Skill positions crystallizing as Arizona State concludes spring ball

Two quarterbacks have separated themselves and three wide receivers appear strong leaders to start for the Sun Devils in the fall. Here's a closer look at the skill position breakdown on offense, with thoughts from coordinator Billy Napier.

Arizona State's quarterback battle between junior Manny Wilkins and sophomore Blake Barnett is going to continue into the summer and possibly beyond. 

According to first-year coordinator Billy Napier, there's now some distance between Wilkins and Barnett and others at the position. Sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole worked with the third-team in Saturday's Spring Game, while Wilkins and Barnett divided up the first-team reps. Wilkins took the first reps in all 14 of the spring practices in which he participated in the media viewing segments. 

Sophomore Bryce Perkins didn't participate on Saturday because he hasn't yet been cleared by doctors from the neck injury he suffered last August. Sophomore Brady White didn't participate during the spring after foot surgery last fall. 

"We wanted to give those guys equal reps with the first group," Napier said. "We kind of split up the reps as we went through spring practice and those guys kind of separated themselves and we wanted to make sure those guys had a chance to play with the best players."

Wilkins had a strong start to spring ball, with ASU coach Todd Graham suggesting he saw clear growth in the quarterback who led the team to a 4-0 start last year before injuries derailed his, and the Sun Devils' season. Barnett was considered the better performing quarterback in the second of two closed scrimmages the Sun Devils had a week before the Spring Game, which was a limited contact setting. 

"I think Blake came into his own in the second half of spring practice and had his best practice on Wednesday, and then again [in the Spring Game], once he settled in he got comfortable and made some throws," Napier said. "Both those guys are very capable of playing winning football. It's going to be more important than ever that we have a great summer and those guys maximize their time in player led practices. They'll be in charge of that and we'll get a chance to see who can really take the bull by the horns and lead the team and make the most of their free time this summer."

It's become clear that for Sterling-Cole, Perkins or White to challenge Wilkins and Barnett in preseason camp in August, it's going to take a terrific showing. There's no indication at this time when Perkins will be cleared for contact, and White said he's targeting an early summer return to full participation. 

Replete with receivers

The signature performance of the spring game was by John Humphrey Jr., who had four touchdown receptions and generally showed off the big play capability that his broader spring performance suggested would be on tap. 

With star sophomore wideout N'Keal Harry unable to participate after getting banged up in Wednesday's practice, the Sun Devils didn't suffer in the passing game. It came as no surprise to Napier, who said the receiver position is ASU's deepest on the offense. It's a stark contrast to recent history in Tempe, when the position lacked both high end talent and depth. 

"John is a guy who still can continue to improve," Napier said. "He's a guy who has made progress. I think we all know John will tell you his best football is ahead of him. He needs to have a great summer and really work hard on detailing his game up. He had a good day today. He's definitely a guy who has some speed and can create some explosive plays. I was excited to see him make some plays in a competitive environment like today."

While Humphrey has the best speed and downfield playmaking capability of those who took the field on Saturday, the team's starting slot receiver, junior Jalen Harvey, was the best all-around player. Harvey is perhaps the best blocking receiver, an attribute that contributed to his position designation, as Napier's offense uses the slot receiver in the box a lot as an extra blocker. 

"Jalen has been Mr. Dependable throughout the entire spring," Napier said. "He's a great competitor, he's tough, he's got great ball skills. He does a good job playing in the slot for us. He's found a little niche on this team where he's a guy who has really impressed me with his ability to show up and compete day in and day out. He did it again today, so I'm very impressed with Jalen."

The 'Triple H' team of Harry, Humphrey and Harvey has become the team's top wide receiver options exiting the spring. With Harry non participating, his first-team reps at the X-position were divided between sophomores Terrell Chatman and Ryan Newsome. The second-team slot reps were taken by senior Ryan Jenkins, and behind Humphrey, sophomore Kyle Williams saw a lot of action. Newsome and Jenkins have practiced inside and out, while Chatman and Williams stayed on the perimeter in spring work.

Backs show capability

The senior duo of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage will spearhead ASU's rushing attack again this season. Ballage broke off some big runs on Saturday, primarily on slow developing outside zone plays in which he allowed blocking to set up ahead of him before finding the soft area to exploit. 

Napier is not only comfortable with his most veteran players, but considers sophomore Nick Ralston is considered a fundamentally sound and capable player. Even the team's walk-ons, Jacom Brimhall and Gil'Scott Jackson, are some of the best non-scholarship players on the offense.

Then there's highly regarded freshman Eno Benjamin, who didn't even get to participate in the spring after surgery. He'll be fully cleared in a matter of weeks. 

"Well, we've got a great group of running backs," Napier said. "It'll be a position where we'll play all those guys. They'll get an opportunity to contribute each and every week. The teams that I've been associated with in the past we've been a running back by committee group. Keep those guys fresh, keep them happy. They've been really good practice players this spring and here in the second half of spring we've seen them kind of play with a physical mentality that we really want."

Graham has suggested on several occasions this spring that ASU could incorporate a fair amount of 20 and 21 personnel groupings, with Richard and Ballage on the field together at times. To that end, Ballage spent time in the final week of spring ball working on route running from the slot, something he indicated he's very comfortable at. 

"There's no question we're going to use those guys as pass catchers," Napier said. "They're good route runners, they've got good ball skills. I'm impressed with that group just in terms of their football intelligence and they've done a great job in the meetings and have made progress and we saw that today."

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