Eve Craig/SunDevilSource

Five takeaways from Arizona State's spring practices

At the halfway point of Arizona State's spring, SunDevilSource has compiled a list of the five most important takeaways gleaned from the Sun Devils' practices thus far.

1. Arizona State's offense is completely different

When former Sun Devils' offensive coordinator Mike Norvell departed ASU following the 2015 season to accept the head coaching job at Memphis, Todd Graham hired Chip Lindsey away from Southern Miss to replace Norvell and keep a well-oiled offensive machine running. 

Though Graham, Lindsey and ASU's players insisted the changes in the Sun Devils' schematic approach would be minor, Lindsey introduced various concepts of the Air Raid offense to the program and implemented a greater philosophical shift than Graham likely anticipated. In Lindsey's version of ASU's spread, no-huddle, 11-personnel scheme, the Sun Devils' quarterbacks were tasked with getting the ball out of their hands rapidly, maximizing a quick-game passing attack and serving as fast-paced decision-makers.

Lindsey's offensive approach de-emphasized the role of the tight end, incorporated fewer zone-read concepts in the run game, and strayed away from passing concepts designed to put multiple receivers in the quarterback's field of vision at various levels of the field Norvell featured.

After one season at ASU, Lindsey departed to accept the offensive coordinator position at Auburn, leaving Graham with an opportunity to hire a coordinator whose background was more closely aligned with the style of offense Graham wants the Sun Devils to operate. 

ASU's sixth-year head coach wound up hiring Alabama wide receivers' coach Billy Napier, and while some members of the coaching staff and players are still downplaying the ideological shift between Lindsey and Napier, through the first half of spring, it has become exceedingly apparent that the Sun Devils will experience sweeping changes on the offensive side of the ball.

Napier spent five of the last six seasons working on Nick Saban's Alabama staff, where he studied under coordinators like Jim McElwain, Doug Nussmeier and Lane Kiffin, all of whom have backgrounds in pro-style offenses. And since arriving at ASU, Napier has attempted to draw from the experience he gained with the Crimson Tide to develop the Sun Devils' offensive approach.

According to a source familiar with Alabama's program, ASU's offensive practices are now stylistically very similar to the Crimson Tide's practices, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise considering multiple Sun Devils' offensive players have told SunDevilSource they're watching film of Alabama to gain a clearer understanding of what's expected of them in Napier's offense.

Though media hasn't been allowed to observe any 11-on-11 or 7-on-7 periods this spring, the Sun Devils' skill development periods have revealed the direction the offense is trending, which is toward a scheme that incorporates max protections, features quarterbacks under center, uses bigger-bodied personnel, and often moves wide receivers down into the box to aid with blocking responsibilities.

Graham has admitted he thought the Sun Devils strayed from the offensive identity the program established early in his tenure during ASU's back-to-back losing seasons, and has said he wants Napier to orchestrate an attack that helps the program return to a run-oriented approach.

While Napier will likely wait until the Sun Devils decide on a starting quarterback to further refine his scheme and to tailor it toward putting his quarterback in the best situations to distribute the football, there's no doubt that regardless of who wins the starting job, ASU's offense will have a significantly different feel in 2017. 

2. Todd Graham is ceding control of ASU's defense to Phil Bennett

This spring isn't the first time that Graham has attempted to cede control of ASU's defense to a defensive coordinator, but it does appear as though it's the most serious Graham has ever been about relinquishing his authority on the defensive side of the ball.

Though Graham has spent the last 11 seasons calling his defense while simultaneously serving as a head coach, a second consecutive sub .500 season featuring the worst passing defense in the country forced Graham to reconsider his role in ASU's program.

After attempting to pass off play-calling duties to former ASU defensive coordinator and current linebackers coach Keith Patterson last season, Graham found himself mixed up in the Sun Devils' signaling and audibling throughout the 2016 season and it led to disastrous results.

In a postseason self-assessment, Graham determined he needed to give up command of ASU's defense to an outside authority in 2017, and this offseason, he settled on 39-year coaching veteran and one of his coaching mentors, Phil Bennett, to coordinate the Sun Devils' defense.

