Head coach Todd Graham kept it very close to the vest who his starting quarterback would be for the 2016 college football season. While many clues pointed towards Graham having made his selection previous to this week, we received a definitive answer via his comments on Friday through his interview on the Doug and Wolf Show, “When we take the first snap, Manny will run out there with the first group.”
While the head coach kept fans, media, as well as the Devils week one opponent in the dark, he did mention that his team and staff knew who would be the starting quarterback on Saturday night against NAU well in advance. Which is a big deal as an unknown at the quarterback position can seep through a roster like the flu, even if said locker room and quarterbacks are of the upper echelon, a la Ohio State of a year ago. It didn’t matter that all quarterbacks involved in the battle were of NFL-caliber; it still created drama. Arizona State has no such luxury.
Graham’s decision will shape the future of the school. He is attempting to get back to ten wins after falling well short a season ago with Mike Bercovici at quarterback. Bercovici didn’t do anything wrong on the stat sheet, but the team around him wasn’t up to snuff. If the quarterback position takes a step back, as you’d expect with an underclassman as a first year starter, it could mean an even farther fall.
This was originally a three-headed competition coming out of the spring until redshirt freshman Bryce Perkins suffered a neck injury in practice that could sideline him for two to three months. Since then, the competition came down to the redshirt sophomore Wilkins and redshirt freshman Brady White. Neither man has much in the way of game experience, yet their head coach believes in them.
“We’ve got two guys that we have confidence in with Manny and Brady,” said Graham of the position battle recently. White projects as having a higher upside, with perhaps the exception of arm strength. Wilkins is a year ahead of him in the program and played sparingly in packages under former offensive coordinator Mike Norvell during the 2015 season. Two things hard to discount at this point.
It is likely both players see the field this season, perhaps even in the team’s first game against Northern Arizona. Fortunately for both men, there are great backs in the backfield and a slew of skill players on the outside to aid them. However, along with quarterback questions, Arizona State also finds itself with offensive line questions. It is an alarming situation to be in. Arguably the two most important areas of a football team underwent reconstruction this off-season.
Left tackle Evan Goodman is the only returning offensive lineman from 2015 for Arizona State. The other four spots will be filled by completely inexperienced players or past reserves with limited snaps to their name. It isn’t a guarantee of failure to have a line overhauled in one offseason, but it also doesn’t breed confidence in a unit that is so heavily responsible for the success of the rest of the offense.
Offensive line coach Chris Thomsen told ESPN that in addition to Goodman, he expects the remaining four to be Sam Jones at left guard, Stephon McCray at center, Quinn Bailey at right guard and Zach Robertson at right tackle. That group that practiced has some age to it but very little in terms of field time. Yet everything in an offense is predicated on the line’s ability to both run and pass block. Even the best running backs struggle to find space with a poor line up front. And even the most experienced passers can’t succeed without time in the pocket. For ASU, that latter point is far from accurate, which puts added pressure on both parties.
On top of all that, Graham has a new offensive coordinator on his staff this year in Chip Lindsey. What Lindsey and Graham are able to gameplan in these early weeks of the season will tell us how the Sun Devils will do once conference play creeps up later in September. There’s some tall tasks this season for ASU, but as the saying goes, nothing worth having comes easy.