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ASU Football: What the spring game told us about the quarterback battle

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The summer’s biggest question still needs to be answered.

Photo taken by Nick Ramirez

We’re still a very long way away from the first snap of the 2017-18 Arizona State football season, but the spring game confirmed a lot of things we already knew about the quarterback situation.

Wilkins’ and Barnett’s performances in the actual game were very representative of what we’ve noticed all spring, and should go a long way in helping the coaching staff determine who’s going to start next fall.

Watching Wilkins

Wilkins’ first drive involved a heavy rushing attack featuring senior back Kalen Ballage, but his second series showcased all of the improvements he has made since his final start last season.

The Novato, Calif. native completed four of five passes on the drive, ranging from short screens to longer out routes. He demonstrated easily the most-developed sense of control from the pocket of the three quarterbacks that took snaps Saturday afternoon, and was able to escape pressure and gain yardage down the field when he needed to. Wilkins also avoided any kind of turnovers during his three drives against the first-team defense.

Wilkins’ performance in not only the spring game, but all throughout spring practice has represented a shift in his approach to the game. He’s no longer recklessly escaping non-existent pressure and making poor-throwing decisions, but rather learning how to go through all of his progressions and take what the defense is giving him.

This style change was extremely evident on his final drive of the day. He only completed two of four attempts, but his accuracy on his completions made him look like an entirely different player than the one we saw last season. Wilkins seems to excel in terms of timing his throws on routes that eventually break downfield, and it showed on a 15-yard completion to sophomore receiver Terrell Chatman down the sideline.

Wilkins is the most vocal leader of the five quarterbacks on the roster, but it goes further than just encouraging other players on every snap. He’s constantly working with the other quarterbacks to get their timing just right and can be seen running routes at practice to help get his points across.

Wilkins’ final pass was a 36-yard touchdown heave left a little bit short but ultimately caught, once again, by John Humphrey. In no way is Manny Wilkins a perfect quarterback, but the improvements he has demonstrated thus far, albeit incremental, have put him on the fast-track to starting against New Mexico come September.

Breaking Down Barnett

Alabama transfer Blake Barnett took second-team snaps with the maroon squad and delivered a mixed-bag type of performance. Barnett’s game is extremely dependent on medium-length routes over the middle of the field and he struggled with that a bit on Saturday.

Barnett’s throwing motion is lengthy; his throwing arm reaches way down and his back leg kicks up—almost like he’s throwing a baseball—and it leads to many of his passes being either overthrown or just off the mark.

When this motion hinders his accuracy in the middle of the field it creates all sorts of issues for his offense. On third-and-long downs, a situation Barnett found himself in numerous time during the game, offensive coordinator Billy Napier is going to have to decide between two things: dump the ball into the flats and let a player like N’Keal Harry or Kalen Ballage make a play, or take a shot downfield. Neither of these strategies emphasize this team’s offensive strengths, which at this point seem to be short passes to developing slot receivers and, of course, a strong running game. Barnett will have to make sure he can hit receivers running across the middle of the field to avoid forcing Napier into a playcall that doesn’t fit his personnel.

In terms of his performance in specifics Saturday, Barnett’s first drive started with a great pass down the middle of the field but concluded with a short incompletion to the flat and a ball that was wildly overthrown downfield. His second drive was all over the place, but he did make some adjustments midway through that helped him score his first touchdown of the game. Barnett’s first two passes sailed past his receivers on deep go routes but his third was a perfectly thrown pass on curl route after he evaded some pressure in the pocket. After completing a short pass to Demario Richard in the flat, he connected for a beautiful 20-yard touchdown pass to the corner of the end-zone.

Barnett’s performance, as we’ve mentioned, really wasn’t at all surprising. He showed flashes of the five-star recruit and starting Crimson Tide quarterback he once was, but was just too inconsistent overall to warrant enough confidence to say he’s the most talented quarterback on the roster.

Final Thought

In general, spring games aren’t incredibly helpful indicators or bountiful sources of new information, but they do have a tendency to confirm trends we’ve seen at practice to be more than than just reoccurring characteristics.

Coming into Saturday, we knew that Wilkins has improved his decision-making and looks headed for the starter spot and that Barnett has struggled to make accurate throws, but perhaps we needed the spring game to see that playing in a live-game scenario hasn’t changed any of that.