While it will be impossible to take Graham at his word that he's done meddling in ASU's play-calling and signaling until the Sun Devils are in action this fall, based on his duties this spring, Graham appears intent on allowing Bennett to attempt to revitalize a struggling unit.

During the first half of ASU's spring practice slate, Graham has spent most of his time working with players on the offensive side of the ball during skill development periods, offering coaching points to offensive linemen and tight ends while also overseeing the Sun Devils' quarterbacks. So far, Graham has rarely been spotted on the defensive side of the field, and he hasn't approached the defensive backs' drills, where Bennett and secondary coach T.J. Rushing are working together to help implement changes. 

ASU's players have been forthright in their analysis of the shift from Graham to Bennett, admitting that the Sun Devils' defensive scheme is now simplified and easier to understand. 

One of Bennett's key points of emphasis is helping ASU's players understand their alignments and assignments better, and part of accomplishing this is developing checks to particular formations.

In the past, Graham would spend the moments leading up to snaps audibling and shifting ASU's play calls based on what he thought an offense was most likely to run, which often led to confusion, missed assignments and coverage breakdowns. In Bennett's scheme, though, ASU's new defensive coordinator is hoping to do away with late pre-snap adjustments, and put the Sun Devils' players in position based on an offense's formation that allows them to best execute their individual responsibilities. 

3. Manny Wilkins and Blake Barnett are the overwhelming favorites to win the starting quarterback job

Though the ASU quarterback competition likely won't be decided until the middle of August at the earliest, all indications from the first eight practices of the Sun Devils' spring suggest junior Manny Wilkins and sophomore Blake Barnett are the overwhelming favorites to win the starting quarterback job.

Because the media has yet to view any 11-on-11 or 7-on-7 practice periods yet this spring, there's nothing that's distinguishing itself in terms of how ASU's quarterbacks are performing on the field that would give us greater insight into which signal-callers are best prepared to handle the rigors of the job. However, the manner in which the Sun Devils are allocating repetitions in 11-on-air periods and the comments Graham has made about the quarterback competition suggest that Wilkins and Barnett are in the best position to win the starting nod.

Outside of Wilkins and Barnett, sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole is the only other healthy quarterback cleared to compete in team periods this spring, and even though Sterling-Cole has the potential to eventually develop into a strong signal-caller, he has a redshirt year available and probably lacks the maturity and leadership capabilities at this point in his career that Wilkins and Barnett both possess.

With sophomores Bryce Perkins and Brady White both battling back from injury, each player will start the competition behind the eight-ball when they are cleared to participate without limitations in ASU's practices. As Wilkins and Barnett pile up the reps in ASU's offense, both Perkins and White will be playing catch-up and will need to overcome the mental hurdle of recovering from a catastrophic injury in order to work their way up the depth chart.

While it's difficult to say whether Wilkins or Barnett holds an edge over the other at this point in the spring, it's unlikely that ASU's coaching staff is overly consumed by setting a pecking order for the pair. Because Napier's offense is new and the offensive coaching staff is attempting to install a complex playbook this spring, the Sun Devils are likely more concerned with ensuring that all of ASU's quarterbacks develop a firm grasp of the scheme. 

After the program's first spring scrimmage Wednesday, Graham heaped praise on Wilkins, who he said had 100 percent ball security and displayed an effective command for engineering ASU's offense. However, Graham did say that ASU's incumbent starter split first-team reps with Barnett, who did throw one interception, but also led clean drives according to his head coach.

Even if Wilkins holds a slight edge over Barnett at this point in the competition, both quarterbacks will be given plenty more meaningful opportunities to separate themselves from one another, and to continue separating themselves from the other three quarterbacks hoping to make a play at the starting job as well.

4. ASU's secondary is a work in progress 

The Sun Devils didn't take the field from the time they finished the 2016 season with the worst passing defense in the country for the second year in a row until March, so there's little reason to expect ASU should be demonstrating clear improvements through the first two and a half weeks of the spring. 

A unit that finished with the second worst passing defense in college football history does return three starters, junior safety Armand Perry, senior safety Marcus Ball and junior cornerback Kareem Orr, but all three are either out or limited this spring.

