TEMPE, Ariz. – One more week. One more practice.
The Arizona State Sun Devils are nearing the end of spring workouts.
“Taking steps every day,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins said.
It’s been a four-week journey for ASU featuring a new offensive coordinator, new defensive coordinator and three new assistants under head coach Todd Graham.
Not to mention all the new faces in uniform.
“We’ve made a big improvement I would say. Coming in with a new coach, everyone is kind of learning a new offense, learning a new system. For myself, I’m learning new players,” said redshirt sophomore quarterback Blake Barnett, the transfer from Alabama.
“You kind of start with the smaller stuff and you continually grow. We’ll have bigger installs (of the offense). I think the other quarterbacks can attest. We’ve had days where we’ve had, like, seven or eight plays (to learn) when we’ve come in that morning and ran them that day. It’s just growing and getting better — competing.”
Of course, the biggest competition is at the quarterback position. Nothing has been settled yet, and likely won’t until the fall, though by all accounts Wilkins, last season’s starter, and Barnett have split many of the first-team snaps.
All eyes will be on the quarterbacks on Saturday when ASU holds its annual spring game. It’s scheduled for 2 p.m. inside Sun Devil Stadium.
On Monday, Graham said to expect a lot of competition, whether it is position drills or 7-on-7 work. There will be some scrimmaging, but because the practice will be televised on the Pac-12 Network, not too much of the playbook will be on display.
“Everybody is going to watch it, so you have to be really, really bland about what you’re doing, especially your communications,” Graham said.
Now the last images of Sun Devil football on TV were not good. In fact, they were downright embarrassing.
Rival Arizona rushed for a school-record 511 yards in a 56-35 win in Tucson, sending ASU to its sixth consecutive loss and second straight sub.-500 season.
Graham insists the defense has improved under Phil Bennett, the former Baylor coordinator.
Wilkins, too, believes that side of the line of scrimmage will be better.
“We have an opportunity to be very special. I think every year we’ve had a very good opportunity to be special,” he said. “We just got to stay tight throughout everything. Last year was kind of a good illustration of that. I think we just got to stick through it all. When adversity strikes, just make sure we bounce back.”
Wilkins has already noticed subtle changes, and not just defensively. It’s the whole team, he said. Players pick one another up.
“I’ve seen a different level of camaraderie throughout all our teammates,” he said. “So, it’s cool when you see somebody get knocked down and it’s not talking mess and it’s just bringing them up and let’s go to the next play and make it happen again.”
Counting Saturday, the Sun Devils will have practiced 15 times, including a handful of closed scrimmages, since mid-March.
They won’t be together again as a team until August.
What happens during the summer months falls on the players.
“It’s big for everyone,” Barnett said. “It’s a big time, not only for, like, personal growth … it also is another opportunity for us in 7-on-7 (work) and being able to get together as a team aside from the coaches.”
— In addition to the on-field work, there’s classroom work, specifically film watching. It’s something new offensive coordinator Billy Napier stresses, according to Wilkins.
“When you’re in some down time, instead of just sitting there and watching Netflix or something or going to eat burgers all the time or something, watch some film, man. Turn it on for an hour,” he said. “An hour of film a day extra can be so much more beneficial at the end of the day.”
— The quarterbacks room has been a crowded one this spring. There are five with a sixth to arrive in the fall. And though they compete every day, they all get along.
“The relationship between all of us is really great,” sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole said. “We’ve been able to talk amongst each other and just really just develop more of a personal relationship than anything inside the meeting room, so it’s really been great.”
— The quarterbacks are expected to hand the ball off more in 2017.
”We’ll play with two backs a lot of the time because of how strong our backs are. Our running backs, we’re deep,” Graham said.
In addition to seniors Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard, Graham mentioned a third senior, Jacom Brimhall.
“I think he’s had an unbelievable spring. He’s set himself up to have a great year,” Graham said. “Really pleased with him, how hard he’s ran the ball. He’s just developed his body. He looks like a big-time tailback.”
— The history between Graham and Bennett goes back decades. That, Graham said, has made for a “really good” transition.
“I think the biggest thing is how similar (we are), just philosophically. Our guys are used to a certain intensity and a certain passion as far as how we work and it’s been a great fit from that standpoint,” he said. “Just his style is one that really fits and I think our guys respond to. He’s done a great job of blending and marrying things. The defense has remarkably improved. I like that.”