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Ten questions as the Sun Devils open spring football

(AP Photo/Matt York)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Todd Graham’s sixth season as Arizona State’s football coach kicked off Tuesday morning with the start of spring practice. Afterward, Graham kicked off his first media session with a humorous moment.

The first question he fielded from a media member was a true softball by reporters’ standards: how long into the first practice did it take Graham to realize he likes his team?

“Well, it would be kind of foolish to say I didn’t because I recruited every one of them,” Graham said to laughter. “I’ve hired everybody and I’ve recruited everybody.”

Graham will like some better than others when the Sun Devils’ 15 spring practice dates have concluded on April 15.

2017 Sun Devil Football Spring Practice Dates
March 14 – 8:30 a.m.
March 16 – 8:30 a.m.
March 18 – 8:30 a.m.
March 20 – 8:30 a.m.
March 22 – 8:30 a.m.
March 24 – 8:30 a.m.
March 27 – 8:30 a.m.
March 29 – 8:30 a.m.
March 31 – 8:30 a.m.
April 3 – 8:30 a.m.
April 5 – 8:30 a.m.
April 7 – 8:30 a.m.
April 11 – 8:30 a.m.
April 13 – 8:30 a.m.
April 15 – 2 p.m.

There is plenty to sort out this spring, and there is plenty more to sort out before the season opener on Aug. 31 against New Mexico State, so here are our top 10 questions as the Sun Devils try to rebound from a pair of losing seasons that have put the direction of the program and the future of its coaching staff in question.

10. Who will be the starting QB?

New offensive coordinator Billy Napier insists it will be a clean slate when the competition for starting quarterback duties begins among six candidates: redshirt junior Manny Wilkins; Alabama transfer and redshirt sophomore Blake Barnett; redshirt sophomore Brady White (not participating as he recovers from foot surgery); sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole; redshirt sophomore Bryce Perkins; and freshman Ryan Kelley.

Graham said Wilkins would enjoy the incumbent’s status as the No. 1 guy when practice began, but it is still an open competition. 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 the former 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.

“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,” Napier said. “At some point or another, somebody is going to prove they are the guy and it may be the guy you least suspect.”

9. Will the offense look different under new OC Billy Napier?

Much could depend on who wins the QB battle. If it’s Wilkins, probably not as much, but if it’s Barnett, a true pocket passer, the Sun Devils could open up the passing game a bit more. Napier has underscored the idea that his offense remains flexible to take advantage of a quarterback’s best talents.

That said, if you look into Napier’s past, it’s easy to envision the tight ends becoming more involved and the Sun Devils going to more 12-personnel (one back, two tight ends) groupings because it is so difficult to pre-snap read the grouping, even if Graham insists his basic offensive principles will remain.

“We have a defined philosophy,” he said. “We are going to be an 11-personnel team. We’re going to be a run, play-action pass team. If you’ll go back every year I’ve been a head football coach, we’ve been a spread, no-huddle team, all the way back to 2006.

“But we’re going to adapt to our guys, and we’ve got some guys at the skill positions, at tight end, at the receiver position.”

8. How will the defense look different under new DC Phil Bennett?

Graham didn’t hire Bennett to completely overhaul the defense, but he continues to assert that he will hand over full control of the unit to a longtime friend and mentor, rather than maintaining control as he has in past years. One of the Bennett’s first charges will be to cut down on the volume of explosive plays the Devils have surrendered each of the last two seasons. Bennett’s expertise is the back end and that meshes well with the Sun Devils’ needs. ASU has had the nation’s worst pass defense the last two seasons, allowing over 337 yards per game through the air in 2015 and over 356 passing yards per game in 2016.

“I think what we’re doing is conducive to what we’re good at,” Bennett said Tuesday. “I just think some of the things that we have come up with, what I have done in the past, are conducive to limiting explosion plays [like] giving some corners some relief where you’re not always locked man-to-man… I think we can correct a lot of things.”

Bennett will operate out of a base 4-2-5 system that is similar to the scheme Graham has run since his arrival, but the terminology and names of positions will change. The field side safety will change to cover safety and the boundary side safety changes to down safety.

In Bennett’s system, the Spur will remain, but it will be considered a defensive back, not a linebacker, and Bennett will stress speed at that position. Four-star recruits Evan Fields and K.J. Jarrell are both candidates for the Spur.