Perry underwent surgery and will miss the entirety of ASU's spring slate after he battled injuries throughout a challenging 2016 campaign. One of the top playmakers in ASU's secondary, Perry's health is of the utmost importance for the Sun Devils if they hope to experience significant improvements this fall.

Ball, meanwhile, has not participated in any team periods this spring, and in his fifth season in the program, does not appear as though he will do so in the near future. Ball found a home at ASU's Bandit safety position --now known as its down safety-- last fall, and should be able to provide a physical presence in the secondary come the start of the season.

Like Perry, Orr played through pain for much of the 2016 campaign, and this spring, he's been somewhat limited as evidenced by his green non-contact jersey. Still, Orr has participated in every skill development period the media has watched this spring, and with the state of ASU's health in the secondary, ASU may have Orr wearing the non-contact uniform as more of a preventative measure.

Nevertheless, with its returning starters either out or limited, ASU's depth has been exposed this spring as the defense transitions into Bennett's new scheme. To date, the Sun Devils' cornerbacks have struggled in bump technique drills against ASU's receivers, as the occasional strong rep from redshirt freshman Chase Lucas and senior Maurice Chandler are the plays the unit is hanging its hat on at this point.

With a trio of returners out or limited, the Sun Devils don't even have enough scholarship players to fill out the two-deep in the secondary, which has forced walk-ons onto the field in team and tempo drills. 

At this point, ASU's signees in the defensive backfield, players like four-star cornerback Alex Perry, junior college transfer Darien Cornay and two-star corner Langston Frederick should be chomping at the bit to arrive in Tempe, because at some point, the Sun Devils are likely going to have rely on newcomers to fill many of the voids on the team's depth chart this fall.

For ASU to make serious strides after posting abysmal numbers in each of the last two seasons, the Sun Devils must experience a marked improvement from now through the end of fall camp in August.

5. The Sun Devils' deepest collection of talent is at the offensive skill positions

For all of the shortcomings the Sun Devils have in the defensive backfield, ASU has as much talent as it has ever had during the Graham era on the offensive side of the ball at its skill positions.

ASU has recruited the skill positions well over the last two-to-three cycles and the Sun Devils' success on the recruiting trail should begin to show up on the field over the next two seasons. 

At wide receiver, five of the top seven players in the Sun Devils' primary rotation at this point in the spring are just sophomores, while junior Jalen Harvey still has multiple seasons of eligibility left to exercise. Of those five players, N'Keal Harry has the potential to develop into an All-American, while transfers John Humphrey Jr. and Ryan Newsome could become two of the most explosive playmakers in the conference if they continue to progress during their time at ASU.

At tight end, junior Jay Jay Wilson is easily the most athletic player the Sun Devils have had at the position under Graham, as Wilson has the capabilities to develop into a true, full-service featured tight end in Napier's offense. 

At the running back position, ASU has a pair of battle-tested seniors, Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, who are also the only two senior skill position players the team should anticipate relying on heavily on offense in 2017. Behind that duo, the Sun Devils are excited about sophomore Nick Ralston's potential, while mid-year enrollee Eno Benjamin is the highest-rated running back prospect ASU has signed during Graham's tenure.

Finally, at quarterback, the Sun Devils are still a long way from solidifying their starter, but four of the five quarterbacks battling for the job were four-star recruits or better coming out of high school. 

One of the best examples of showing how far the Sun Devils have come at the skill positions in recent seasons is looking at senior Cameron Smith's career arc. In 2014, Smith was one of ASU's most important offensive weapons and a key downfield threat in the passing game. Now, Smith is still trying to work his way back from a knee injury, but even if he doesn't contribute, the Sun Devils have four-to-five other receiving options who are capable of surpassing Smith's output from his sophomore season.

While the Sun Devils certainly have to shore things up on the defensive side of the ball and settle on a quarterback who can take advantage of all the weapons ASU has at its disposal, the Sun Devils have stockpiled talent at the skill positions on offense and have raised the collective expectations of the unit as a result. 


CO Prep Report Top Stories