Q&A with Arizona State offensive coordinator Billy Napier

SunDevilSource caught up with first-year Arizona State offensive coordinator Billy Napier to hear his perspective on how the program's offense evolved during his first spring in Tempe.

Editor's Note: SunDevilSource's post-spring interview with Billy Napier was conducted before sophomore quarterback Bryce Perkins decided to transfer. In the interview, Napier expressed that Arizona State's staff hoped to keep Perkins and develop him, and discussed the potential of moving Perkins to a different position to contribute. 

SunDevilSource: You talked a lot in spring ball about needing to increase the sense of urgency in practices and up the energy level. So where do you think you're at with that as an offense as you transition into your summer workouts?

Napier: "Well I think in my opinion we're still a little bit of a work in progress but we certainly made progress. I think our culture has improved. I really like the buy in that we're getting from the players and I'm excited where we're at and the opportunity we've got headed into the summer. We really started to gain some traction at the end of spring practice. I think we're making progress and very capable, I think a lot of what type of football team we're going to have will be determined by the investment we get from the players this summer."

SunDevilSource: Todd Graham has increased the talent quite a bit since he arrived at ASU, from a handful of four-star guys to now around 25 on the roster and a lot of that is on offense. It seems like the talent level is building and most of those guys aren't even seniors. You come from Alabama, which has as much talent as any team. What's your sense of what the talent is like that you've inherited?

Napier: "Obviously we've benefited from a couple of these transfers, with (sophomore quarterback Blake) Barnett, (sophomore wide receiver Ryan) Newsome and (sophomore wide receiver John) Humphrey coming in. That bolsters you a little bit in creating quality depth at their positions. I think we're deep at running back. I like our running back group and the combination of skill sets we have there. I think once Eno (Benjamin) gets healthier he'll bring more to that room and we're excited about Trelon Smith getting here. The one position that's a little bit thin is at tight end, but I think we answered some of those questions with the improvement of Thomas Hudson and adding Christian Hill over there gave us a little bit of a physical dimension there. We need Jay Jay Wilson to be more consistent as a player. He really flashed, starting out on fire in spring and then kind of had his ups and downs to finish so we need to make improvement there. But we're adding two more quality players. Nick Ralston gives us a little flexibility there with his skill set and his size. I like where we're at. We've got seven or eight receivers who can play. That's going to create a lot of competition in that group. I think at quarterback we've got two good players. Hopefully Brady (White) can get back healthy. That will give us a little bit more stability there. Bryce Perkins is a great athlete. Hopefully we can get him healthy and experiment with him in terms of different things he can do, maybe even play another position. And then up front, we've got seven or eight guys who can play. We need to continue to create quality depth, have a good summer in the weight room to add strength and power and add quality weight. Overall, my approach with this group has really been about the investment, the ownership, the identity and the intangibles that we're going to try to play with. A lot of that has to do with their mindset and their approach to the brand of football that we want to play. I think that's the biggest point of emphasis for us as an offensive unit."

SunDevilSource: You come from a place that had a great offensive line. This group is still kind of young and other than center you won't have any senior who starts but it seems like you have pretty good size and athleticism. What do you think about what you have to work with there?

Napier: "I'm pleased. You never know what to expect when you inherit a group of players and I think coach Sale would say the same thing, but we've got some pieces of the puzzle there. We've got some tools to work with. We need to go to another level in terms of intensity, finishing, and I think as they become more and more comfortable with what we're trying to do, we can play fast and really try to dictate to the defense. That's kind of the mentality we want to have up front. We've got the answers to the test, we're well prepared. We want to be known for our effort, we want to be known for our technique, and we want to be known for how we finish. The height, weight, flexibility, athleticism and all of that is kind of second on the list in terms of what we're trying to establish there. But overall, we made progress this spring and I think that group, probably more than any group, can make the biggest improvement this summer with their effort and nutrition and conditioning and whole approach to the offseason. Usually the bigger guys can make more drastic improvements. That's our expectation. I think they're ready to go. We are excited, we are [about to start] our summer program and we're looking forward to that."

SunDevilSource: I sort of felt like your wide receiver group was the deepest on the offense and maybe even the most talented in the spring. It seems like John Humphrey Jr. is emerging as a bookend to N'Keal Harry and Jalen Harvey is a gritty, do-everything type player, probably under appreciated for his athleticism and ball skills. How are you feeling about those guys as playmakers?

Napier: "I think each one of those guys has areas where they can make improvement. We can talk individually with each of those guys. I think Jalen Harvey was probably the standout in my opinion in spring practice just in terms of his consistency and toughness. He showed up and competed in critical situations and competitive environments, scrimmages in particular. I like the way he competes, I like what he brings to us from that position. And then we've got tremendous competition. N'Keal Harry was up and down like a roller coaster. Obviously he flashed last year as a rookie and not many rookies across the country get to play. I know he was recognized, for whatever that's worth. We need to take another step forward in terms of self-discipline, accountability and overall dependability. After that, each one of those guys has got areas where they can make improvement. Overall as a group we want to ramp up our attention to detail. The summer is where you take another step in terms of your comfort level. We really spent a lot of time on what to do this spring and we were coaching the how and the why, but now we can really gain traction and start to really understand that part of every concept, each and every route, how we block on the perimeter and make good decisions. That group is deep and has a lot of competition. I'm interested to see who comes out of the summer in the best shape of their life and with sharpened skills. Receiver is a very skilled position. A lot of big and fast guys can't play wideout. It's a position where you can make investment and really develop yourself. We're fortunate to have Rob Likens coaching our group. He's outstanding and I think they really benefited from the spring with him and once they get to camp they'll get better and better."

