Premium Podcast: Post-spring ASU football breakdown

In this week's edition of the 'Sun Devil Source Premium Report,' hosts Kerry Crowley and Chris Karpman revisit the five questions Arizona State entered the spring with and evaluate how the Sun Devils answered those questions.

Editor's Note: To download this week's edition of the 'Sun Devil Source Premium Report,' click here. 

Prior to Arizona State head coach Todd Graham's sixth spring in Tempe, SunDevilSource compiled a list of the five most important questions facing the Sun Devils' program entering the spring. 

With new offensive and defensive coordinators, a quarterback competition and significant turnover on the coaching staff and at key position groups, there were no shortage of storylines for the Sun Devils this spring. 

Now, with 15 practices including three scrimmages in the rearview mirror, SunDevilSource looks back and evaluates what types of answers ASU provided to those questions in March and April.

1. Is Todd Graham comfortable enough to turn over the reins to Phil Bennett? And will that stick?

In his 12th season as a head coach at the FBS level, Graham appears more committed than ever before to ceding control of his program's defense. 

Throughout the spring, Graham transitioned into a new role, one as an overseer and a CEO type who had his hand in many different facets of the program but was not hyper-focused on one. 

The addition of 39-year coaching veteran Phil Bennett, a mentor to Graham early in his coaching career, has given Graham the confidence to place his trust in an assistant, but both Graham and Bennett insist that in the fall, Graham will remain closely involved with ASU's defensive game plans.

Nevertheless, Graham dedicated more of his focus to the offensive side of the ball this spring, offering coaching points to ASU's tight ends and offensive linemen while helping new offensive coordinator Billy Napier implement his scheme. 

At this point, Graham appears comfortable with his decision to bring in an outside coach to call his program's defense, but it's always easier in a low-pressure environment. Whether Graham will be able to keep his hands off of Bennett's defense this fall remains to be seen, and how Graham responds to the first signs of adversity ASU's defense faces will go a long way in determining whether his decision to hire Bennett will ultimately be deemed a success.

2. Does anyone emerge as the favorite at quarterback?

While no signal-caller emerged as the favorite to lead ASU's offense onto the field on August 31 against New Mexico State, two quarterbacks clearly separated themselves from the rest of the pack in the eyes of the Sun Devils' coaching staff.

Incumbent starter, junior Manny Wilkins, opened the spring with the Sun Devils' first-team offense, but Wilkins was forced to share reps with Alabama transfer, sophomore Blake Barnett.

Together, the duo ate up the vast majority of ASU's first and second team reps as sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole worked with the third-team offense while sophomores Brady White and Bryce Perkins continued their respective rehabilitations from serious fall injuries.

Though the race to win the starting job at ASU is a long way from over, Wilkins and Barnett have emerged as the two most likely candidates to secure the job based on their command of the Sun Devils' new offense, the repetitions they took this spring, and the fact two of the signal-callers hoping to earn a starting nod --White and Perkins-- are both coming off of season-ending injuries that prevented them from partaking in team periods this spring.

The Sun Devils will likely face a difficult dilemma this fall, as Barnett appears to be the quarterback with the highest ceiling and the most opportunity for growth within Napier's scheme while Wilkins boasts more familiarity with ASU's personnel, an emerging identity as a leader and a stronger likelihood of being able to help the Sun Devils win immediately in 2017.

Whether ASU tabs Barnett, who may face growing pains but could provide the Sun Devils with the best long-term option or Wilkins, who is arguably more prepared in the interim but could be limited in the long haul remains to be seen. Regardless, it's clear that the Sun Devils' quarterback competition will play out deep into fall camp. 

3. What shape does Billy Napier's offense take ideologically and what quarterback(s) will benefit? 

Perhaps the clearest answer the Sun Devils provided to one of the five biggest questions they faced entering the spring was answered with the new concepts and philosophy Napier introduced to the program.

A year after Graham hired Chip Lindsey, a coordinator with a background in the Air Raid, the Sun Devils reversed course and hired Napier, a long-time Alabama assistant with an impressive knowledge working under some of college football's most successful pro-style coordinators. 

Though Graham has parameters for his program's offense that Napier will have to follow, Napier's version of an 11-personnel, up-tempo, no-huddle scheme will feature a return to a run-oriented attack that ASU flaunted during the early days of Mike Norvell's tenure as the Sun Devils' offensive coordinator.

With a group of mobile up-and-comers along the offensive line, a tight end with All-Conference potential in junior Jay Jay Wilson and a backfield featuring a pair of senior running backs and talented skill ball carriers coming down the pike, the Sun Devils are seemingly in a strong position to execute Napier's desired scheme. 

During ASU's spring practices, we witnessed Napier introduce five-and-seven-step drops for quarterbacks who took snaps from under center, slot and wing back alignments for receivers and tight ends, more 12-personnel sets and a slew of double move concepts for receivers that suggest the Sun Devils aren't going to be afraid to take vertical shots.

