ASU Football's Future: QB Manny Wilkins ready to lead in 2015

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By Brad Denny By Brad Denny
Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against UCLA, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) By Rick Scuteri Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against UCLA, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) By Rick Scuteri

First in a series spotlighting the future of Sun Devil football

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Manny Wilkins has been in Tempe for less than a year, and the next snap he takes in a game will be his first. Yet the Arizona State quarterback already knows one thing about his Sun Devil team.

"We're ready to compete for a national championship."

Such a boast coming from a redshirt freshman would normally elicit an eye roll, but that's not quite the case with Wilkins. His time at ASU has been brief, but the Novato, Calif. native has already shown many of the qualities that made him a prized 4-star recruit among last year's heralded recruiting class, confidence being one of them. 

While many his fellow players in the 2014 class were pressed into service as true freshmen, the team's veteran depth at quarterback resulted in Wilkins redshirting last fall. That allowed Wilkins time to adjust to the rigors of college football, a learning curve made steeper by the heightened demands of his position.

"I think it was the mental aspect," Wilkins said of the biggest challenge from his first season. "One thing I've learned is that I have to go into every day as a new day, and make sure that I take full advantage of everything that is given to me. Our coaches are doing a great job of helping everybody learn the playbook and do the little things right."

Despite staying on the sidelines, his first season was not free of urgency.

When starting quarterback Taylor Kelly went down with a foot injury in the season's third game, Wilkins suddenly found himself the backup to Mike Bercovici. With his collegiate debut potentially just one play away, Wilkins' indoctrination into offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's playbook then went into overdrive.

"When TK went down, that process was sped up," Wilkins said. "I had to make sure that if I came into the game, that I was ready to take that challenge upon myself, and to help this team get to where we wanted to get to. My opportunity didn't come, so when my opportunity does come, I'm ready."

Kelly's injury also brought home another major lesson for Wilkins. 

"Always be ready for when your number is called upon. That's the biggest," Wilkins said. "I give that advice to any freshman or juco coming in. No matter who you are, don't feel like you're just going to sit out. You need to prepare, because if your number is called upon, you need to go in there and do what you do."

When Kelly returned to the lineup four games later, he battled both his nagging foot and inconsistency for the remainder of the year. As fans and media heaped increasing criticism on the three-year starter, Kelly remained steady, focused, and optimistic. That poise was not lost on Wilkins.

"TK was a fighter. He wouldn't give up on anybody, nor would he give up on himself," said Wilkins. "He really showed that throughout the season. His foot was bugging him, but he would keep playing, always with a positive attitude, no matter what. You just have to show your teammates that you are a positive person. Never go in there with your head down, and always be ready to compete."

Having served a full year behind Kelly and Bercovici and watching them perform, Wilkins learned that the most important components of the quarterback position are found from the neck up. That includes how not just how a quarterback acts, but how his teammates perceive him.

"Every rep, you need to be 110 percent. Wise with speed," said Wilkins. "Making smart decisions and not turning the ball over. It's helping your team get a win. Nobody likes a losing team. We work so hard throughout the offseason and through the season to win. When you don't win, you get down on yourself. You need to make sure you are the leader. You're the quarterback, the guy people are going to point their fingers at when something goes bad, and you're going to be the guy who is praised when something goes good. It's all about not being too high and not being too low."

With Kelly departing, Bercovici, now a senior, is widely expected to become the next Sun Devil starter. Bercovici has been an instrumental part of Wilkins' growth and development over the past year, even as the two players prepare to compete this offseason. 

"He's something special. I look up to him as an older brother," Wilkins said of Bercovici. "He's there when I need critiquing. He's there when I need somebody to give me a line and get me in shape. That's what he's there to do. He's there to get me ready just in case something happens and I need to step in be the leader and be the quarterback of this football team. He's done a really good job of welcoming me into this brotherhood throughout this year. Now it's not welcoming. Now, it's getting me ready to really step up and be a great role-model player for this team."

On the field, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Wilkins boasts a strong arm, a great football IQ, and some good elusiveness with his legs. Of his assets, he feels that his pocket presence has made the greatest strides since he stepped foot on campus, but there remains work to be done.

"Awareness, I am very aware of my surroundings," said Wilkins. "I think I have a great sense of everything that is around me, pocket awareness. I think I need to get better at sitting in the pocket and being more comfortable and really being a quarterback back there slinging it."

Wilkins is also concentrating his offseason efforts on honing the finer points of the position, including game management, as spring practice approaches this March.

