Inside of a suite overlooking a barren, under-construction Sun Devil Stadium sat a collection of Arizona State football players and coaches individually tabled; local media hounding them each with the repetition of monotonous questionnaires during the program’s spring media day session on February 15.
Seated at opposite ends of the room were two of the Sun Devils’ top prospective starting quarterbacks: Manny Wilkins and Blake Barnett.
Coincidentally, the scene was almost all too picturesque. Still, let’s be clear—This isn’t written to cause any rifts or even insinuate one exists between the two. That wasn’t discussed on that day.
What was mentioned: The comprehension of the inevitable. The understanding of competition; that someone will be triumphant while the other looks on. Through the glass of the suite both players saw their opportunity in the form of what was unmarked territory below.
Five total players will vie for an opportunity few ever come in reach of.
There are 128 starting-quarterback jobs in the Football Bowl Subdivision. There are 64 starting jobs between Power 5 conference schools. Twelve such positions are available in the Pac-12; two of them in the state of Arizona.
There’s one opening at Arizona State. And for the second consecutive season, there’s more than one player with a legitimate chance of claiming it, and the subsequent duel will likely come down to a returner, a new face, and a new decision-maker.
The New Man Behind the Decision
As he walks into the room, reporters begin to trickle near and gather around.
Billy Napier is being intruded by local media for the first time since joining ASU. He calmly and pointedly answers questions about his offensive philosophy, his past, and of course, the quarterback battle.
“We’re gonna be aggressive in everything that we do. We’re gonna be extremely well-prepared to play the game, and we’re gonna feature the players, not necessarily the plays,” Napier said during ASU’s spring media day session.
Similarly to last season, head coach Todd Graham will settle upon a signal-caller in conjunction with a brand-new offensive coordinator in Napier (receivers coach Rob Likens will be his co-coordinator this season).
Napier joins the Sun Devils’ coaching staff after working under legendary Alabama coach Nick Saban. The 37-year-old began as an offensive analyst for the Crimson Tide before earning a promotion to wide receivers coach. He bears past experience as a play-caller, too; at 31 years old, he was elevated to offensive coordinator at Clemson—the youngest in the country at the time, though the run lasted just one season.
With his second opportunity, Napier is aiming to help rehabilitate the culture around ASU football, and re-instill championship values Graham has sought to incorporate.
“We want to execute at a high level as a result of preparation, our football IQ, our toughness, our effort and our fundamentals that we play with,” Napier said. “The Xs and Os aspect of that, that’s secondary, in my opinion.”
Culture is at the root of what’s made perennial superpowers, such as Alabama, so dominant. Balancing new practices and strategies with the old is essential to success. Napier said he’s working to best forge the past with the future.
“We’re really trying to evaluate (former offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey)’s system and (former offensive coordinator Mike Norvell)’s system, and we’re gonna adapt to what our players know,” he said. “There’s gonna be some changes in our approach, but at the same time, my focus right now are the intangibles that our offensive unit is gonna play with.”
The intangibles, he added, are especially important when evaluating the quarterback position. With ASU then in the midst of its winter conditioning program, Napier pointed to the quarterback group as a whole and what he values at the position as opposed to hinting at how the depth chart currently stands.
“We’re looking for a guy in that room that can have tremendous effect on his teammates,” he said. “Who plays quarterback this season is not necessarily gonna be about who can throw it the farthest, who can run the fastest. It’s gonna be about who can execute the best, and who can put our team in position to play winning football.”
The position itself even spans intangible traits, according to Napier. He said it takes a tremendous commitment to be such an influential representative the university, calling the experience and opportunity to be ASU’s starting quarterback “special.”
“They’re the gold standard in terms of how we operate as an organization. They should reflect our principles and values. They should be the standard in everything that they do. They should be good students, they should be the best conditioned player. They should be the best leader. They should understand our system better than any football player on that side of the ball, and that’s what we’re evaluating, that’s what we’re looking for,” he said of the starting quarterback’s roles.
Napier will have to make his decision while choosing from a field of five potential competitors, but instead of belittling the prospect of having to pick one from so many, he said he’s “fortunate to have a really good group of quarterbacks in general to work with.” The spring may possibly deal insight into that decision.