Exactly how different Napier's scheme will look compared to Norvell and Lindsey's likely won't become completely apparent until the Sun Devils open conference play, and as expected, the differences in Napier's scheme should also be dictated by the strengths of the starting quarterback ASU settles on.

At this point, Napier's offense may be best-suited for Barnett's skill set, but if the program opts to move forward with Wilkins, it's obvious that ASU will still incorporate more pro-style concepts than we've seen from the Sun Devils in previous seasons. 

4. What will the back seven of ASU's defense look like?

ASU entered the spring with significant concerns regarding how its personnel would shape up at the back end of its defense, and the Sun Devils exit the spring with nearly as many question marks as they started with.

Due to an offseason surgery, junior safety Armand Perry missed the entirety of ASU's spring practice slate while his counterpart in the defensive backfield, senior Marcus Ball, was significantly limited due for precautionary reasons due to a medical issue.

With that duo off the field during team periods, the Sun Devils were without their starting safeties from the 2016 season, and without two of their most important defensive assets. The absences of Perry and Ball gave way to opportunities for younger and more inexperienced players, but it's not as if any of ASU's depth options seized the chance to perform and gave the coaching staff a newfound level of confidence in the program's depth.

When the fall begins, ASU will likely have Perry, Ball and junior cornerback Kareem Orr occupying three of its five starting spots in the defensive backfield, while senior D.J. Calhoun and junior Christian Sam will hold down the fort in the middle of the defense at inside linebacker. That essentially leaves two starting spots up for grabs, and gives ASU's coaches a handful of pieces to complete what has become an increasingly complex puzzle.

Perhaps ASU shifts Ball to the Spur linebacker position --the spot he lined up at this spring and began playing at the outset of the 2016 season-- to accommodate the emergence of senior Chad Adams or junior Das Tautalatasi at the back end of ASU's defense. Or perhaps the Sun Devils feel confident enough in senior J'Marcus Rhodes or junior Tyler Whiley at Spur to allow Ball to return to his old position, but it will likely take a fall full of tinkering to determine exactly how ASU's depth at the safety positions shakes out.

At cornerback, redshirt freshman Chase Lucas appears to be the most likely candidate to start opposite Orr, but Lucas will have to fend off a challenge from senior Maurice Chandler, who is healthier at the end of this spring than he was at any point during his first fall camp with the program. 

After 15 spring practices, there's absolutely no clarity regarding the starting unit and the high-end depth in ASU's back seven, and for a program coming off back-to-back seasons with the worst pass defense in the country, there's obviously serious concern.

The Sun Devils will attempt to bolster their depth in the fall as they add five defensive backs who signed with the program on National Signing Day and three junior college transfers who were post-Signing Day additions, and once fall camp begins, ASU will likely need at least a handful of those players to emerge if it wants to take a step forward.  

5. Who is the odd man out on the offensive line? 

When the Sun Devils began the spring, they appeared to have six offensive linemen with legitimate opportunities to lay claim to a starting spot. 

Juniors Sam Jones and Quinn Bailey began the spring as the top two linemen on ASU's roster, but behind them, the Sun Devils had four linemen poised to battle for three starting spots as sophomores Cohl CabralSteve Miller and Zach Robertson and senior A.J. McCollum all earned valuable experience last season.

However, as the spring rolled along, a seventh lineman began to challenge for first-team reps as senior walk-on Tyler McClure pushed McCollum at the center position.

At the outset of the spring, Cabral was given the first opportunity to work at left tackle, and the Southern California native took his chance and ran with it. Athletic and mobile for his size, Cabral proved during ASU's spring game that he was able to hold up on the quarterback's blind side in pass protection, which is something ASU's tackles have struggled to do over the past few seasons.

At left guard, Jones emerged as the anchor of ASU's offensive line, a player with All-Conference potential and the athleticism to make a difference as a pulling option in the run game. 

On the right side of the line, Miller played guard while Bailey kicked out to right tackle, a position he played at various points during ASU's 2016 campaign. Together, Miller and Bailey form a highly capable pairing, as Miller boasts a massive 6-foot-4, 325-pound frame while Bailey is agile and strong enough to handle the rigors of playing tackle in the Pac-12. 

The emergence of Cabral and Miller left Robertson as the most likely candidate to be the odd man out, as the sophomore appears a step behind his counterparts from a physicality standpoint at this point during his development. Though Robertson has the size and speed to develop into a high-caliber Pac-12 lineman, he's caught in between positions as he doesn't appear to have settled in at either guard or tackle just yet. 

While Robertson may be the odd man out at the start of the season, he should wind up serving as the first man off the bench for ASU's line in 2017 as long as the Sun Devils continue to ride the wave of confidence they found in the first-team offensive line this spring. 

The most intriguing question facing this unit exiting the spring is whether or not McCollum will be able to hold off the push from McClure during fall camp, as McClure is the more athletic option who might be better suited for Napier's run schemes while McCollum is the more stout, more physical option of the two centers. 


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