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ASU Football: Five Questions for 2016

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With spring practice in full swing, we're kicking off our coverage with five big questions looming.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

And just like that, we're back.

It's been an arduous couple of months since ASU fell to West Virginia in the hometown Cactus Bowl, and while there hasn't exactly been a hot seat placed under Todd Graham's seat cushion yet, pressure is mounting for the Sun Devils to make the program breakthrough fans are so desperate to see. 2013 and 2014 were exciting because both years - 2014 in particular due to the implementation of the College Football Playoff rankings - Arizona State seemed to be riding a wave of success rather than just fulfilling expectations.

Now, it's double-digit wins or bust for ASU. Despite undergoing some turmoil in the wake of Mike Norvell and Jackie Shipp's departures, Graham weathered the storm and signed his best recruiting class since he took over in 2012, including his first five-star in wide receiver N'Keal Harry.

After two near-misses at playing in a major bowl game and one season filled with disappointment, 2016's campaign almost has the feeling that it needs to end on a good note, or the calls for Graham's job that were muted throughout much of 2015 would reach a crescendo.

Expectations aside, the Pac-12's loaded and ASU can't afford to experience the same inconsistency that plagued them in 2015. But with a roster breaking in a lot of new players at important positions, Graham has his work cut out for him. With spring practice underway, he has his chance to sort the wheat from the chaff.

With that said, what are the pressing questions the Sun Devils face that spring practice can help answer?

1. Graham recruited all of ASU's current quarterbacks, but who will win the starting job?

It's always exciting to see a new head coach's first recruits come in and make an impact, as we've seen from Demario Richard, Kalen Ballage and Jo-Jo Wicker. But there's no position more scrutinized than the quarterback position, and this will be the first year that Todd Graham starts a quarterback that he recruited to the university.

It also represents the first time since he came to Tempe that he's really been able to hold a quarterback competition. He surprised everyone then by going with Taylor Kelly as his starter, and Kelly only went on to take the Sun Devils to their first Pac-12 Championship game en route to a memorable three-year starting career. After Kelly graduated, the starting job was handed down to Mike Bercovici, whose time in Tempe also dated back to the Erickson era.

Despite already having three of his own quarterback recruits on campus, Graham went with Bercovici without hesitation and endured ASU's 6-7 season with his senior captain at the helm.

Now, Graham has to pick his quarterback - again. but this time he'll be selecting from a group of signal-callers that were all recruited under his regime. There's no depth chart yet, and there's no real favorite heading into camp.

Ask five people who they think will win the job and you'll get three different answers. With Chip Lindsey coming in as the new offensive coordinator, it'll be just as much about which quarterback fits his system the best as it is who stands out in spring ball.

Manny Wilkins earned sporadic playing time in 2015 as he was the only other quarterback besides Bercovici who wasn't taking a redshirt, but with just about every game coming down to the wire the Sun Devils weren't able to get as much of an in-game look at what Wilkins can offer as they were hoping for the dual-threat quarterback. Now a redshirt sophomore, Wilkins has been with the program longer than any of his competitors, but that's no reason to start him Week 1 against Northern Arizona. He'll have to prove himself this spring and throughout the summer and fall to get the nod.

Vying to upend Wilkins for the starting job are redshirt freshmen Brady White and Bryce Perkins. White was ASU's highest-rated recruit in the class of 2015, and many pegged him as the program's quarterback of the future, the player who would pilot the ship as Graham ascended the program to an elite level.

A year later, White's in the thick of the competition to take over for Bercovici, but it's by no means as much of a formality as it seemed when he signed. Important for White will be how much stronger he's gotten since he arrived on campus. He played at 185 pounds in high school, a number that won't withstand the punishment a Pac-12 quarterback takes.

Bercovici played at 210 while Kelly hovered around 205 throughout his career, for White to have a realistic shot at earning the starting nod this year he'll have to show he's up for the physical challenge. With that said, he's got a cannon for an arm and a fully-realized White would make waves across the Pac-12.

And let's not forget about Bryce Perkins, who played with 2016 recruits K'Neal Harry and Chase Lucas at Chandler High School. He came in at the same time as White and so didn't receive the same amount of hype as the four-star recruit, Perkins was immensely successful at Chandler and has the physical attributes to make him a dangerous weapon through the air and on the ground.

At 6'3", 215 pounds Perkins can stand in the pocket and pick out his passing lane as well as anyone he's competing with, but he was also successful when running the ball in high school and brings that dynamic versatility that the Sun Devils were hoping Wilkins would display in his limited chances last year.

Freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole is a future star, but he's not going to be on campus this spring and won't be in the picture for the starting job (at least we think). Out of the three quarterbacks that will be here, there's no telling which has an edge heading into spring ball. All of them have their strengths and individual potential, but Graham can only choose one.

2. How much can N'Keal Harry contribute without being at spring practice/which WR will stand out in spring ball?

One of the first thoughts to run through a fan's head after a new recruit signs is whether or not the player's going to elect to graduate from high school early and enroll at the university for the spring, allowing them to participate in spring ball and a get their feet wet with the program.

