Entering spring football, Arizona State has a truly open quarterback competition for the first time since Taylor Kelly came from behind to take the starting job away from Mike Bercovici in coach Todd Graham's first preseason camp at the school in 2012.
That year, Kelly exited spring football No. 3 in the pecking order behind Bercovici and Michael Eubank. During the summer months, however, Kelly improved his skill-set more than the others. When Bercovici threw too many interceptions in the first several weeks of preseason camp in August, and Eubank still failed to demonstrate command of the offense, Kelly capitalized.
The way in which that position battle unfolded makes forecasting what will happen in 2016 a virtual impossibility. There is perhaps less separation following Cactus Bowl practices between sophomore Manny Wilkins and redshirt freshmen Bryce Perkins and Brady White than there was between Bercovici and Kelly at the conclusion of spring football in 2012.
Even after attending three straight weeks of practices, it was difficult to ascertain which quarterback is even the front-runner for the starting nod as ASU transitions to spring football. This is especially so in light of the transition at offensive coordinator, with Mike Norvell departing and taking the head coaching job at Memphis and being replaced by Chip Lindsey.
Lindsey had only several weeks to evaluate his three young quarterbacks on the roster, and he was doing so on the fly, as he also tried to fully immerse himself in all other aspects of the program. Norvell and Lindsey will have different perspectives to some degree, that much is sure.
In 2012, Kelly didn't throw the ball down the field as well as the quarterbacks he was competing with, but he was superior to Bercovici and Eubank at the read option component of the Sun Devils' offense. At Southern Miss, Lindsey started a quarterback who was relatively immobile by comparison, not just to Kelly, but even when measured against Bercovici. That player, Nick Mullins, had negative 92 rushing yards in 2015 for a team that nonetheless averaged a blistering 39.9 points per game.
The one predictable constant is how Graham perceives his quarterbacks and what he's looking for at the position. Wilkins may know that more than the others returning at the position, if only because he has heard it ad nauseam from Graham for an extra year.
"Obviously they're going to play the quarterback who is going to lead this team and win games," Wilkins said. "The x-factor really is not turning the football over. Coach Graham has done nothing but stress that since Day 1, since I've been. It's all about who takes care of the football and who is moving the offense down the field. They're going to play the best guy."
Rather than try to handicap the competition, which at this point would really be a fool's errand especially given Lindsey's newness to the program, what we're going to do is attempt to articulate the strength and potential drawbacks of each of the three quarterbacks.
Among the quarterbacks on ASU's 2016 roster, even when including incoming freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole, Wilkins is the most so-called "dual-threat" of the group. He's without question the quickest and most elusive, the most capable of making plays with his feet both in the read option game and also as a pure scrambler. In that regard, Wilkins is like an upgraded version of Taylor Kelly. But Wilkins' arm is also very good, certainly better than Kelly's in terms of on-time throwing range and the ability to fit balls into tighter windows at depth. Wilkins also throws a very clean ball and tends to be accurate down the field when his feet are set.
From a skill-set standpoint, Wilkins has no deficiencies. He's quite athletic, is mechanically sound enough to be successful, has plenty of ball velocity and accuracy. What will ultimately determine whether Wilkins emerges victorious in the competition is pocket poise and how well he's able to get through his route progression. Wilkins has had a tendency to bring his eyes down and transition from passer to runner too quickly and he has to break that natural tendency and force himself to cycle through his second and third progressions on a consistent basis. That's the only way that Wilkins will be able to unlock the full breadth of his talent.
Though he has improved in this regard to some degree, Wilkins is not yet someone who extends plays to find someone down the field in a way that leverages his ability to evade pressure. He's also capable of missing open receivers further into his progression, or making jeopardy throws by not accounting for zone defenders. The strides that Wilkins has made in this regard must be further improved upon if he's to not only win the job, but be successful to his own expectations, as well as his coaches.
Wilkins quote: "I just feel comfortable. I feel like I have the opportunity to really do what I came here to do, which is lead. I feel comfortable on the field telling guys what they should have to do. It's out there, the game has slowed down for me and I'm in my element. It's little things and I'm learning things day by day. I'm super comfortable and I'm happy to be around players that are talented and smart."
The evolution of Perkins from athlete to quarterback in the last three to four years has been truly remarkable. He went from a player we though would never be able to play the position successfully at the highest college level as a high school sophomore at Chandler to someone who demonstrated impressive poise and proficiency as a true freshman at ASU in 2015.
Perkins is strong and athletic at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds. He prefers delivering the football from the pocket to running though, and has patient and reliable footwork to that end. He's a very different type of athlete than Wilkins, though both are athletic. Perkins feels pressure well and will reorientate his feet to deliver the ball, and keep his eyes processing.
The foundational base of Perkins as a passer is sound, and he makes good decisions very consistently with the football given his youth. He's also very accurate on shorter throws and gets the ball out relatively quickly. Perkins doesn't have the quick twitch athleticism of Wilkins in the read option game, and is more of a glider who runs well in the open field when carrying the football. He doesn't have the start and stop ability of Wilkins, but is bigger and harder to bring down with contact, both in and out of the pocket.
Perkins' biggest potential drawback right now is his downfield playmaking capability. He doesn't have the throwing range or ball velocity of the others in the position group, with vertical shots harder to access and tight intermediate throws also a potential challenge. The way to offset that is getting the ball out more quickly, but that's tough for a quarterback who has never played at this level before. In this regard, Perkins is like Kelly, a player who had similar challenges with his arm when trying to win the job.
Perkins quote: "There's a lot going on, with all of the speed and all of the commotion going on around the line but I think I've really settled into my own with great coaches and great mentorships with the quarterbacks, I've really come along great."
Style-wise, White is somewhere in between Wilkins and Perkins. While Wilkins is the most frenetic in terms of movement and energy and Perkins tends to remain in the pocket without as much movement, White is comfortable both in the pocket and moving outside of it, but does so with a focus on trying to extend plays long enough for receivers to get open, even after completing their routes and freelancing.
At times, White actually is overly patient and is prone to taking sacks when he should throw the football away or take the check down option. This is a dual-edged sword through, because for an offensive coordinator it's better to have a quarterback who thinks like White and has his inner calmness than someone who has a hard time maintaining composure in the pocket.
White doesn't have the quickness or agility of Wilkins and won't be on par in the read option game, but he's a full service player in the ASU system who is probably more mobile than he's given credit for.
Mechanically, White has impressive tools to work with and no flaw with his footwork or delivery. He's got a better arm than Perkins and is probably about on par with Wilkins when it comes to throwing the ball down the field. I would go as far as to say that I like the way Wilkins and White make 30-plus yard throws better than Bercovici, who tended to throw the ball too flat.
The biggest challenge for White will be to get the offense operating at the type of pace that Graham and Lindsey will want, and to do so without increasing the number of errors. Given Lindsey's background with a non-mobile quarterback, Perkins and White are probably a bit helped by the coordinator change when compared with Wilkins, as Norvell seemed a bit more reliant on the read option. That's somewhat of a hunch though that will have to be developed in time.
White quote: "I think just adapting to the difficulty and speed of the college level. Obviously it's a big jump coming from high school. I feel mentally I've grown a lot with our playbook and coverages and knowing when to check plays, when you're hot. It opens another door and you're like, 'wow, this is nice.' It's been good to kind of get adjusted to that. I feel the speed of the game kind of came to me pretty good but I've got to get better every rep, every day and just help the team out, it's about the group, not the individual."