(Photo: Brett Deckert/WCSN)
Arizona State is still closely removed from a tough 5-7 season, but its mind has travelled far away from what it considers to be a season firmly cemented in the past.
Wednesday’s mini-media day marked the unofficial start of spring football and you’re going to need more than one hand to count the new faces involved with the Sun Devils.
From offensive coordinator Billy Napier, to quarterback Blake Barnett, to running back Eno Benjamin, ASU is opening up a new chapter in the Todd Graham era.
Two new skill players on offense, Benjamin and wide receiver Ryan Newsome, are expected to have an impact right from the get-go.
According to nearly every ranking service, Benjamin was the highest rated recruit that the Sun Devils landed this offseason.
The Wylie, Texas native scored 117 total touchdowns in four years of high school, but is battling a minor injury suffered in the All-American game that could force him to miss the start of spring practices. The good news for the Sun Devils is that it is not thought to be something that will keep him out long-term.
Seen as someone who can make an immediate impact, Benjamin is already familiar with his running back cohorts Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage.
“When I took my official visit here on Oct. 8, the UCLA game, I met up with them and they gave me their phone numbers and that’s where the relationship started,” Benjamin said. “Being here now, I’m already familiar with them. We go out to eat together, we do things together, so I’m looking forward that opportunity on the field.”
Ballage himself is eager to welcome Benjamin to the crowded backfield. The freshman will learn under both Richard and Ballage, who are each in their senior seasons, before likely taking the reins in 2018.
“I think Eno is a great athlete,” Ballage said. “He is a great football player, he runs hard, so we are going to have to figure out where we can fit him in our system and get him some touches.”
As for his relationship with new offensive coordinator Billy Napier, Benjamin said they are still trying to get to know each other.
Both are new to the program, which is a commonality that they share together.
On the flip side, Newsome, a wide receiver and transfer from the University of Texas, has much more of a familiarity with Napier.
“When he got hired, the next day he came to Tempe to the weight room,” Newsome said. He said ‘It’s funny how this thing works out,’ because he recruited me to Alabama in high school.”
In addition, Newsome has been as active as any player when it comes to recruiting. He is usually in the know and often teases the fans beforehand about a big player signing.
“I want my team to be special, so it’s not hard for me to go out there and try to get the guys that we need,” Newsome said. “It takes a little bit more effort because you have school, but at the end of the day I want my team to be good. It means a lot to me. This is a place that I am going to call my alma mater when I am gone, so I want fans to look back on it and say this kid not only did special things on the field, but off-the-field he helped the team in other ways.”
The undersized, 5-foot-8 wide receiver’s specific role as of right now will be determined by his performance during the spring and fall practice slate, but his skill set and overall outlook should assure him of making an impact.
Another Year, Another Quarterback Battle
The Sun Devils have opened the season with a new quarterback each of the past three seasons. In 2013 it was Taylor Kelly. The following year it was Mike Bercovici. Last year, Manny Wilkins started week one.
Although it is a long way away, there is a chance that the Sun Devils will start a new quarterback on week one for the fourth straight year.
Sophomores Dillon Sterling-Cole and Brady White will certainly be in the conversation, along with Bryce Perkins, who missed all of last season with a neck injury.
White started one game before suffering a season-ending foot injury. He said he has been recovering by going to rehab every day, along with prayer and the support from everyone around him.
“For where I’m at, I’ve had multiple sources from my doctors to my trainers who have said it looks and feels fantastic,” White said about his injury.
He narrowly lost the battle to Manny Wilkins last year after a competition that lasted the entire spring and most of the fall.
“We all are talented,” White said regarding the quarterback crop. “I just hope that we can come together as a team and be able to have some continuity and be together so that when we get into fall camp and season, we are one unit and we know what to expect from one another and we will probably find out in fall camp who is running the show.”
Wilkins will enter the spring as the frontrunner for the job, by virtue of having made the most starts of anyone last season. Head coach Todd Graham said that a lot of the returning starters will have a leg up during the spring because the Sun Devils already know what they have with them in place.
The redshirt junior is still dwelling on the tough finish off 2016, which involved a six-game losing streak. The slide has only added fuel to Wilkins’ fire.
“I’m always motivated,” he said. “It’s the person I am. No matter what I’m always going to be ready for any challenge. There is going to be talk and speculation every year for every season. I’m not worried about anything, I just have to go out there and just continue to hone my skills.”
The tantalizing aspect of this year’s quarterback competition is the wrench that is thrown in, which comes in the form of Alabama transfer Blake Barnett. Graham insists that the influx of quarterbacks is a good thing for the team because it paves the way for increased competition, which Barnett said he thrives on.
Barnett has a few key factors working in his favor. First, he spent multiple seasons in Tuscaloosa with Napier. He also was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, and started one game and played in three last season for the Crimson Tide. He was recently deemed eligible to play immediately after it was initially ruled that he would have to sit out the first four games of the season due to NCAA transfer rules.
His history with Alabama and the SEC should benefit him in the quarterback race.
“I got to compete against arguably one of the best college defenses every single day,” Barnett said. “It was challenging, it was extremely hard, but I think it built a good foundation not only in my knowledge of defenses but my knowledge of competition. Being able to go against those guys, and that talent. It was a tremendous place to build character and competitive nature.”
Both Wilkins and White said that they don’t feel any added pressure with the emergence of Barnett, as it’s just one other guy in the mix.
Ultimately, the Sun Devils will use the spring to begin to evaluate the quarterbacks as well as many other positions that are still up in the air. For Graham, the big thing that he is concerned about is the health of his players.
“Our first four years, we were top five in the country in the most healthy,” he said. “Then we had a terrible year last year with that. That’s something we’ve addressed and worked hard with in our winter program, and training and spring. That’s going to be big for us that we work hard to get stronger and that will help us to be able to be more durable.”