If looking for an off-field sign of junior quarterback Manny Wilkins’ increased maturity this season, consider the way he watches NFL games. He used to do so for pure enjoyment and pleasure but now uses them to soak in everything he can.
Wilkins admits the recent change sort of “sucks” sometimes, but then he sees someone like Tony Romo. Romo, a former Dallas Cowboys quarterback who’s now a color commentator for CBS, has gained a reputation for being somewhat of an omnipotent presence. When he worked the Oakland at Tennessee Week 1 game — his first as an analyst — he was spectacular.
Romo regularly called out blitzes, audibles and in some cases, entire plays during the broadcast. “This is a run to the right,” he would say. “They’re throwing the end zone fade,” he predicted.
He was correct on much of what he said.
“If I could do that, man, that would be so amazing,” Wilkins said following Tuesday’s practice.
Jim Nantz & Tony Romo will call the Patriots game today.
A preview of Romo... pic.twitter.com/b7RNFx0iVA
— Only In Boston (@OnlyInBOS) September 17, 2017
Wilkins studies NFL quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Matt Ryan to see if he can implement some of their unique traits into his own game. He’s said before that his film study habits have greatly improved since he stepped on campus in 2014. His new approach to watching the pros has been a huge help.
“I think that I’m seeing the game a lot differently now,” he said.
When asked about Wilkins’ largest improvement, his teammates and coaches usually point to that maturity. On Tuesday, Wilkins compared his on-field maturation to a young boy who just wants to run around and throw the football when playing in the backyard. As he matures, he learns to sit in the pocket and deliver it.
When fans think of Wilkins in 2016, they may remember him escaping to pocket and racing down the field before hurdling a defender. He still evades the rush well, but he said he’s become more aggressive with his arm as opposed to his legs.
The early returns are good. Wilkins has thrown 149 passes without an interception dating back to last season, tying former Sun Devil quarterback Rudy Carpenter, who did so in 2005-06.
“I’m just more confident in my play, more confident in my arm, more confident sitting in the pocket delivering, and I know where to go with the football and I trust the people around me that they’re going to go make a play,” Wilkins said.
It’s safe to say ASU didn’t start how it wanted to against Texas Tech last Saturday. The Sun Devils only mustered a field goal in the first quarter but had opportunities to score more. One such chance was squandered when sophomore Cohl Cabral’s errant snap was recovered by the Red Raiders.
Trailing 21-3, Wilkins led the offense on two touchdown drives in the second quarter. The first was a 3-yard touchdown pass to sophomore Kyle Williams, the next a 1-yard score by senior running back Demario Richard.
“You’re the offensive coordinator, you’re the coordinator on the field,” Graham said he tells Wilkins. “Take care of the football. Manage the offense. Disperse the ball.”
Though ASU is 1-2, Wilkins has done all that through the first three games of the season. Absent for two weeks before, the ASU offense had finally found its stride with its leader was at the forefront.
“I think he really takes pride in his job,” Williams said.
It shows, too. Graham on Monday said he thought Wilkins played his best game as a Sun Devil in the loss at Texas Tech.
Wilkins led ASU on multiple comebacks throughout that game as the Sun Devil defense struggled to stop Texas Tech’s Air Raid. Once down 18 in the third, ASU tied the game and had a chance to take the lead in the fourth.
The Sun Devils didn’t take advantage of that opportunity, and on the next possession, Texas Tech scored the go-ahead touchdown. In a two-minute offense situation, Wilkins completed a pass to junior receiver Jalen Harvey for a first down.
After that, a false start penalty and a costly sack Wilkins called “stupid” stunted the drive. On fourth-and-long, Wilkins’ heave fell incomplete. He finished 27 of 41 for 326 yards and three touchdowns.
Was it his best game?
“Stats can say one thing, but at the end of the day, if there’s an L on the board it’s not my best game,” said Wilkins, who qualified that the offense did take a step forward in the loss.
There are no moral victories in sports. The Sun Devils are 1-2 and will be judged as such.
But they perhaps left Lubbock with an inkling of hope. For the first time this year, they displayed the high-powered, potent offense they’d spoken of since the spring.
ASU’s 45-point outburst proved to be sort of a “welcome back” for sophomore receiver N’Keal Harry (13 receptions, 148 yards, 1 TD) and an introduction for sophomore receiver Kyle Williams (7 receptions, 111 yards, 2 TD). The Sun Devils also rushed for 168 yards as a team, perhaps showing they may not be one-dimensional all season.
“I don’t think the defense has done anything to stop us,” Wilkins said of the first three games. “I think it’s been pointed back at us that we’ve done it to ourselves.”
For context, Texas Tech’s defense isn’t dominant by any standards. The Red Raiders were ranked 126th in total defense in the country in 2016, giving up 527.7 yards per game. They’ve given up almost 400 through two games this season and haven’t even hit Big 12 play, where they will face a dynamic offense each week.
But last Saturday marked ASU’s most complete offensive performance this year. There’s still room to grow, Wilkins said, but the potential is there.
Graham lauded his team’s fight. And while ASU is under .500, conference play starts this weekend when the Sun Devils host Oregon. For now, ASU is 0-0 in that category.
Wilkins believes the Sun Devils are prepared to handle the adversity coming their way. Four of their next five opponents are currently ranked in the AP Top-25 poll.
“When we were down 21-3 last week, we saw who showed up,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins is a great athlete, Graham said, but sometimes great athletes tend to rely on their athleticism too much.
Not Wilkins, though — at least not anymore. He’s matured.
“I think he’s growing and progressing as a quarterback and I think he’s just scratching the surface of how good he can be,” Graham said.