“More than anything, it’s not about an individual player; it’s about that unit,” he said. “We’re gonna find a player within that group of players that can play winning football for Arizona State.”
Manny Wilkins is undisturbed. He’s placed at a table to the far right of the suite upon entrance, towards the end. Seated not too far away from him is Graham, but as the conversation at the head coach’s table increases in decibel, Wilkins remains level.
The redshirt junior was in this position a year ago, and for him the goal remains the same as it was then: Stay ready for any challenge that presents itself.
“Just eager, man. I’m hungry,” he said. “My mindset hasn’t changed from going into last season. I have the same mindset. Just working in the film room, working in the weight room, just bettering myself, getting all the way healthy. Making sure my body’s right.”
Wilkins was named the Sun Devils’ starter last season after beating out three other suitors for the job. However, injuries derailed his first campaign as the listed No. 1, preventing him from securing the job and leaving the door open for others to assume.
Nonetheless, while the waters around him stir, he doesn’t show any signs of wavering. One can only naturally wonder how.
“Honestly, it’s the position that I play,” Wilkins said. “If coaches were to change, players were to come in, and all of this stuff were to happen, and you guys could see that I’m flustered or see that I’m anxious about something, then that speaks to me as a quarterback. I’m very cool demeanor, calm demeanor. I’m just always ready for any challenge.”
Wilkins has built a reputation as a film-room savant. He said he spent much of his time there during the offseason, seeking to improve his game. With a new play-caller in Napier, there will be some tweaks made, but Wilkins said he’s still very excited for what the new assistant is bringing in—both as a coach and as a person.
“He’s such a good guy, such a good man,” Wilkins said of Napier. “Someone who loves his family, loves what he does, been around the game for a long time. I’m appreciative for what he’s bringing in, and going further with it.”
Many assume the Barnett-Napier connection makes Wilkins the odd man out in the battle for the starting job. No one around the team has asserted such, and Wilkins isn’t paying any mind to what’s being said outside of the program.
“There’s always gonna be speculation, there’s always gonna be things that people talk about,” he said. There’s always gonna be negatives that get talked about. I dust that off, keep my head down. People who aren’t built for this, they won’t last, and you’ll see.”
With the taste of last season’s bitter close still on his tongue, Wilkins said he’s ready for the new year.
“We start fresh, start with a new slate, and we just can’t talk,” he said. “Just gotta put our heads down and go to work.”
The New Competitor
Blake Barnett is forthright. He’s to the far left of the suite, and intently answers questions about his aspirations upon transferring to ASU.
“I’m a competitor. I wanna compete,” Barnett said. “I wanna be able to make an impact on this team the best that I can. I’m hoping to be able to make my impact as the starting quarterback. That’s what I’m competing for.”
The former five-star recruit was expected to be the starting quarterback at Alabama, before freshman Jalen Hurts unseated him early in the season. One transfer and an NCAA clearance later, Barnett will find himself sporting maroon and gold instead of crimson and white come August 31.
Despite the new digs, the quarterback will be able to find some form of southern comfort in the desert with Napier as his offensive coordinator, who he says is going to be great.
“He’s determined to be successful, and just like myself, he came from a winning university, and I think that he knows how to be successful,” Barnett said of Napier. “He’s also passionate about the relationships and affecting people along the way, and I believe those qualities are something that can really help build a team, and hopefully a championship-winning team.”
The reunion was set up by the departure of former ASU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Chip Lindsey, who had a heavy influence on Barnett choosing to transfer to Tempe. It may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise after the Sun Devils managed to reel in Napier.
While the connection is good to have, Barnett said he understands he’s not guaranteed the starting role simply because he’s been around Napier. The quarterback would rather focus on honing his game in, and striving “to not only contribute to this team, but affect the people around here.”
Said Barnett, “At the end of the day, I think that everyone has a clean slate. With all this competition, I don’t think there’s any unfair advantages. I think that we all kind of understand our roles, we understand that we have to compete, and that’s what I’m looking forward to. That’s why I came here.”
Come August 31, Frank Kush Field won’t look so empty, and neither will the stands that surround it.
Who will be taking it and leading the Sun Devil offense out there first on that day remains to be seen, but one thing is certain as we enter the spring practice slate: the quarterback battle will be competitive, and it just might be closer than you suspect.