"Mastering the offense. Working on my technique and throwing a tighter spiral. All the little things a quarterback wants to do," Wilkins said. "My endurance is a big thing. One thing that I do that is very special is using my legs. I have a great attribute, with my pocket presence, that I can really run. I just need to make sure I can manage this football team, not turn the ball over, and score with ease."

While his physical and mental attributes have drawn high praise over the past year, Wilkins' greatest contribution to the program thus far have been as an unofficial program ambassador.

Wilkins initially committed to ASU in May of 2013, and he worked tirelessly—and successfully—from that time until last year's Signing Day to rally fellow prospects to commit to the Sun Devil program. With this year's Signing Day approaching on Feb. 4, Wilkins is continuing to prove to be an exemplary face, and salesman, of the program.

"I have a great feel for this class. Myself and Tyler (Whiley) are roommates, and we host every single weekend that we have had recruits," Wilkins said. "We are out there with the guys. We're always vibing with the guys. This 2015 class is another stepping stone for the future of this program. It started with the class that we came in with, and it's only going to get better. We have some great young guys coming in with this class, and guys you should see committing soon and on Signing Day that are really help this class do some special things."

Two members of that 2015 class share Wilkins' own position. Brady White and Bryce Perkins are among the most highly-rated quarterbacks in the western United States, and both players bring exciting talents to ASU. With Wilkins and fellow redshirt freshman Coltin Gerhart already in Tempe, the future depth chart at quarterback is crowded.

Competing against three other quality arms does not faze Wilkins, who expects nothing to be handed to him.

"I came to ASU knowing I would have to compete at some point," Wilkins said. "There is a lot of talent in that group, and the best guy is going to play. The guy who is going to win a national championship and lead this team is going to play. I'm doing everything in my power to work hard at my craft."

However, Wilkins is not losing sight that while that trio represents his competition, they are also his Sun Devil brothers.

"Along the way, I'm going to help those young guys out, because coming in and being a freshman is hard." said Wilkins. "It's hard to adapt. It's hard to change your lifestyle to being a quarterback at a Pac-12 school. I struggled with that at times. It's how you react to the adversity is how you're going to do." 

Although every indication is Bercovici will be the Sun Devil starter this year, Wilkins is preparing himself, and carrying himself, as if he will be the starter. He is focused on being the quarterback to take Arizona State to the playoffs and beyond.

“I'm willing to take the steps forward that I need to make sure that I'm ready to be the starting quarterback of this football team," Wilkins said of his goals. "If that doesn’t work, make sure that I am starting quarterback No. 2. I don’t want to be a backup. I want to make sure I make these coaches know that I’m ready to take over the reins of this offense and take over this team, and to prove that to my teammates."

But that's not his only goal for 2015. He wants to be a role model for all Sun Devils everywhere.

"I need to make sure that I’m carrying myself on and off the field like a great young man of character. It’s executing Coach Graham’s gameplan of life."

As Wilkins and his teammates continue to execute that gameplan, the program's ultimate goal grows slowly closer.

"We're trying to build something here, not just for one season. It's about a whole dynasty. That's what we're building here, we're building a dynasty. We're building something that every kid should want to be a part of, no matter where you are."

Wilkins picks for breakout players in 2015

"My roommate Ty (Whiley). I think he's going to do some special things when his number is called upon. Guys like Eric Lauderdale are just going to start to click, and it's just going to come to them. Jalen Harvey is a freak of nature. There are going to be some big moments from Ellis (Jefferson) this year. You can see it in the weight room, you can see it when we are running, he's hungry to be the best. No, he's not Jaelen Strong, he's going to be better than Jaelen Strong. That is something that we all know. We're going to miss Jaelen a ton, but who's going to step up and be that guy now? I think we have guys on defense who redshirted like Ismael (Murphy-Richardson) who are going to do some damage this year. He's a freak of nature and a freak athlete. I can't wait to see the things he does. We're a young team, but we're a young team that is very mature for our age, and I think we're going to get the job done."

Wilkins on the future of the program

"This football team will play for a national championship. I have nothing but confidence in myself when I say that. We work so hard every single day at our craft. We do all the little things that a lot of these other programs don't do, but we're not worried about these other programs. We're worried about ourselves. Like Coach Graham says, and like everybody on our team preaches, we're trying to be No. 1 of 124 teams in the country. Ohio State was lucky to be that team this year. They worked their butt off to get there. That's where we want to be next year, the year after that, and the year after that."