Here’s what you need to know before you head to ASU’s Spring Game and Fan Fest on Saturday.
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Arizona State head football coach Todd Graham talks about his team’s second spring scrimmage on Friday, April 7. Video: Jeff Metcafle/azcentral sports
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The college football season doesn’t start until the fall but it’s never too early to start looking ahead.
USA TODAY Sports
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Here are the five best college football recruiting classes in the last decade of “National Signing Day”.
USA TODAY Sports
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ASU football coach Todd Graham talks about Demario Richard, Christian Hill and more after spring practice on Wednesday, April 5.
Credit: Jeff Metcalfe, Nick Oza/Arizona Republic
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ASU defensive line coach Michael Slater gives instructions to his players at Monday’s workout in Tempe. Video: azcentral sports
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Coach Todd Graham says defense came out ahead by limiting big plays during ASU’s first spring scrimmage on Wednesday. Jeff Metcalfe/azcentral sports
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Arizona State football completed its sixth spring practice Friday at Sun Devil Stadium with nine practices remaining over the next three weeks. The spring game is April 15.
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ASU football coach Todd Graham discusses hiring Danny White and Dave Christensen as consultants. Jeff Metcalfe/azcentral sports
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Arizona State football has completed a third of spring practice, five of its allowed 15 practices.
Credit: Jeff Metcalfe, Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic
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Arizona State football began the second week of spring practice Monday. The Sun Devils also will practice Wednesday and have a closed scrimmage Friday this week.
Credit: Jeff Metcalfe/Arizona Republic
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Wide receivers Ryan Newsome and John Humphrey – transfers to Arizona State from Texas and Oklahoma – discuss playing as sophomores in 2017 after sitting out last season. Credit: Jeff Metcalfe, David Wallace/Arizona Republic
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Quarterback Blake Barnett, a transfer from Alabama, is in his first year at Arizona State. He is competing with four returners to be the starting QB.
Credit: Jeff Metcalfe, Rob Schumacher, Nick Oza, Thomas Hawthorne/Arizona Republic
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Arizona State head coach Todd Graham discusses the first day of football spring practice on March 14, 2017 at the Kajikawa Practice Facility in Tempe, Ariz. By Rob Schumacher/azcentral sports
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ASU football begins sixth season under coach Todd Graham with five new assistant coaches. (Jeff Metcalfe/azcentral sports)
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Transfer quarterback Blake Barnett talks about coming to ASU to compete for the starting job on Wednesday. Thomas Hawthorne/azcentral sports
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Arizona State offensive coordinator Billy Napier discusses the first day of football spring practice on March 14, 2017 at the Kajikawa Practice Facility in Tempe, Ariz. By Rob Schumacher/azcentral sports
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ASU football coach Todd Graham talks about the challenge of hiring “good people” and losing them to other schools entering ASU’s 2017 season on Wednesday. Thomas Hawthorne/azcentral sports
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2017 ASU Spring Game & Fan Fest
Todd Graham: ‘The big thing is to get better fundamentally’
Early preseason top 10 college football teams for 2017
Ranking the best college football recruiting classes in the last decade
ASU coach Graham on Richard, Hill and more
ASU defensive line coach Michael Slater gives instructions at practice
Todd Graham speaks after ASU holds first spring scrimmage
ASU football completes second week of spring practice
Todd Graham on new consultants White, Christensen
ASU football completes fifth spring practice
ASU football begins second week of spring practice
ASU WRs Ryan Newsome and John Humphrey discuss eligibility
ASU QB Blake Barnett on starting spring
Todd Graham on opening of ASU spring practice
ASU football opens spring practice
Transfer QB Blake Barnett on coming to ASU to compete
Billy Napier discusses first day of ASU practice
Todd Graham talks staffing challenges, 2017 season
The more Arizona State football players discover about Billy Napier, the more they realize how much more there is to him than his resume highlights.
Yes, he was Clemson’s offensive coordinator at 29, then youngest in the nation. Yes, he was on the staff of two national championship teams at Alabama and another that fell less than a touchdown short of a second straight title in a rematch against none other than Clemson. But to really know Napier requires deeper insight as the Sun Devils are slowly learning in their first spring working with their new offensive coordinator.
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“He’s had his moments where he’s let us know he’s vulnerable to let us see who he is as a person instead of a football coach,” said quarterback Manny Wilkins, vying to retain a starting job he earned under former offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. “That’s something I have a high level of respect for.”