ASU's highest-touted recruit from the class of 2016 is wide receiver N'Keal Harry, a five-star out of Chandler whose decision to stay true to ASU broke the streak of the state's top player leaving Arizona for college. With Jaelen Strong's time in Tempe long in the rearview mirror and the one-year rental of Devin Lucien completed, Harry is looked at to be an immediate contributor.

However, he'll have to wait until after his high school graduation this May to join the Sun Devils, and his participation in the preparation for fall is limited to watching and taking notes.

Despite not getting a jumpstart on his career, Harry will still undoubtedly find a role in the offense this year. But in the meantime spring ball allows us to look at the other receivers that could take the next step towards being consistent producers. Jalen Harvey returned from injury late in 2015 to make a strong impression in his first opportunities as a Sun Devil, and the 6'2" wideout is a big part of the offense's plans for 2016. Ellis Jefferson's been on the radar for the past couple of years but has yet to assert himself as an every-down threat.

With Lucien and D.J. Foster gone, the only major contributing member of 2015's receiving corps is redshirt senior TIm White, who came in fresh out of junior college and gave ASU its only real big-play threat on offense and special teams. In his second and final year in Tempe, White will be expected to carry the load while Harry adjusts.

3. How will ASU's 1-2 punch at running back cope with new coaching?

If there's anything that's stable headed into spring practice, it's the running back corps. Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage have been workhorses for the Sun Devils since their true freshmen seasons in 2014, playing so well together with contrasting running styles that ASU was comfortable moving D.J. Foster out of the running back spot in 2015. Ballage is a bruiser with top-end speed while Richard's nickname of Baby Beast Mode has been entirely justified by his play, utilizing his leverage to bounce of defenders.

As stabilized as ASU's running corps is, the opposite can be said for the position of running backs coach. With the hire of John Simon in late February to fill the position, ASU introduced its fourth running backs coach in the past six months. Along with new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey bringing a new vibe to the offense, Ballage and Richard will have to adjust to yet another change at the position program.

The duo were plenty productive in 2015, combining for 1751 yards and 11 touchdowns, but both of them experienced frustration throughout the season with stagnated play-calling preventing them from having much opportunity to get into the second level. You can rely on the pair to break tackles, but without being put in better situations they're going to get stuffed more than they should.

4. Will Jason Lewis establish himself?

Speaking of running backs, ASU's got a lot of 'em. Most notable outside the dynamic duo of Ballage and Richard is redshirt freshman Jason Lewis, who has the potential to be a star if he's given the opportunity to show out this year. One of the few Sun Devils to hail from the East Coast, Lewis was named the Virginia State Player of the Year in his senior season, racking up an incredible campaign.

Lewis absolutely put his team on his back, rushing for an eye-popping 2,030 yards and 31 touchdowns as he led Ocean Lakes High School to the Virginia 6A state championship. In the title game, Lewis racked up 267 yards and three touchdowns, including clinching the title with a game-winning touchdown run in overtime.

With Richard and Ballage taking lead in 2015, Lewis was relegated to taking a redshirt to preserve eligibility. But now that using him no longer has an effect on his eligibility, it'll be interesting to see how much - if at all - Lindsey and the offensive coaching staff work him into the picture. There's no question that Lewis can be a dominating force in the Pac-12, but it'll be worth watching to see if he's able to earn playing time this year over either Ballage or Richard.

5. How does the Devilbacker factor into 2016?

Since he brought the Devilbacker position to Tempe, Todd Graham's had to deal with the constant issue of finding a Devilbacker after Carl Bradford left for the NFL in 2013. Five-star Davon Durant was supposed to be the next guy to fill the position, but he was released from the program after a domestic dispute shortly after he signed in 2015.

ASU lost another candidate to take the torch when Ismael Murphy-Richardson was kicked off the team this year after being charged with fraudulent use of a credit card. Murphy-Richardson provided 2.5 sacks from the position in 2015 and was seen as a leader to take over this year.

With Durant long out of the picture and Murphy-Richardson no longer there, ASU has to re-evaluate its candidates for the position. Laiu Moekiola spent 2015 monitoring the SPUR linebacker position and will take that role again in 2016. Many expect that Salamo Fiso will carry over from his impressive 2015 campaign and take charge of the WILL position, and there's also Christian Sam who saw time at the spot last year and the junior enters the year as a perfect fit for the role.

An under-heralded but possible candidate for the spot is sophomore Jay Jay Wilson, who didn't take a redshirt in his true freshman season and earned playing time at outside linebacker. At 6'3", 250 pounds Wilson has the size and tenacity to get in a three-point stance and beat a tackle off the edge, but his ability to drop back in coverage isn't quite as refined as Fiso's or Sam's.

At a position that requires versatility, the Sun Devils have a number of players in contention that each bring different strengths to the table. With Fiso in his senior year expect him to get the majority of snaps, but WIlson and Sam already worked themselves into the picture last year, they're only going to get more opportunity this season if they show improvement in spring camp.