitz and certainly one of those answers is picking up the pressure," Napier said. "We're working on that, we've introduced that concept. You also can release five players, that can be the answer to pressure. You need to be able to create explosive plays. Sometimes to do that, you need to be in seven-man protections and we certainly will do that."