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ASU Football: Manny Wilkins steering Sun Devils with aggressive arm, not feet

Staying in the pocket.

NCAA Football: San Diego State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the Arizona State Sun Devils’ (1-2) Saturday matchup with the No. 24 Oregon Ducks (3-0), Manny Wilkins implied “I’m seeing the game a lot differently now.”

It’s safe to say he’s played the game differently now too.

In Wilkins’s 149 pass attempts this season, he has yet to throw an interception, which has tied a school record. His 924 passing yards have eclipsed nearly 40 percent of his 2,329-yard 2016 total. And with seven passing touchdown, Wilkins has thrown more than half of what he had (12) last season.

But what is he not doing? Running. Well, at least not as much.

Through three games of undefeated non-conference play in 2016, Wilkins amassed 191 rushing yards with a touchdown over the course hurdles against NAU and Texas Tech. After three contests in 2017, his rushing total lies at 16 yards.

It was four games into the 2016 season against California, when Wilkins went run crazy. With 72 yards and three rushing touchdowns, he led the Sun Devils in both categories and practically won the game with his feet.

But just a game later, he was sacked, then injured against the USC Trojans and never fully recovered. The Sun Devils lost six of their next seven games. Who was it easiest to blame? The unhealthy starting quarterback.

This season though, health isn’t an issue. And it likely won’t be moving forward.

Wide receiver Jalen Harvey was asked how Wilkins playing so well this season. His response: “sitting in the pocket more.”

Wilkins, a dual-threat quarterback, was ridiculed for running the ball last season. With the emergence of Alabama transfer Blake Barnett, a pro-style QB, pressure grew for head coach Todd Graham to sit his 2016 starting quarterback for a five-star in Barnett. But through three games, Wilkins has separated himself from the issue by using his arm, not feet.

So I decided to ask him: “Manny, Jalen Harvey said you are staying in the pocket a little more this year. Are you trying to be a little less aggressive?”

The look on his face was puzzled.

Wilkins stared away, looked back at me and asked “what do you mean less aggressive?”

Before I could spurt out an answer, he continued.

“I’m being aggressive with my arm if that’s what you are trying to get at,” Wilkins said. “It’s like when you’re a little kid and playing backyard football. All you want to do is run around and throw the football. Then, as you progress, more and more and more, you sit in the pocket and just deliver.

“I’m just more comfortable in the pocket. I’ve grown in that area. That’s part of maturing as a quarterback.”

Through his growth as a quarterback, Wilkins has brought his studies to the living room. He said he noticed he was “seeing the game a lot differently” after watching NFL games.

“I like to see what they’re seeing… Aaron Rodgers. Watched a lot of Tom Brady film. Brady White would say he’s the GOAT (Greatest of All Time), but I’d say Aaron Rodgers has done some pretty special things,” Wilkins said. “Matt Ryan, he has some pretty good technique stuff that he does with his footwork… Tony Romo was calling the plays. If I could do that man, that’d be so amazing.”

But his focus on NFL players, 308-yard per game average with zero interceptions can only do so much. The Sun Devils are 1-2. And Wilkins knows he is far from perfect.

Graham praised many for his early start, but wants more than statistics, he wants W’s.

“He’s such a good athlete... And I think he’s just scratching the surface on how good he can be,” Graham said.

He then laid down the hammer.

“How your defined as a quarterback is your win-loss record. Not whatever your quarterback rating is or how many passes you’ve completed or any of that stuff.” Graham said. “But I’m very proud of his development at this point.”

Wilkins is frustrated as well, calling one of his plays against Texas Tech “just stupid.”

“Stats can say one thing, but at the end of the day, if there’s an ‘L’ on the board, then it isn’t my best game,” Wilkins said. “I had a chance to go down 2-minute offense and go put some points on the board and tie the [Texas Tech] game, then we were gonna go for two and win the football game, and I didn’t give us a chance at the end. I made some poor throws and took a poor sack at the end that was just... Stupid.”

Wilkins referred to a 3rd-and-15 play against the Red Raiders. He scrambled from defenders, had a snippet of time to throw, but didn’t. He took a sack. It set up the last ASU play of the game: a 4th-and-30 heave to N’keal Harry that was far out of his reach.

Josh Allen, a Wyoming Cowboys quarterback who ranks as the No. 2 quarterback in his class on NFL Draft Scout, was kept to just 64 yards in the air, his lowest total ever when starting a game.

The Ducks, who allowed 271.9 passing yards per game last season haven’t allowed more than 266 passing yards to a team and allow an average of 194.7 per game. Wilkins is in for a contest against a much-improved Ducks defense.

“Fast team. I think for years in the past they’ve been known just for their speed. Up front, they have some physical players. Big, long dudes who get they’re hands up on short and intermediate gains,” Wilkins said. “They’re just a skilled team, but it all lies in our hands with what we do with the ball. We just gotta put points on the board.”