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Leadership at crux of Sun Devils’ quarterback battle

Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Arizona, Friday, Nov. 25, 2016, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

For a month, Arizona State coach Todd Graham’s answer to arguably the biggest question facing his program this offseason — whether junior Manny Wilkins or sophomore Blake Barnett will be the Sun Devils’ starting quarterback this season — has remained the same.

Wilkins, the Sun Devils’ returning starter, has held the edge throughout the spring, maintained it over summer and through preseason camp. The status of the on-going competition has not changed. Although Graham hasn’t yet stated it “100 times” as he quipped following ASU’s latest scrimmage, the sixth-year coach added to whatever the true tally is on Tuesday.

“Manny is the starter until Blake beats him out,” Graham said again Tuesday, however, “I’ll tell you what: I’ve got confidence in both of them.”

This isn’t the first quarterback battle Graham has endured since arriving to Tempe in 2012. In Graham’s first season, Taylor Kelly opened spring as ASU’s No. 3 quarterback before eventually usurping both Mike Bercovici and Michael Eubank prior to the beginning of the season. Last year, Wilkins fended off Brady White, Bryce Perkins and Dillon Sterling-Cole to claim the starting job. This offseason, Wilkins is battling with Barnett, a former five-star prospect and Alabama transfer, to maintain the position. White, who’s taken first- and second-team reps at recent practices, would be considered for the role too, however, he’s currently recovering from a foot injury that ended his season last October.

“There’s competition every day,” Wilkins said. “I compete with myself every single day. I’ve said this before: My goal going into the next practice is to not make the same mistakes; if I make a mistake [my goal is] to not make a mistake again.”

With Barnett in hot pursuit, Wilkins has had to play well, or at least well enough, to maintain his spot. With just over a week until the new campaign’s start, Wilkins has done so. In Graham’s opinion, both players are “really good quarterbacks” who have “both made each other better.” Graham even compared the competitive nature of the battle between Wilkins and Barnett to the one between Kelly and Bercovici. It’s similarly afforded Graham confidence in each of his top two currently available options.

“Different sets of talents for each guy,” said Graham, “but I’m not afraid one bit to play Blake. Not one bit. He hasn’t beat Manny out yet or I’d move him [to starting quarterback]. It’s not because one of them’s not doing good, I just think we’ve got two really, really good quarterbacks. We think we’ve got three with Brady, but I don’t think he’s going to be available physically right now. He obviously hasn’t been cleared.”

During last season’s quarterback competition, Graham and former offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey stressed that determining a starter would hinge on the starter’s ability to affect teammates, avoid turnovers, and ultimately provide the best opportunity to win ballgames. While first-year coordinator Billy Napier is implementing a somewhat different schematic approach, what Graham seeks out of his starter, intangibly, holds true. Graham said the most important aspect of the quarterback battle thus far has been the players’ leadership traits, adding that he perceives a leader as “someone who has a servant’s heart, who comes out and serves with his attitude and his effort every day.” It’s something Graham says is clearly evident within his quarterback room, “but you have to be elite. You have to set the standard when it comes to the values of our program.”

“Everyone talks about leadership, but leadership’s a walk,” Graham said. “It’s about respect. It’s about our other 10 guys wanting to run through a wall for. You’ve got to put money in the bank everyday when it comes to that. That’s something I think is a strong point, and especially with the whole group. That group is stout when you look at top-to-bottom, what kind of young men are going to be playing football for us.”

On the cusp of opening as the starting quarterback for the second straight season, Wilkins strives to fully encompass the qualities his coach desires to see out of the position. He maintains that having game film to study his mistakes and learn from them has evolved his situational understanding. Wilkins says he’s playing the game more wisely than before, adding that sliding will be a big part of his game this year.

“If it’s first-and-10, I shouldn’t be going out there and taking a lick to get an extra two yards when it can be second-and-two as opposed to be an earned down, first-and-10,” Wilkins said. “But if it’s fourth-and-six, game on the line, you’re damn right I’m going to lay my body on the line, because it’s my job to win football games. It’s my job to go out there and execute. When it needs to happen, I understand the situation a lot better now of protecting my body because I’ve got to stay healthy in order to be successful.”

As coaches see it, the addition of Barnett has only increased Wilkins’ efforts to be a more cerebral player.

“I think Blake has really elevated Manny and vice versa,” Graham said.

Meanwhile, Wilkins stated he’s seen another side, “a whole other dog in me come out” this offseason. His passion has been ignited, though he poses a much more comfortable presence both on and off the field this year.

“My mindset hasn’t changed,” Wilkins said. “I’ve told myself I’ve been the guy since I can imagine or remember this past season.” Perhaps that’s true. However, his ability to affect his teammates has been something that’s improved over time, as well. During practices, Wilkins is hands-on, after plays discussing with receivers where to best position themselves. On plays when he’s on the sideline, he’s encouraging of teammates, even the one’s competing with him for the starting job. Off-field readings have helped with Wilkins’ approach, including works such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People, a book he picked up through the recommendation of his girlfriend’s father.

“You can’t lead everybody the same,” Wilkins said. “… It’s just about knowing your personnel. Knowing one guy might take criticism as a different guy might take it differently. It’s just about knowing who you’re around and being positive, and not having anything negative come out.”

Wilkins’ attitude this year has specifically stuck out to Graham.

“Manny’s a winner,” Graham said. “He’s a guy that’s had a tough life. He’s been through a lot of challenges and things like that, but he’s a winner.”

Despite Wilkins’ current grasp of the job, Graham said nothing’s been decided yet, even with a meeting with New Mexico State just over a week away.

“Without competition, you can’t be great,” Graham said. “I’ve loved watching it, but it ain’t over. We’re still competing. I feel very confident. Obviously, Brady’s not healthy, but I feel very, very confident in those two guys [Wilkins and Barnett].”

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