TEMPE, Ariz. — It is apparent to anyone remotely associated with the Arizona State football program that Manny Wilkins will be the starting quarterback when the season opens on Aug. 31 vs. New Mexico State.
In which areas can the redshirt junior improve upon after an uneven first season as the starter — a season in which ASU opened 5-1, finished 5-7 and Wilkins was in and out of the lineup due to injuries?
“Everywhere,” Wilkins said Wednesday. “I’ve just got to continue to grow, day in and day out, not make the same mistakes over and over, gain more chemistry on and off the field.”
Those are the broad brushstrokes, but Wilkins identified finer points when he watched film of himself this offseason — and he watched a ton of film.
“I picked up on my mannerisms and all the little things that defenses pick up on to defend you,” he said. “Not looking at the rush was a big one; keeping my eyes downfield, going through my progressions.
“Not trying to press so hard, too. Last year, I didn’t trust the guys around me as much as I should have I trusted them. And throwing the ball to the check-down. We did that at the end of the U of A game and it’s sad that it took that long but in the spring and now in the fall, I’ve really grown in that area and when things aren’t going well downfield, that back is going to get open and I trust him to get open; I trust him to make a move and make something happen.”
Perhaps the biggest change Wilkins will implement this fall is to curtail his penchant for scrambling out of the pocket. Injuries limited Wilkins to 10 games last season, and hampered him in several others that he played. The injuries were usually the result of taking big hits.
“That’s one of the lessons that I think he has learned,” offensive coordinator Billy Napier said. “There’s a certain aggressiveness that you don’t want to take away from the guy, but I think it’s playing those situations smart and kind of seeing it from 1,000 feet away and saying, ‘hey, big picture here. Where do I take those calculated risks? Where are we in the game in terms of when I do rush the ball or when I break the pocket, how I manage myself from a health standpoint?’ I think he learned that last year.”
Wilkins said it was a hard habit to break.
“In high school — I’m not being cocky or being arrogant — but I was the best athlete on the field at all times and it was an easy escape for me to tuck the ball and run because I felt like I could juke everybody on the field and it wasn’t an issue,” he said. “In order for me to be successful, I cannot get hurt. I cannot be somebody who always on first-and-10, when the field opens, takes off running.
“Save my body. If I get five yards and stay safe, what is the big deal getting six yards if I take a big lick? It’s not a big advantage. It’s really a disadvantage if I get hurt so what he said about calculated risks is on first-and-10, my mindset has to be different than what it is 4th-and-3, game on the line.”
Wilkins completed 197 of 311 passes for 2,329 yards, 12 TDs and nine interceptions last season. It was a fair start for a first-time starter, but Wilkins knows his production must increase for the Sun Devils to contend for a meaningful bowl game this winter.
“Last year, what I saw was right in front of me, but I grew so much from getting hurt, to playing on damn near one leg and getting my ass worked, basically, that it has opened so many doors for me,” he said. “Now I’m seeing everything. I have all my peripheral vision. I’m comfortable. I know everything that is going on on the field and I know so much more about the defense.”