Sun Devils remain 'work in progress' as spring ball concludes

Arizona State has a lot of work ahead of it this summer if it's going to recapture the success it experienced earlier in the Todd Graham era. But there are clear signs of progress according to returning players and new key coaches.

There were no hard hats or reflective vests worn by players on Frank Kush Field during Saturday's Arizona State spring game, but fans still saw a team under construction. 

Nearby, work is ongoing on the program's signature Student Athlete Facility that will house Sun Devil football beginning this summer. High above the north end zone, framing for a massive video board that will span five stories is taking shape. Players weren't yet able to watch their highlights on the big screen, but that day will come this fall. 

The new facilities and jumbotron will be finished prior to start of the 2017 season, but first-year coordinators Phil Bennett and Billy Napier want to make sure their players are also ready. 

Spring football may be over, but there's still a lot of work to be done. Bennett, who is taking over an ASU defense that finished last in FBS in each of the previous two seasons in passing yards allowed, is using blunt honesty to spur development. 

“I told them, we are a work in progress, but we dang sure can get there and I been some places where the journey is too hard, but we can get there," Bennett said. "I’m huge on chemistry. We have to develop, I’ll give you an example. I tell [junior defensive end Joseph Wicker], ‘Do you want to be good or do you want to be great?’ 

"The difference between good and great is that much and it’s a mindset of how you practice, how you handle your business. I said I'd love for people call me and say ‘God your No. 1 is a dominant player.’ I said you’re not yet. I’m not going to feed him candy and tell him lies and one of the things I do, I tell him the truth. Now we’ve progressed, without question we’ve progressed.”

Coaches can put together a great blueprint, but ultimately they're just the architects, not the builders. It's the players who have to do the heavy lifting, and that reality is setting in. 

“I think we’re close," Wicker said. "I think we still have a lot of work to do as far as technique wise but I think feel like we’re very close, probably like 70 percent there. I feel like its just certain people who need to get on board and start doing the right things.” 

Senior linebacker D.J. Calhoun is one of the veteran players who knows what it's like to be on a good college football team. He was around early enough in ASU coach Todd Graham's tenure at the school to participate on a 10-win team as a freshman in 2014 and believes that progress is being made toward returning to that form. 

“The spring in general, everything was different," Calhoun said. "It was a higher tempo and everybody was held accountable just for little things. It could be your step, anything like that. I feel like we improved a lot, a lot.”

Napier knows what a finished product looks like. He's arrived at ASU this year after being a part of the Alabama staff that won National Championships in each of the last two seasons. That perspective enables a critical eye comparison to where the Sun Devils are currently at offensively, a team that ran the ball poorly in 2016 and had instability at quarterback. 

"In spring ball I think we were a little bit up and down but we were able to finish on a high note," Napier said. "Like anything that's worth accomplishing, it's going to be difficult. They've just got to come to grips with the fact that it's not easy to play at a high level and win a championship. There's going to be a little discomfort associated with that. This summer is the next phase. We're going to move on to that, give these guys a good week and a half of lifts and runs, let them take their exams, take a couple weeks off and then we're going to roll up our sleeves and have a great summer."

In the months to follow, Napier wants to see leadership from the quarterback position that brings the unit together as a whole. With junior Manny Wilkins battling sophomore Blake Barnett for the starting job, a big stake in the ground could be had if one player outshines the other with team-building activities in the next few months. The talent is there for a successful offense according to Napier, who in particular likes the depth and talent of his wide receiver group. 

"I feel like we've got a very capable group on offense," Napier said. "The big thing with our team, we've got to establish the discipline, the effort, the toughness, the focus that is required to sustain and play at a high level week in and week out. It's going to be more about the intangibles for us. It's going to be more about what type of teammate each individual is. It's going to be more about the self-discipline each guy's got. If we can get those things resolved and really do those things at a high level, the football part will take care of itself."

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