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ASU Football: Lack of experience not hurting Manny Wilkins

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A focus on preparation has the redshirt sophomore already playing ahead of schedule.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There was a play in the second quarter of Saturday’s game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders, a fairly innocuous play that meant little in the grand scheme of a contest which featured 165 combined snaps between both Texas Tech and the Arizona State Sun Devils.

With 12:15 remaining in the second quarter and Arizona State facing a 2nd & 4, sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins stood in a shotgun formation five yards behind his center. After surveying the defense, Wilkins motioned tight end Kody Kohl from the right side of the backfield to the left.

He then took the snap, shuffled his feet twice in the pocket, and went through his progressions, all while waiting on one Red Raider linebacker playing just off the line of scrimmage. And as soon as that linebacker made the decision to rush into the backfield, Wilkins was set. He knew he had his man.

There was Kohl, wide open near the left sideline off a 15-yard wheel route. Wilkins hung in the pocket just long enough to deliver a strike to his tight end, who then raced 16 more yards down the field for his first completion of the season.

***

The throw wasn’t a tough one to make, but the point remains. Whether it’s through accuracy, reading and reacting to opposing defenses, or looking comfortable as his pocket collapses, Wilkins has looked far more experienced than someone who hadn’t thrown a pass in a game since his senior season of high school back in 2013.

According to the Sun Devil quarterback, that has everything to do with preparation.

“I never stressed it,” Wilkins says when asked about not throwing an in-game pass in more than two years. “I wasn't really focused on not having thrown and not having too many reps. I just went out there and wanted to be comfortable with my teammates, and that’s what we did over the summer together.

Whether it is on the practice field with his teammates or in the film room by himself, preparing himself for any possible situation is something Wilkins takes pride in. He even lists “watch film” on four separate occasions when asked about his daily routine during the season.

Six weeks ago, the redshirt sophomore started fall camp competing with freshman Brady White and sophomore Bryce Perkins to earn the starting quarterback spot. Perkins was soon eliminated from that race after suffering a neck injury in the second week of practices, and Wilkins started to pull away from White gradually as camp wore on.

Wilkins’ performance in the season opener was okay - not bad, not great - completing 20 of 27 balls with zero touchdown passes and one interception. But according to head coach Todd Graham, that was to be expected in the quarterback’s first start, especially in a game where the team showed very little of its offensive playbook.

“You don’t get preseason games in college, so it is a little challenge,” said Graham after the victory against Northern Arizona. “There is a lot of things you find out in the first week and we were very conservative.”

The conservation stopped seven days later against Texas Tech, as Graham and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey pulled out all the stops to beat the visitors from Lubbock. There was a reverse that turned into a flea flicker, multiple plays run out of the “Sparky” formation, and more designed quarterback runs.

One of Wilkins’ carries on Saturday even featured his new signature - the hurdle. The quarterback debuted his leaping ability against the Lumberjacks, but said he would probably curb the move going forward.

Instead, he did it again against the Red Raiders, this time punctuating a wild run with an even-higher hurdle to pick up a big first down.

“I'm just making plays for my team, Wilkins says. “I obviously have to protect my body, but if a play needs to be made I'm going to do my best to make one.”

While making his coaches nervous for his health, the maroon and gold coaching staff has still been impressed by Wilkins’ acrobatics. Graham said after Saturday’s win that he likes the fact his quarterback isn’t scared to take a hit, and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson was still taken aback by the play when he met with the media after practice on Tuesday.

"I asked him if he was a hurdler in high school and he said no," said Patterson. "He might be completely made of cartilage. He's like Gumby.”

***

Before he was showing up on SportsCenter at Arizona State, Wilkins was making the same explosive plays at San Marin High School in Novato, California. A four-star prospect, the dual-threat quarterback had the opportunity to compete at Nike’s Elite 11 camp in Beaverton, Oregon before his senior season began.

Wilkins impressed there as well, showing off his skill set in front of high-profile counselors like former Louisville star Teddy Bridgewater and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. He even befriended Manziel during the camp, and the two still talk on occasion.

“I hit him up here and there and ask how everything is going,” Wilkins says. “But it’s actually been a little while since we last talked.”

The Novato product committed to the Sun Devils in May of his junior year at San Marin, but Graham and then-offensive coordinator (and current Memphis head coach) Mike Norvell worked hard during Wilkins’ senior season to firm up the commitment as increased attention came his way.

Wilkins never wavered, however, and his commitment to Arizona State became official on National Signing Day in 2014 - one year to the day after quarterback Joshua Dobbs flipped from the Sun Devils to Tennessee.

His first season was spent battling with fellow freshman Coltin Gerhart for the third spot on the maroon and gold’s depth chart, but both signal-callers would end up redshirting as neither Taylor Kelly or Mike Bercovici ever missed time simultaneously.

Wilkins then backed up Bercovici a year ago, occasionally seeing the field when the starter needed a breather or Norvell wanted a designed quarterback run. Norvell would leave the program for Memphis in December, leaving Wilkins without his offensive coordinator and the man who brought him to the school in the first place.

But while a shake-up like that might rattle a young quarterback, Wilkins rolled with the punches. Graham eased the reshuffling by bringing in Southern Miss offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, and the change ended up being an easy one.

“We basically do the same stuff,” says Wilkins when asked about the difference between Norvell and Lindsey. “The terminology is different, but overall everything is the same.”

***

There are a few different sides to Manny Wilkins.

There’s the cool, mild-mannered quarterback on the field. There’s the “class clown” personality off the field, always joking around with friends and teammates.

And then there’s him in front of the media, where the bare minimum is typically shared. To Wilkins, this is how he thinks it should be.

“In my eyes, I don’t owe reporters anything,” he says. “I think it is kind of hard for reporters because some guys really don’t care. A lot of guys just don’t want to talk.”

After pausing, Wilkins continues.

“At the end of the day, it’s a job that’s provided by somebody (else), and they are making money off a job that you’re doing. I think you have to respect everybody’s job, but the hardest thing is realizing some players just really don’t give a crap.”

***

Manny Wilkins is a first-year starter with a first-year offensive coordinator, playing behind an offensive line that is anchored by three underclassmen.

Inexperience was supposed to be the theme throughout the early portion of the 2016 season for Arizona State, and yet Wilkins has outperformed expectations while his linemen paved the way to nine offensive touchdowns last Saturday.

For someone who attributes everything in life to calculation and preparation - whether it be on the practice field, in the film room, or meeting with the media - everything is right on schedule.