SunDevilSource: What did you think about the the speed component relative to the skill for a Humphrey or a Newsome or, I think Terrell Chatman took a big step in the spring, as an example?

Napier: "Yeah, we've got an athletic group. We've got some guys that can take the top of it, we've got some guys who can create after the catch. The thing I'd say about the group is that it's one that really needs to get in the film room and study and take a professional approach to this summer."

SunDevilSource: I feel like Kalen Ballage is a pro-style back who hasn't really been in a pro-style system to this point in his career and your offense is probably closer to what's better for him to flourish. From a style standpoint and watching him, what do you think about how he fits into what you guys are doing. I noticed at the end of spring you used him a lot as a receiver in that tight slot role. Are we going to see two backs a fair amount?

Napier: "Well, given the strength of our team, I think two backs obviously, we spent a lot of time implementing concepts, evaluating the personnel in the spring. As we get closer to training camp and closer to that first game and get into the design phase, there's no question you're going to see two backs just because of the experience and talent in that room. Kalen, to me, is a unique player. The guy's really electric in space, he's a guy who weighs 230 pounds and has another gear, he has that ability to hit a home run. He's been outstanding just in terms of his work ethic. He's a really smart kid. That can be said for that running back group in general. [Demario Richard] is very sharp, Nick (Ralston) is very sharp and they pick things up quickly and I think we can ask them to do a lot going forward. I like that group. I like what D-Rich brings. Two years ago the guy rushed for 1,200 yards and he's got a low center of gravity, he's physical and tough, really good in protection. In the second half of the spring we really started to take a step forward just in terms of the approach we wanted to have running the football. We want to be a group of backs that people dread having to play. We want to run the ball violent, we want to take the fight to the defense, we want to really set the tone from a finish standpoint. I think we kind of established that in the last few days of spring practice."

SunDevilSource: In speaking with Todd Graham about Blake (Barnett's) assimilation, he said that made a lot of progress. First half of the spring, maybe not as good as he hoped, second half of the spring he made a lot of progress. What did you think about his spring arc and now moving into trying to compete to win the job?

Napier: "With that group in general, early on it was interesting because it was unique in the blend of different systems (over a couple years). It was trying to iron out the wrinkles with the mode of communication, the names of the concepts, and a lot of things that went into it. There were certain areas where Manny (Wilkins) was a little more familiar and certain areas where Blake was a little more familiar. What we saw was that Manny was a little bit ahead early, based on that level of knowledge and function. I think Manny obviously had a really good spring and took a step forward as a player. As a passer I think he's done a really nice job and I think he's got great command. He's obviously a heck of an athlete. Manny needs to really put on, probably, 6-8 pounds of body armor to prepare and put on a little more durability for himself. I think with that durability and as we get him healthy and that shoulder gets back to 100 percent, I think his motion can become more consistent and I think that will help him overall as a player. Blake, obviously early on, the unfamiliarity slowed him down a little bit but as he started to become more comfortable and gain some traction there at the end, really started to look like a guy who can play winning football for our team. I think those two guys really separated themselves and I'm pleased with where both of them are at but we still have a lot of progress to make and summer is the time where the quarterback position can really take ownership of the team and of the offensive unit. That's the big challenge, just okay, who can win over the team, who can prove to be the most effective, who can put the team in position to play winning football and summer is a huge chunk of the puzzle and I'm excited to see those guys go to work here when we get back. My challenge to those guys is, they really need to represent everything we're about as an organization and they need to set the standard when it comes to self-discipline, routine and the intangibles we want every player to have. They're the model and they should really try to take things to another level in their approach. We've got a lot of work to do and we're a long way from making a decision. That can be said for all the positions on our offensive unit. There's very little stability for anybody with all the competition and depth we have at some of these spots. We need to get more players with more consistency, more dependability, more accountability, and then more ownership and conviction about what we're trying to get accomplished here. I think if we can get that done we can have a heck of a football team."

SunDevilSource: What's your perspective on how quickly you'd like to narrow the focus in camp to two guys or three guys, or naming a starter or any of that? What's your mindset on that right now?

Napier: "Well in training camp based on the number of reps we get it's not really an issue. Because we've got to create depth and competition at wide receiver, there's no real timing element. We've got a lot of guys who are [first or second team] at wide receiver. We don't have a reason to push the envelop. It's not like you've got your three veteran returning starters at receiver and you're talking about getting honed in on the reps with those three guys. For us we're kind of a work in progress at a lot of spots with our first and second group. As we approach that first game, I think that's a decision we'll have to make. Who knows, both of these guys may have to play. They're both pretty capable of playing and that may be the best way to decide who should be the guy. I've been around that in the past. But it'll work itself out. I'm happy that we've got two guys, and then underneath those two guys, we can make progress. Dillon Sterling-Cole obviously has lots of areas for improvement. It'd be great to get Bryce healthy and see him in other roles. Obviously Brady coming off this foot injury it'll be good to get him out there healthy and repping. And then we've got a freshman who we can get in here and work with and we're excited about that."

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