(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
A crowd of Arizona State diehards piled into Sun Devil Soccer Stadium to enjoy a sunny day of Sun Devil football, and to hopefully find answers about what to expect in the 2015-16 season. Unfortunately, despite the weeks of work and exposure, many questions still linger around who the first eleven players on the offensive side of the ball will be when the Sun Devils take Frank Kush Field on Sept. 3 against Northern Arizona.
Until then, everything regarding the depth chart will principally be hearsay. Having so many questions regarding the quarterback competition as well as the wide receiver situation left unanswered, the open spring practice held Saturday will leave spectators cliff-hanging until week one.
Undoubtedly the position competition attracting the most buzz, the three candidates — redshirt freshmen Brady White and Bryce Perkins, and redshirt sophomore Manny Wilkins — seem to have as much separation as they did on the first day of spring.
“I’ve seen all three of them doing a good job,” head coach Todd Graham said. “I think after the Spring guys can tell who has done what. It’ll clear up as we move into the summer and into the fall camp…Each one of them brings something different, but all of them meet the criteria of character and discipline.”
Graham was asked who would start if the Sun Devils took the field next week, but Graham still didn’t give any insight into who will be under center week one.
“It would be the guy in the single-digit number,” Graham said.
Wilkins, who is the only quarterback on the roster with game experience, was the first quarterback to take reps at Saturday’s practice. Whether or not that means anything is still in question, but Wilkins recognizes the main trait the winner of this quarterback competition must pride himself on is leadership.
“I think that is the ultimate goal, is to define myself as a leader,” Wilkins said. “I think the other two guys are doing a great job of leading as well, and I think all three of us will make each other better this summer.”
Graham also mentioned that the summer camp in the past had played a huge role in creating separation between competing quarterbacks, and doesn’t expect anything different with this competition. Whether Graham has an idea or not, it doesn’t seem that he or anyone affiliated with ASU football won’t know who their starting quarterback is until the season is right around the corner.
“We won’t announce the starting quarterback until the week of the (first) game,” Graham said.
The receivers are another position group that has a pool of players to choose from in terms of who will be on the field the most come the season. Plenty of members of the receiving corps will be returning, but perhaps the most important member of the group is in his first season at ASU, wide receivers coach Jay Norvell.
Coming from Texas where he held the same position, Norvell has plenty to work with and is focused on fixing the one thing that killed ASU’s passing game last season.
“We just need to be more consistent, cleaner with our routes, more consistent completing passes, making plays,” Norvell said. “Overall just continuity.”
Another crucial contributor to the passing game is going to be redshirt junior wide receiver Cameron Smith, who missed all of last season due to a knee injury, after a 41-catch, 596-yard season his sophomore year two seasons ago.
Smith will help fill a hole in the passing game left due to the graduation of DJ Foster, and Norvell said his health is near where it needs to be.
“He’s really working to get 100 percent and be totally healthy,” Norvell said. “He’s not quite there yet, but he’s been out here every day getting better, he’s having fun practicing, and it’s been a lot of fun having him out here.”
The absence of Smith as well as the departure of Jaelen Strong resulted in passing game last season being nonexistent at times, and a lot of the offensive load was put on the running game due to the inconsistencies out wide. Norvell thinks improvement is resulted from with going all out on every play.
“I think the players are understanding how hard we want them to play every snap,” Norvell said. “I think they’re understanding the techniques that we’re asking of them to do, and just we want them to compete more than anything else.”
As the receivers compete for playing time, the quarterback battle will have a role on the receivers’ production when the season comes around. For the last three seasons, ASU has known who their quarterback was going to be all through spring leading up to the regular season.
Although the receiving corps doesn’t know who is going to be throwing to them week one, Norvell doesn’t see that being a problem.
“I don’t think there’s anything hard about it,” Norvell said. “I mean we’ve got three quarterbacks, we know one of them is going to be our quarterback, and the most important thing is for guys to do their job. Receivers have their job, quarterbacks have their job, running backs have their job, I don’t think there’s any issue at all.”
The one solidified group of returners resides in the backfield, with the running back duo of juniors Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage.
Combining for 2,120 yards from scrimmage a season ago, the two-headed monster might have to produce even more this next season with a new quarterback under center. Their veteran presence is something that the two have embraced, and Ballage is completely comfortable with a leadership role.
“Me and (Demario) together, we have more time on the field than anybody out here,” Ballage said. “We just stepped into that role as being leaders.”
Much like everyone else, Ballage doesn’t see the unknown quarterback becoming an issue throughout the offseason.
“Everybody is different,” Ballage said. “It’s probably the same for them, they alternate with three or four different running backs. You’ve got to vibe with the quarterback and move forward.”