Even with incumbent starter Manny Wilkins back for his junior season, Arizona State began its 2017 spring practice slate preparing for a wide open competition for its quarterback job.
With two-thirds of the spring now complete, the Sun Devils are a long way from settling on a starting signal-caller, but the program has zeroed in on the two players most likely to lead ASU's offense onto the field against New Mexico State in the team's season-opener this fall.
Wilkins and Alabama transfer Blake Barnett have established themselves at the top of the pecking order this spring, as head coach Todd Graham said the duo split first team reps in the Sun Devils' first scrimmage of the spring last Wednesday.
For Wilkins, the opportunity to lead ASU's first team was nothing new, as he started 10 of the Sun Devils' 12 contests in 2016. For Barnett, however, the scrimmage represented his most competitive reps since he left the Crimson Tide program last fall.
“In that competitive environment, I really enjoyed it. It was nice to be back out there," Barnett said. "Obviously we’ve been practicing before that, but to be almost live it was exciting, something I’ve been waiting for for awhile. I think I did well in that, there was a couple of dumb decisions that I made but I'll look back on, learn from it and I’m really looking forward to the next one coming up this Friday and then the spring game after that.”
Graham said after Wednesday's scrimmage that Wilkins didn't turn the ball over, while Barnett threw one interception before the pair gave way to sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole, the only other healthy quarterback on ASU's roster right now and the third-team quarterback at this point in the spring.
Sterling-Cole has a redshirt year available to him, and the Sun Devils may elect to use it after the program was forced to play the former four-star recruit as a true freshman last fall. This fall, Sterling-Cole will likely need to compete to hold his spot on the depth chart, as the Sun Devils are hoping sophomores Brady White and Bryce Perkins --who both suffered season-ending injuries in 2016-- will be cleared to fully participate in all football activities.
Wilkins spoke Monday for the first time since ASU's scrimmage and said that he was pleased with his performance and how he's developed a grasp for new offensive coordinator Billy Napier's playbook. After winning the Sun Devils' first quarterback competition since 2012 last fall under former offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, Wilkins has had to adapt to Napier's offense and said he likes where he's at right now.
“Just put my head down and went to work," Wilkins said. "I don’t want to say happy as in, I don’t want to get stagnant or anything, but I’m happy with where I’m at. Obviously I’ve got a lot to learn, still got a lot to prove but I’m very excited for the opportunities that are presenting themselves and make sure that I take advantage of them.”
Wilkins said that even though he's learning a new playbook and new offensive terminology, having a year of starting experience in his back pocket to draw upon has given him the confidence boost he's needed to take the next step in his development.
After ASU's first scrimmage, Graham highlighted the manner in which Wilkins operated the Sun Devils' offense, and Wilkins admitted he has more confidence this spring.
“When you know what you’re doing and there’s no second guess, because when something comes in my head and I say it to them, I’m confident in what I’m saying and I know that I’m right," Wilkins said. "That comes with experience, that comes with getting in the film room, learning certain protections of certain blitzes and all this stuff."
Both Wilkins and Barnett have stated how important leadership skills are to successfully managing Napier's offense, and it's a point each signal-caller emphasized on Monday.
While learning concepts and understanding the playbook is essential to knowing how to operate an offense, Graham and Napier have both proposed that the quarterback who best activates the 10 other offensive players with their leadership skills is going to be the player that ultimately wins the starting job.
"It’s (leadership) something that I like to think of myself as a leader but when you’re in a new environment, when you’re competing with a new coach, there’s different aspects to it," Barnett said. "But I don’t think you can ever be too good of a leader, I don’t think that ever exists. So I’d say the biggest thing that I want to work on is continuing to grow as a leader. One of the biggest things that I want to get out of this year is being able to affect these guys in the best way possible.”
In Napier's scheme, part of the quarterback's responsibilities include calling out protections for ASU's offensive line and identifying hot receivers, which means studying and reacting to blitz pickups has been a central focus for Wilkins and Barnett this spring.
Wilkins said Napier has asked ASU's quarterbacks to take control at the line of scrimmage, because even if offensive linemen are eventually responsible for making their blocks, a signal-caller needs to have a feel for the way a play is going to develop to give its offense the best opportunity to succeed.
“I think coach Napier has made it clear that we just take control," Wilkins said. "Obviously we do the gist of just calling protection out, calling out the Mike because the more we say it, the more we see it, the more that I can visualize it. So when I’m pointing out something is going to make me hot, then I know this is going to be here, I know that if I get something here, I have to throw hot here. It just all, like I said, meshes well together at the end of the day once you get it and once it starts clicking.”
As the Sun Devils continue to add to their arsenal and explore different plays and personnel groupings on offense, the quarterbacks that are able to process what Napier and the rest of ASU's offensive staff is teaching and then execute at a high level on the field are going to separate themselves. After 10 practices, Wilkins and Barnett have earned the right to take first-team reps ahead of Sterling-Cole, but as Barnett indicated Wednesday, the reps he and Wilkins are splitting are coming out relatively even.
Barnett said at this point, he too is excited about the way he's progressing, and that as ASU continues to work on its installation, it's his goal to be able to help lift the execution level of the teammates surrounding him.
“I’m really excited with the progress that not only myself, but the team has definitely made, especially learning a new offense," Barnett said. "We’re still installing almost every day, so we go out there every day and learn new plays and still being able to execute is definitely enlightening.”
While ASU has been working on inserting max protections for its offensive line and double-move routes for its wide receivers in practices that suggest the Sun Devils are going to eventually take their shots, Wilkins said that he's working on taking what the defense gives him.
Though the Sun Devils still have plenty of time to determine who winds up as the team's starter, ultimately, one of the players on the depth chart is going to take hold of the opportunity the coaching staff has given to them.
“As coach Napier says, the defense is going to give you the game eventually," Wilkins said. "Take what they give you and once you take what they give you, eventually they’ll give you the game. Like I said, I’ve been super excited with what coach Napier is bringing in here and just every day, just picking up on it and getting better.”