TEMPE, Ariz. — There will be no incumbent advantage. There will be no advantage due to prior relationships.
Arizona State football coach Todd Graham and new offensive coordinator Billy Napier made it plain at Wednesday’s spring football mini-media day at the Carson Student-Athlete Center: The Sun Devils’ 2017 quarterback competition is an open one.
“It’s a clean slate,” said Napier, who came to ASU from Alabama, where he was the wide receivers coach. “I tell every offensive player the same thing: ‘I’m evaluating your actions. It’s not what you tell me you’re doing. Show me you’re committed as a teammate, play with great effort, great toughness, show me you’ve got tremendous self discipline in your daily approach and we can count on you.’
“We’re going to spread these reps out over spring practice and the summer program and this competition and battle will go into the season. At some point or another, somebody is going to prove they are the guy and it may be the guy you least suspect.”
It’s not a stretch to suggest that ASU has its best quarterback depth since Graham arrived for the 2012 season. There are six quarterbacks on the roster: last season’s starter, redshirt junior Manny Wilkins; Alabama transfer and redshirt sophomore, Blake Barnett; redshirt sophomore Brady White; sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole; redshirt sophomore Bryce Perkins; and freshman Ryan Kelley.
Since Wilkins was the starter last season, Graham acknowledged that Wilkins would at least enjoy a ceremonial role of prominence when spring ball begins.
“Obviously, guys that have invested in and are returning starters and all that — when we start spring, that’s where they will start,” Graham said. “But every position is going to be competitive.”
White and Sterling-Cole both saw action last season due to injuries, and Perkins was in a tight battle with Wilkins and White last spring, but Wilkins’ stiffest competition should come from Alabama transfer and five-star prospect Barnett, whom ESPN.com ranked as the nation’s top pocket passer during his senior year at Santiago High School. In 2014, the Corona, California product was named the MVP of the Elite 11 Quarterback competition.
“His decision-making,” Graham said when asked to pinpoint Barnett’s skill-set. “He’s got all the tools physically, size and ability to throw the ball and an ability to extend plays and to move.”
Barnett insists he was never promised anything more than the chance to compete when he chose ASU over a variety of other schools, including Cal and Washington State.
“I wouldn’t expect that,” Barnett said. “I want to find a place where I can compete and hopefully contribute to the team as best I can.”
Barnett admitted he was caught off guard when previous offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey left the program to take the same position at Auburn. Barnett had started to develop a relationship with Lindsey.
“It was a little surprising; not in a negative way. It was just kind of unexpected,” Barnett said. “I didn’t make my decision based off of one coach — for anyone to do that in college football would be silly… being in this for a couple years, you can discover that you shouldn’t make a decision based off of one coach just because, from first-hand experience, they can leave.
“I’m really excited that coach Napier is here. I’ve been with him for almost two years. He knows my skill-set, I know how he is as a coach, but at the end of the day, I think everyone has a clean slate in this competition. I don’t think there’s any unfair advantages.”
Wilkins is taking the same approach. He took some heat that last season for mistakes or reads in the passing game, but Graham admitted Wednesday that Wilkins was never healthy after the USC game on Oct. 1.
“There’s going to be scrutiny and people being negative, but that comes with being a quarterback,” Wilkins said. “One thing I have learned is all that doesn’t matter, the stories written about you don’t matter. What matters is when you’re on that field, do you perform or do you not perform?”
Wilkins has little idea what to expect from Napier’s offense since NCAA rules forbid meetings or film sessions, but he has sworn off social media the last few weeks as he hones in on the start of spring ball.
“I just want to put my head down for this training and get my mind right, get my body right and have a laser focus,” he said. “My mindset hasn’t changed one bit. I’m as hungry as I’ve never been. They can bring in whoever they want. I really don’t care. I’m going to stick to who I am and I live for competition. That’s what makes this game worth watching.”