Arizona State’s Manny Wilkins outlasted his in-house doubters

Sep 12, 2018, 9:36 AM
Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins looks to the sideline after getting by defenders during the...
Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins looks to the sideline after getting by defenders during the team’s first scrimmage of the season Saturday, Aug. 11, in Tempe. (Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)
(Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)

Alabama transfer Blake Barnett committed to Arizona State on Dec. 5, 2016, less than two weeks after the Sun Devils had finished a 5-7 season with six losses in a row.

Nabbing Barnett, who began that season as the starting quarterback for the eventually loser of the College Football Playoff, was a major coup for the program.

But for ASU’s then-sophomore quarterback, Manny Wilkins, the news came as a sign of disrespect.

“For the longest, it’s almost as if there was an elephant in the room when that situation happened in terms of bringing in somebody else,” Wilkins told Bickley & Marotta on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station Tuesday. “It is what it is. That was after my first year starting going into that spring and everything. In my head, I felt a little bit disrespected. I felt that there was no communication.”

Barnett committed on former coach Todd Graham’s birthday, posing with the head man, offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and passing game coordinator Jay Norvell.

To Wilkins, the message hurt. As a sophomore, he’d completed 63 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions while adding 246 rushing yards and five more scores on the ground. He’d done so despite missing two games and most of a third, all while fighting through ankle, toe and AC joint injuries that lingered the second half of the season.

For about a few months, Wilkins said he shut down.

“And then I started to think, man, if I have any aspirations and dreams of going to the NFL, and the business — the cut-throat business that that is — I can’t be in here being in my feelings and being butt-hurt about something because I feel like I was disrespected or my feelings were hurt,” he said. “In the NFL you’re gonna get cut, and you’re gonna get cut and nobody’s going to have any hard feeling about it.

“It was right after the last game, I kind of went into a lull, a dark mode where I kind of wasn’t communicating with the coaching staff. I was upset. Like I said, my feelings were hurt. And then quickly I realized, man, my feelings don’t matter. What matters is putting wins on the board.”

Wilkins’ change in attitude paid off. He beat out Barnett for the starting quarterback job in 2017 and played every game last season.

Twenty-one months after Barnett’s commitment, none of the four people pictured in the quarterback’s commitment day tweet — including Barnett himself — are with ASU’s program.

Norvell jumped ship to take the head coaching job at Nevada two days after landing Barnett. Lindsey left to take the Auburn offensive coordinator position six weeks later and Graham was fired after the 2017 season. Barnett transferred to South Florida over the summer, and he’s off to a fast start with wins over Elon and Georgia Tech, completing 69 percent of his passes for 507 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.

It’s Wilkins now leading a No. 23 Sun Devil team into its third game of the year, at San Diego State.

“I put my head down, I went to work,” Wilkins said of his approach heading into 2017. “I let it fuel me to really turn that switch and get going.”

The quarterback, now a senior, is off to a fast start in his final collegiate season.

He’s completed 64 percent of his passes for 617 yards, five touchdowns and one interception through two games, a win over University of Texas San Antonio in the opener and a 16-13 home upset of then-No. 15 Michigan State on Saturday. The latter put the Sun Devils on the map for this year, but it also has accelerated the process of making this Edwards’ team.

Without a doubt, it’s Wilkins’ team as well.

“When you have a program where in the past couple years we haven’t been as successful as we should be, a new coach, man, it’s an opportunity for people to have a fresh start that they feel they didn’t have that relationship with the last coaching staff. Everybody gets a clean slate,” Wilkins said.

“I just think our want and our will and our drive to want to win, it was there Saturday night. That’s the most satisfying part: being somebody who’s been here five years, being somebody who’s, you know, I’ve seen so many teams have so many characteristics. To see the fire in everybody on the field’s eyes was very encouraging and lit a fire in me as well.”

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