(Photo: Ryan Clarke/WCSN)
Putting together a puzzle is tedious, often frustrating work. With some pieces, you can tell where they fit just based on the eye test and process of elimination. With others, it takes time, experimentation and a lot of guesswork.
The closer you get to the final product, the clearer the picture becomes.
Billy Napier is on the verge of finishing his puzzle. ASU football’s first-year offensive coordinator has most of his pieces in place after poring over his personnel.
“We all have work to do — we’re not a final product yet,” Napier said after Monday’s practice, the first in Tempe since the team returned from Camp Tontozona. “We’re 10 practices in so we’re close to halfway done.”
Napier is lucky in a sense — most of his starters are returners and know the drill. The real focus at this stage is development and cleaning up the mistakes that always show up early in camp.
Saturday’s scrimmage at Camp T showcased the rust that still exists for this team on the offensive end. Yes, the defense played well, but the offense committed penalties and turnovers that both Napier and head coach Todd Graham have no patience for.
Part of it is players’ adjustment to Napier’s system (N’Keal Harry could be heard yelling “we have never done that” to Manny Wilkins after a pre-snap adjustment to his route), but the quarterback question still looms and the offensive line is in flux. As soon as those combinations are settled, Graham is confident that this group has the talent to succeed.
“You’ve got to be adaptive with your guys,” Graham said. “The good news for us offensively is we’ve got plenty of explosive players — guys that are really good football players.”
Nowhere is that talent more prevalent than the running back position, where seniors Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage set the tone. The freshman duo of Eno Benjamin and Trelon Smith have also stood out to coaches while redshirt sophomore Nick Ralston recovers from injury.
Graham said the Sun Devils have some “good problems” in the form of depth in the backfield. The same can be said about the group of wide receivers led by Harry.
“I’ve got a lot of belief and confidence in our team,” Graham said. “They’ve got each other’s back and they’ve got each other’s heart.”
Talent doesn’t appear to be an issue for ASU at the skill positions. Locking down a starting quarterback and finalizing an offensive line will be important, but paramount at this stage is cleaning up the areas in which the offense can improve.
Graham said the trip to Camp T brought this group closer — as it usually does — but it’s going to take more than a week in the woods for ASU to shore up its communication issues. Missed blocks, overthrows and failed assignments are still happening with relative regularity.
Turnovers, penalties and the vertical passing game are Napier and Graham’s focus in the coming weeks. Those issues tend to revolve around the quarterback and are made better through repetition and improved chemistry.
Only by remedying their weaknesses can a team establish its identity and compete in the Pac-12. Graham acknowledges that it’s a complicated process.
“You’ve got to get the ball to your best guys, but you’ve also got to run a system and have a philosophy,” Graham said. “We want to be a team that runs the ball physically and utilizes our personnel.”
With most of the pieces in place, the picture of this Sun Devil team is coming into focus. What’s left to be determined is if that picture includes a successful season, and if the puzzle remains intact.