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Quarterback race coming into focus for Arizona State

Jayden Daniels (left). (Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) Dillon Sterling-Cole (center). (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images). Joey Yellen (right). (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

CAMP TONTOZONA, Ariz. – There are position battles lingering all over the field for Arizona State with the first game just over three weeks away.

Who will be the No. 2 running back behind Eno Benjamin and which combo of receivers has the best shot at replacing N’Keal Harry, to name a couple. But no matter how you spin it, the biggest one is still at quarterback.

If they don’t get that one right, the other battles suddenly matter a lot less.

Here’s what we know for sure: Jayden Daniels, Joey Yellen and Ethan Long were all highly touted recruits last spring, and Dillon Sterling-Cole has experience on his side. Herm Edwards and his coaching staff have played it pretty close to the vest so far, but a decision is coming. Probably within the next week, possibly as soon as when they leave Camp Tontozona.

“I think all of them are competing, and that’s what you like,” Edwards pointed out. “And I think we have to make a decision sooner than later because they need to know who he is. I think the offensive guys want to know who he is.

“I don’t want you folks going into the locker room asking ‘who do you think the starting quarterback should be?’ because that’s not their decision and I don’t want to put it on the players’ plate. These guys have been good, but it’ll work its way out.”

In fact, it’s already starting to work its way out. Teammates and coaches refer to Long as “Captain America” because they love the energy and athleticism he brings to the field. He’s no longer in the mix to be the starter under center, but he’ll definitely play a role. Possibly on both sides of the football.

“I know one thing: he has to be on the field for us offensively,” Edwards stressed, while also noting Long could still play some quarterback in certain situations.

“He has to. He’s too good of an athlete. And I think he’s earned the respect of everyone on this football team because of his character, how he works. You just love coaching that guy. He just wants to help the team win. Get enough of those guys, you’ve got a good chance to win games.”

Beyond that, Daniels seems to be the front runner at the moment, with Sterling-Cole not that far behind. But nothing is set in stone yet, and Yellen has played his way back into the mix over the last week.

“It’s a competition,” Sterling-Cole said. “So however the coaches want to go about doing it. Hopefully they pick the right guy at the end of the day. Either it’s going to be me or Jayden or Joey. Or maybe Ethan can slowly make his way back up. It’s just a part of the game.”

Daniels took first-team reps in 11-on-11 drills on Tuesday, then split those reps with Sterling-Cole on Wednesday. He’s all for giving the coaches a difficult decision to make, and he’s happy he’s not the one who has to actually make it.

“That’s not my choice,” the true freshman quickly pointed out. “I feel like I’ve just got to keep being consistent, just keep doing what I have to do. If the coaches choose me to be the starting quarterback, then I’ll be grateful. But if not, I’ve just got to keep working.”

One thing that won’t keep Daniels off the field is his inexperience. Not with this coaching staff. Sure, having spent time around the program for a couple years might help Sterling-Cole through this process in some ways, but Edwards has shown in the past that he’s more than willing to play first-year guys. Just look at what linebacker Merlin Robertson and defensive back Aashari Crosswell did last season.

“I always say this: you learn from your mistakes,” Edwards noted, while reminding everyone that the best way for freshmen to get better is by actually playing.

“You can’t worry about that. We’ll correct the mistakes, and they’ll get better. That’s what this program is about to be quite honest. It’s always going to be about that.”

In other words, if Daniels is ready to play, he’ll be the guy. And if it’s close between him and Sterling-Cole, expect the tie to go to the youngster. He might very well be the future of the program at the position, after all. There will be growing pains, but better to work those out sooner than later if experience is the only issue.

For his part, Daniels is just focused on being the guy that gets the most out of his teammates.

“It’s really just going out and seeing what the team does,” he explained. “Seeing how they respond to the quarterback, whoever the quarterback is. Because that’s a big thing. You have to have the team behind your back, you have to have the respect. Basically seeing who the team responds to the most, I feel like that’s who the coaches will choose.”

On the surface, that could just sound like a variety of sports clichés strung together in one long non-answer. And maybe that’s all it is. But maybe it’s more. Maybe he was paying attention when Marvin Lewis called upon his years of NFL experience to describe what he thinks a strong quarterback should be at Media Day last week.

“He has to be the leader of the offensive football team, where everybody feels great about him,” the longtime Cincinnati Bengals coach explained.

“And with that is – maybe the word would be productive, instead of proficient – productive with the football. And I think that’s the confidence that you go into where the whole entire football team feels great about that. So I can go out, and if I do my job and do it the way I’m supposed to do it, this guy is going to handle all that he needs to do.”

That’s what the Sun Devils are looking for this week at Camp T. And the plan is still to find the starter soon so he can get consistent reps with the first team in the weeks leading up to the opener.

The key, of course, is making a timely decision without making a hasty choice. Because this is the one position battle they can’t afford to get wrong.

“Other positions, you can get the guy in the rotation,” Edwards pointed out.

“With the quarterback, you’ve got to be the guy. But he’s also – if he’s not the guy – he’s one hit away or one play away from having to go into the game, so that’s important too. I’ve been through that story. I’ve played with the fifth-string quarterback. It ain’t a whole lot of fun. It’s just not. You end up going into television if you play long enough with those guys.”

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