TEMPE, Ariz. — Manny Wilkins doesn’t listen to his detractors, whether they’re sitting in the stands or sitting in the press box.
“I’m not focused on what any outsiders say,” Arizona State’s quarterback said. “Critics are always going to have something to say, but day in and day out, I know what I can do, these coaches know what I can do and my teammates know what I can do. I think we can do some special things.”
The critics were less than impressed with Wilkins after an uneven performance against Northern Arizona on Saturday that coach Todd Graham said improved as the game wore on.
Wilkins was effective running the ball (89 yards, TD), and completed 20 of 27 passes for 180 yards with no touchdowns and one interception in his first college start, but there was periodic hesitation in his decision-making and in his reads, and an overall lack of pizzazz to the passing game.
Graham chalked it up to a vanilla game plan and Wilkins’ inexperience.
“Obviously there’s lots of things we can do to get better, but every person that starts new is going to go through that,” Graham said. “He was solid. It’s just learning the system.”
Graham said after the NAU win that he thought Wilkins managed the game well, but he expanded on that thought on Tuesday.
“It’s not just that. You can’t just manage the game,” Graham said. “You’ve got to make plays and you’ve got to distribute the ball. Part of managing the game is distributing the ball where it needs to be. He’ll get better and better and better at that.”
Both Graham and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said the competition for the starting job between Wilkins and redshirt freshman Brady White was close throughout the spring and training camp, but Wilkins’ additional year of experience and maturity weren’t the only factors that tipped the scales in his favor.
“He’s done a lot better job of (ball security), finding the running back in the passing game and trying not to force things, but at the same time, being aggressive and that’s hard for a quarterback to do,” offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said. “There’s that fine line about being too aggressive and then not taking the shots down the field when you need to. I think his decision-making has improved tremendously.”
Wilkins would say that’s true across the board of his life. Hit hard by the loss of his dad to a drug overdose when Manny was just 10 years old, Wilkins struggled in school, struggled with structure and struggled with authority.
From fifth grade to his sophomore year, he moved from California to Minnesota, back to California, to Las Vegas, back to California, to Texas, to Colorado, back to Texas and then back to California. At one point, he dropped out of high school.
“I had my issues; my roller coaster days,” he said. “I was hanging out with older kids as a freshman; going out when I shouldn’t be going out, not doing my homework, skipping school. It was like I got all that stuff out of me at a young age.”
With his aunt and uncle’s guidance, football became a driving force for him at Novato (California) San Marin High, and the clownish prankster slowly gave way to the stark and serious guy that media members have seen this season.
“I’m the same person I was when I got here but I’ve just learned more as I’ve grown older,” he said. “I see things a little bit differently than I did then. I understand the importance of what older, wiser people are telling me and I’m learning not to take life for granted, not to take opportunities for granted.
“Obviously I lost my dad, but I’ve seen it happen to others throughout the years of being here. I’ve seen kids in the same situation I’m in lose that opportunity for getting in trouble, lose it for grades or just plain lose their life in other programs like the kid at Arizona (Zach Hemmila). Tomorrow is not promised so you’ve got to soak it all in and take advantage of every opportunity you get.”
Wilkins knows the Sun Devils will need a better effort when they face Texas Tech on Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium. While the Red Raiders defense struggled last season, the offense can put up points with any team in the nation so Graham, Wilkins and Co. must keep pace.
It’s possible Wilkins has constructed a façade for his media interviews — a curtain behind which we will never see, but the kid who addressed reporters on Tuesday seemed so utterly at ease with the challenge ahead that if you had taken his pulse, you would have sworn he was sleeping.
“I feel more confident after the first game. I never was stressed, I was never not confident. It was just a matter of getting things going and starting to click,” he said. “It’s funny how everybody tries to put so much (importance) on each game but at the end of the day, it’s just football so you can’t get too high or too low with what everyone is saying. You just do what the coaches tell you and you try to get better every day.
“At the end of the day, I don’t need to gain the respect of anybody outside our program. I don’t need to prove myself to anybody but my teammates and my coaches and this training and equipment staff. My mindset is different. I’m just working hard to show them I’ve bought in, I’m all in and I want to lead this team to a championship.”
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