The Manny Wilkins-era began with a bang Saturday night for Arizona State, as the sophomore signal-caller marched the Sun Devils' offense down the field on a seven-play touchdown drive that culminated in a Wilkins rushing score.
After ASU's first possession, though, the Sun Devils didn't find the end zone again until junior Demario Richard crossed the goal line on a two-yard touchdown run with just five seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Despite the slow start, Wilkins insisted he was never stressed, and helped ASU finish off Northern Arizona by leading five straight scoring drives in the second half.
"I never was stressed, I never was not confident or anything, it was just a matter of getting things going and starting to click," Wilkins said.
Head coach Todd Graham said Wilkins improved as the game rolled along, citing the debut starting performances of past quarterbacks Taylor Kelly and Mike Bercovici as barometers for Wilkins' effort. While Kelly led the Sun Devils to a 63-6 win over Northern Arizona in his first start, Bercovici struggled in a loss against UCLA when an injury to Kelly forced Bercovici into the lineup in 2014.
"I thought he (Wilkins) got better as the game went on, you know I talked to him a lot about, you try to, it doesn't matter if it's Taylor (Kelly), I remember Mike Bercovici's first game," Graham said. "Obviously there's a lot of things that we could do better, every person that starts new is going to go through it, the biggest thing, is he made a mistake, but if I would have scripted it, I think it was scripted pretty well."
Wilkins completed 20-of-27 pass attempts for 180 yards before being replaced on ASU's final series with the game well in hand by redshirt freshman quarterback Brady White. Wilkins bested White in the team's quarterback competition this fall, and Graham said he's pleased with how the two players have handled the situation.
"How he's (Wilkins) handled this, how Brady has handled this, it makes me proud to be their coach," Graham said. "The thing I don't want them doing, you know you can't go out there and try to mess up, you have to go out there and put it in the left lane and put the hammer down."
Before the competition began, Graham said ASU would move forward with the quarterback who elevated the play of the 10 other offensive players on the field, and Graham said after Saturday's game that Wilkins' leadership stood out throughout the fall.
Wilkins represented ASU as a captain on Saturday, and said one of the main leadership qualities he's developed this year is the ability to find common ground and communicate with teammates in a variety of ways.
"On and off the field, whether it's academics, you know, everybody has to be talked to differently," Wilkins said. "You can't yell at certain people, you have to react differently and as a leader, that's something you've got to know. How to adjust to people and how to deal with people and these guys are awesome and I'm just blessed to be around them."
Graham indicated Tuesday there's plenty of room for Wilkins to grow, but said there's also a lot to build upon from his opening week performance. ASU kept its game plan relatively simple against the Lumberjacks, but Graham knows the Sun Devils won't win games by staying conservative on offense.
"You can't be ultra-conservative either, but it's just learning the system and at the end of the day, we all have to learn, there's just lots of things we can learn and get better up front, but the good news is we have to do it quick because the team we're playing is really good," Graham said.