Bennett said at spring media day that he wants the Sun Devils to be multiple in looks, and adapt to offenses. He’ll add a three-man front and in lighter packages, the Spur will be more of a true nickel corner.

7. Can Doug Subtyl make an immediate impact?

Subtyl’s powerful backstory of impoverished beginnings in Haiti is enough reason to root for him, but the Devils think he has elite pass-rushing tools. He just needs to polish the rawness. The Sun Devils recruited the 6-foot-4, 245-pound redshirt junior to play their Devilbacker position, a pass rushing position.

ASU finished fifth in the conference in sacks last season but had one of the top pass rushers in the Pac-12 in Koron Crump. Subtyl could find himself rushing opposing passers alongside Crump this season.

“The education part of it, that’s a life-changing opportunity for him but he’s also going to do some great things as a football player,” Graham said.

6. Will the pass defense be improved?

As we noted above, the back end is Bennett’s forte’ and he will need that expertise after ASU finished the last two seasons as the nation’s worst pass defense.

The Sun Devils return just five scholarship players at the cornerback/field safety positions in senior Chad Adams, senior Maurice Chandler, redshirt freshman Chase Lucas, junior Kareem Orr and junior Armand Perry, who is not participating in spring ball due to offseason surgery. ASU added a pair of cornerbacks in recruiting — four-star recruit Alex Perry and two-star prospect Langston Frederick, and added February signing Darien Cornay as a late addition, but sophomore cornerback Robbie Robinson has received his scholarship release so he can explore other opportunities.

ASU also added Scottsdale Saguaro product K.J. Jarrell and Ty Thomas, the nephew of former Dolphins seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Zach Thomas, at safety. At his post-signing day press conference, Graham stressed a focus on elements that were missing in his secondary.

“This class was mostly about explosiveness and speed and skill,” Graham said. “The main focus was on dynamic playmakers… obviously defensive backs was the No. 1 priority in our entire class.”

4. Do the Sun Devils have enough impact receivers?

The Sun Devils have a budding star in big wideout N’Keal Harry, but the Devils need complements to take some of the attention away from their man-child sophomore.

Speed threat Cameron Smith was a non-factor last season but could still stretch defenses if he can harness the mental side of the game. Former four-star recruits Jalen Harvey and Terrell Chatman are still trying to assert their place in the Sun Devil offense, but they’ll be pushed by transfers Ryan Newsome (Texas) and John Humphrey (Oklahoma).

Graham likes Kyle Williams’ compete level, but the Devils are largely an unproven lot and just lost position coach Jay Norvell, who was replaced by Rob Likens.

3. How will Napier distribute carries, reps and touches with so many talented running backs?

It was no secret that Demario Richard was a little jealous of the attention and touches Kalen Ballage got last season. How then will the Devils manage their backfield with recruit Eno Benjamin, whose hybrid QB/running back skills fit directly into ASU’s “Sparky” formation?

Benjamin will likely play a supporting role early, especially because he’ll be limited in spring ball coming off an ankle injury, but he is the heir apparent and should get quality touches down the road if he picks up the nuances of the Sun Devils offense. The Sun Devils shouldn’t have to worry too much about keeping everyone happy. Richard and Ballage are both entering their senior seasons. Benjamin can afford to wait this one out.

2. What is a realistic win total?

The schedule presents significant problems. Apart from the opener against New Mexico State, ASU faces Mountain West champ San Diego State, Texas Tech on the road, and then a tough stretch of games to open the Pac-12 season.

ASU hosts Oregon, goes to Stanford, hosts Washington, goes to Utah, hosts USC and Colorado and then goes to UCLA. That is a murderous stretch for a still young team that is trying to find its legs.

The only reprieve comes in the last two games against Oregon State and Arizona. What will the Devils’ mental state be by then? Graham has his work cut out for him to get the Sun Devils bowl eligible this season.

1. Is Todd Graham on the hot seat?

Graham made a major concession to Vice President for University Athletics Ray Anderson by making a change at defensive coordinator and ceding control of his defense — an area Anderson highlighted as in need of improvement. Anderson shot down notions of Graham being on the hot seat recently, but if the Sun Devils stumble to another six- or five-win season, there is reason to believe Graham could be in trouble, based on Anderson’s aggressive track record of making changes when his athletic programs do not enjoy success.

Three straight seasons of mediocrity or worse are tough to tolerate in a program that expects to be at least in the Pac-12’s upper half.

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