Maybe Napier has shared with his quarterbacks about the 2001 NCAA Division I-AA national championship game when as the Furman quarterback, he threw two late interceptions, helping Montana hold on for a 13-6 win. Or the possibly even more painful if less meaningful game in October 2002 when Napier’s pass on a two-point conversion attempt was intercepted and returned 96 yards by Appalachian State, turning an apparent win into a 16-15 loss.
It hasn’t all been smooth for Napier, who as a senior was a finalist for the Walter Payton Award as the nation’s most outstanding Division I-AA offensive player. That’s an important message for his players, leaning on Napier for leadership in helping to end a two-season losing streak.
“He’s more of a father figure to me,” running back Demario Richard said. “He’s been through some of the same adversity I’ve been through. I can relate to a lot of stuff he says. He reminds us every day we’re blessed to be here and don’t take anything for granted. Never pass up an opportunity.”
That’s become a mantra for the Napier extended family over the last four years since Napier’s father Bill was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, an incurable neuro degenerative disease that leads to paralysis and eventually respiratory failure. Bill dealing with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is the overarching priority for Billy and his two brothers Matt and Kurt – both high school football coaches like their father – their sister Whitney and their mother Pam.
“The first year was very difficult for everybody because of the reality that it’s a dreadful disease,” 37-year-old Napier said. “More than anything, he gave me great perspective and strength about life just watching him and how he came to grips with that. He decided I’m not going to complain, not going to make excuses, I’m just going to try to make a difference and do the best at what I’m doing.It gave me real motivation and kind of created an attitude to be really grateful for what you have. There’s been obviously very difficult times then what you’ve seen is a lot of good come from it. We’re trying to make the best of the situation.”
Bill Napier, 59, has been a high school coaching fixture in northwest Georgia since 1983. Even now despite being in a wheelchair, he is on the coaching staff at Dalton High School where he still was calling plays as offensive coordinator in the 2015 season. “I wouldn’t want to deal with the obstacles without football,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “That gives me something to look forward to.”
When Billy, the oldest son, had a chance to become an offensive coordinator again for the first time since being fired at Clemson after the 2010 season, Bill was not about to stand in the way even though it required a move across the country at a difficult time. Napier also has spent his first four months in Tempe without his wife and two children, who will join him in May.
“I had an incredible experience at Alabama,” coaching wide receivers from 2013-17, Napier said. “It’s a place you’ve almost got to pinch yourself sometimes that you’re there working with coach (Nick) Saban. What a mentor, what an example, just his discipline and dedication and drive and the character and class that program has. But I had really been seeking an opportunity to lead and after meeting with coach (Todd) Graham and considering where I was at in my career, I felt it was the right move.
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“More than anything, he (Bill) wants to see me happy and pursuing my passion. That’s what this opportunity is.”
Napier at first did not see himself as a college coach. “I wanted to do exactly what my dad did,” he said. Tommy Bowden, then Clemson head coach, hired him as a graduate assistant in 2003, which Napier took as a path to a master’s degree. By 2006, he was Clemson tight ends coach/recruiting coordinator. “I had a succession plan for Dabo (Swinney) and him,” Bowden said. That plan was accelerated when Bowden resigned six games into the 2008 season and was replaced by Swinney. Things went well in 2009 (9-5 record) but a drop-off to 6-7 in 2010 temporarily cooled Napier’s rise. He was Alabama offensive analyst in 2011, Colorado State quarterbacks coach in 2012 under now Florida head coach Jim McElwain then back with the Tide for four more seasons.
“It goes by really fast,” Napier said. “Next thing you know, you’re at Arizona State.” Influencing players with his coaching and his life story.
“There hasn’t been a day where you look in his eyes and wonder what kind of day are we going to have,” Wilkins said. “When we get in that meeting room, we’re all locked in, eyes burning out of our heads to learn something new. He’s done an amazing job of just being a teacher.”
“We’re doing a lot of little things that will in the long run be a big deal,” running back Kalen Ballage said. “Even outside of football, how we take notes in meetings. The smallest things you could possibly think of. How you are on the field stems from how you are off the field. We really believe in that.”
For Napier, this spring has been about building trust and respect, which is why he’s opened up about his father and the down times in his life.
“You’re trying to create an openness and realness about who you are,” Napier said. “If anything, you’re just trying to give them perspective. If something I’ve been through that’s been really difficult can help one of these young guys then it’s worth it. It’s why you coach.”
Here’s what you need to know before you head to ASU’s Spring Game and Fan Fest on Saturday.
ASU football spring game
When: 2 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Sun Devil Stadium.
Admission: Free. Fans are asked to bring three canned food items per person to benefit St. Mary’s Food Bank.
Fan fest: 12:30 p.m. in stadium area. There is a 30-minute autograph sessions and youth clinic on the field after the game.