Arizona State offensive coordinator Billy Napier has the puzzle pieces spread out on the desk in his office, but Napier is in no rush to assemble a finished product.
Napier knows he can assemble his puzzle at any time he chooses, but the Sun Devils' first-year coordinator is prepared to spend the months of June, July and August waiting until he's absolutely convinced every piece will fit together perfectly.
When Napier left his job as Alabama's wide receivers' coach to take the helm of ASU's offense in January, he inherited a unit loaded with potential, but a group of players who have yet to come close to reaching their ceilings.
Following a 5-7 season in which ASU did not participate in a bowl game for the first time in the Todd Graham era, Napier is tasked with revitalizing the Sun Devils' approach on the offensive side of the ball and reshaping a unit that took the Pac-12 by storm early in Graham's tenure.
For Napier to accomplish this task, he knows he must eventually settle on a starting quarterback, but the key word for Napier and ASU is "eventually."
Upon arriving in Tempe, Napier had no shortage of options to evaluate at the quarterback position, as he began his first spring in the program with five quarterbacks on the team's roster and a sixth --Basha (Chandler) signal-caller Ryan Kelley-- committed and prepared to enroll at ASU in the fall.
From the outset, Napier knew the initial challenge he would face was not determining which quarterbacks were capable of leading ASU's offense, but instead, what players were capable of learning Napier's system and scheme and adapting their skill sets to fit what he was looking for.
Wilkins, a junior, won ASU's first open quarterback competition since 2012 last fall when he beat out sophomore Brady White to earn the starting nod in the Sun Devils' season-opener against Northern Arizona. Wilkins won the first four starts of his career, but suffered an ankle injury against USC that changed the course of his season and prevented him from playing with a clean bill of health for the remainder of the year.
After a 4-0 start, Wilkins lost the final six games he played in and watched as offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey departed the program to accept the same job at Auburn in January. Lindsey's decision to leave ASU meant Napier would serve as the third different coordinator and coach to tutor Wilkins in three seasons, and forced him to assimilate to a new offensive scheme for the second straight spring.
Even though Wilkins was unfamiliar with Napier's coaching style, the first-year coordinator said Wilkins took to it early on and made significant strides as a passer that allowed him to gain an early edge on Barnett.
“What we saw was that Manny was a little bit ahead early, based on that level of knowledge and function," Napier said. "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.”
While Wilkins took first-team reps in practice periods the media watched for most of the spring, Barnett worked to close the gap as the spring wore on. Napier said the Alabama transfer was unfamiliar with some of the communications and concepts, and indicated that once Barnett began to grow more comfortable, his game picked up.
“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," Napier said.
By the middle of April, Napier felt confident that both Wilkins and Barnett were beginning to take ownership of ASU's offense, but acknowledged that spring ball was just the first step in a competition that appears destined to last deep into fall camp.
Throughout the spring, both Napier and Graham said they'll move forward with the quarterback who best engages and ignites the other 10 players on the offensive side of the ball, which means ASU's staff may not choose the signal-caller with the most raw talent. With that in mind, Napier said how each quarterback sets the tone for ASU in the Sun Devils' summer conditioning program will go a long way toward determining which player is best able to win over his teammates.
“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," Napier said. "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.”
Napier is clearly putting a lot of stock in how Wilkins and Barnett perform this summer, but that doesn't mean he'll be ready to narrow down the competition when the Sun Devils get back on the field for the beginning of fall camp. Napier said he'll continue to rep each of his quarterbacks, and though sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole is working behind Wilkins and Barnett, there's still a possibility White, who is returning from a foot injury, works his way back into the competition if he's completely healthy in August.
“Dillon Sterling-Cole obviously has lots of areas for improvement," Napier said. "It'd be great to get Bryce (Perkins)** 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 (Kelley) who we can get in here and work with and we're excited about that."
Even if White doesn't find himself battling with Wilkins and Barnett, Napier said he feels no pressure to rush a decision or cut down on one quarterback's reps because the rest of ASU's offense will still be taking shape during the first few weeks of camp.
At this point, ASU's young offensive line will still be a work in progress, while Napier and coach Rob Likens will also be focused on setting a rotation and depth chart for the wide receivers.
"Well in training camp based on the number of reps we get it's not really an issue," Napier said. "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.”
Because ASU's quarterback competition could take weeks to play out this fall, Napier admitted both Wilkins and Barnett may receive an opportunity to play early in the season.
Last year, Lindsey was reluctant to give White an opportunity after Wilkins was named the starter, but Napier said he's been involved with teams that have needed to play two quarterbacks to determine which player gives a team the best opportunity to win and he's comfortable with that scenario.
“As we approach that first game, I think that's a decision we'll have to make," Napier said. "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.”
With spring ball in the rearview mirror and the puzzle pieces spilled out across his desk, Napier believes he has plenty of time to finalize what he's hoping turns into a masterpiece. Though Napier doesn't exactly know how the puzzle will take shape just yet, the 15 practices he oversaw this spring convinced him that he has the right frame to work with. Now, it's a matter of analyzing each of his pieces, and deciding how and when he wants to start the assembly process.
"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," Napier said. "I think if we can get that done we can have a heck of a football team."