It’s too early to judge ASU QB Manny Wilkins

Sep 4, 2016, 12:51 AM | Updated: 8:02 am
Arizona State's Manny Wilkins (5) runs past Northern Arizona's Jake Thomas (44) during the second h...

Arizona State's Manny Wilkins (5) runs past Northern Arizona's Jake Thomas (44) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. Arizona State defeated Northern Arizona 44-13. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. — If you were hoping for a Taylor Kelly-esque debut from Manny Wilkins, you probably came away from Sun Devil Stadium disappointed on Saturday. Wilkins’ performance was as bland as the Sun Devils’ vanilla offensive and defensive play calling.

Before you rush to judgment following this underwhelming 44-13 win over Northern Arizona, however, consider how different this redshirt sophomore’s first start was from Kelly’s first start as a redshirt sophomore when he completed 15 of 19 passes for 247 yards and a TD in a 63-6 win over the Lumberjacks on Aug. 30, 2012.

Specifically, consider the more experienced offensive line and the options that line presented Kelly for play selection. Consider that ASU rushed for 305 yards in that game to relieve pressure on Kelly and was balanced throughout, while the Sun Devils didn’t pull away until the fourth quarter on Saturday. Consider how much ASU actually asked Wilkins to do against the Lumberjacks.

“We wanted to be simple with the offensive line,” Graham said. “We felt like we could run the ball and it would open up plays and we would wear them down, pound them down and eventually we would win.”

Throughout training camp, Graham and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey professed the need to simplify the offense because of all the new parts.

“We just run what coach Lindsey calls,” Wilkins said. “Run down the field and score points. We are going to do what works.”

With that as a backdrop, Saturday’s early offensive struggles weren’t surprising.

“It was about what you’d think with a new offensive line,” Graham said. “They were running some (line)backers through and we were staying on the double team instead of coming off; things that you can fix real easy.

Aside from chastising himself for the interception, Wilkins offered few insights into his own performance, only promising that, “next week we will get rolling faster.”

Graham offered a more upbeat take, even if it was aimed more at building confidence than providing an honest assessment.

“I thought (Manny) did a good job managing the game,” Graham said. “He made one bad decision throwing an interception but I like how he responded to that and I liked his demeanor on the sideline throughout the whole time. He was very positive. I liked his decisions. I thought he pulled the ball down and did some good things.”

Let’s be clear: Wilkins was effective running the ball (89 yards, TD) but he was not impressive as a passer. He completed 20 of 27 passes for 180 yards without a touchdown and threw the one interception. There was plenty of hesitation in his decision-making and his reads, and there was never the threat of a deep ball in ASU’s arsenal. Graham conceded that ASU struggled to establish any kind of offensive rhythm.

That could become an issue when the opponents get better, beginning this week with Texas Tech. If ASU isn’t capable of opening games up with its run game it could struggle, but it was almost laughable that some were calling for Graham to replace Wilkins with backup Brady White two series into the game after Wilkins threw an interception on his second career college pass. The backup is always fans’ favorite option — at least until he plays — but ASU went through an entire spring and all of training camp assessing which quarterback deserved the job while outsiders were basing their judgment on a few plays.

Graham said the team settled on Wilkins several weeks ago because, “we just felt like over the body of work that he was the guy that elevated the other guys around him.”

Wilkins clearly has a lot of work to do, and there is no guarantee he will ever morph into anything close to Kelly, but let’s see how much more the Sun Devils can open up their playbook against the Red Raiders. Let’s give Wilkins more than one game to justify his coaches’ decision.

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