With sophomore starting quarterback Manny Wilkins sidelined due to injury last week, Arizona State freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole made his first career start for the Sun Devils. A four-star recruit out of Westfield High School in Texas, Sterling-Cole was expected to redshirt this year before injuries wiped out the top three options on the Sun Devils’ depth chart.
With less than a month under his belt practicing in ASU’s offensive system due to his status as a practice squad quarterback for the early portion of the year, Sterling-Cole finished 21-for-38 for 302 yards in the Sun Devils’ 54-35 loss to the Oregon Ducks. Still, Sterling-Cole also threw three costly interceptions that head coach Todd Graham said proved to be the difference in last Saturday’s game.
In looking at some of Sterling-Cole’s best throws from the day, the first things that jump out are his quick release and impressive arm strength. On a first quarter pass to senior Frederick Gammage, Sterling-Cole begins the play with his eyes toward the left side of the field which helps look off the Ducks’ safety. As a result, when Sterling-Cole swings his eyes to the right and sees an open Gammage, he wastes no time in getting the ball out of his hands. Though the timing from the duo wasn’t perfect, Sterling-Cole’s ability to get the ball away quickly keyed this successful play.
After that play, we show a scenario where ASU calls for a play-action pass. Immediately after a play-action fake, Sterling-Cole recognizes the window of opportunity, and has his feet set and the ball cocked on his throwing shoulder ready to deliver a pass to Jalen Harvey on a slant route. By releasing the ball so quickly, Sterling-Cole gives Harvey time to work upfield and gain yards after the catch, none of which would have been possible without perfect footwork.
In the fourth quarter, with ASU trailing 33-22, Sterling-Cole unleashed one of his most impressive throws of the day to Gammage. At the snap, Sterling-Cole is locked onto the left side of the field, and his eyes are looking at the way freshman receiver N'Keal Harry is being defended. Sterling-Cole’s primary read is Harry, but once he realizes Harry isn’t open, he adjusts to his secondary read and sees Gammage coming up in front of one of two high safeties. Because Gammage is breaking toward the middle of the field, Sterling-Cole has to get rid of the ball quickly to avoid a jeopardy throw. Though his feet are slightly out of position, creating a wide base, he’s able to rely on his arm strength and deliver a laser to Gammage over the middle. This is a type of throw Sterling-Cole can already make better than the rest of ASU’s quarterbacks, and he has plenty of room to grow in terms of his ability to read defenses.
One final example of a great throw Sterling-Cole made against the Ducks comes early in the fourth quarter, with ASU backed up near its own goal line. Younger players often times rush their decisions when they’re backed up into tight quarters, but here, Sterling-Cole surveys the field from the play-side on the left and calmly works to the backside post route run by Harvey. Here, Sterling-Cole immediately recognizes the Oregon zone and knows Harvey’s route is designed to find a hole in the zone, whereas the play-side receivers running inside routes are bound to run toward linebackers dropping into coverage. This is also another example of Sterling-Cole’s quick release, which allows Harvey to gain yards after the catch and work upfield.
Though Sterling-Cole showed off plenty of upside, there were many examples of the freshman looking like a player making his first career start. The first comes at the end of the first half, with ASU facing a third down and nine on its own half of the field. Immediately at the snap, Sterling-Cole locks onto Harry, whose route isn’t designed to take him beyond the first down marker. Furthermore, Sterling-Cole faces pressure right away, which hinders his ability to work through a progression. Instead of throwing the ball away or taking a sack, Sterling-Cole lobs the ball up into double coverage, and it turns into an easy interception on a throw a more seasoned quarterback knows not to even attempt.
Sterling-Cole’s second interception was much more explainable, but just as crushing for the Sun Devils, as ASU had an opportunity to pull within one score of Oregon with just over four minutes to play. With the Sun Devils near the goal line, offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey calls for crossing routes from the slot receivers on the left side of the field, which is going to create a difficult scenario for Sterling-Cole when the Ducks play zone coverage. With both of his primary receivers working toward the inside of the field, Sterling-Cole sees Gammage and Kyle Williams cross the face of defenders, which indicates they should come open for a split second before they reach the zones of other Oregon defenders. However, because ASU is in such tight quarters near the goal line, the field is shrunk down and Oregon’s defenders can anticipate ASU’s routes. As such, when Sterling-Cole attempts to find Gammage, the linebacker who allowed Williams to cross his face jumps in front of Gammage’s route and intercepts the pass, crushing ASU’s hopes at a victory.
When the Sun Devils get the ball back trailing by three scores, a pressured Sterling-Cole ends up throwing his third interception of the game in a scenario where a young quarterback is simply trying to make a play at any cost. Not surprisingly, pressure from the Ducks alters Sterling-Cole’s footwork, and he ends up sailing the ball for his third interception of the day.
Nevertheless, many of the throws Sterling-Cole made against Oregon demonstrated the types of tools coaches look for in quarterbacks. Sterling-Cole showed an ability to read Oregon’s defense and work to his second progression, which is something that Wilkins has struggled with at times this year. He also found a way to stay in the pocket and look for backside post routes when he recognized holes in zone coverage might enable completions in these scenarios.
But most of all, on Sterling-Cole’s best plays, he had the ball out of his hands quickly, and it became clear that once he identified a coverage and made a proper read, he didn’t need much time to get rid of the ball. These are all excellent attributes for a quarterback to have that point to a high ceiling, because the more opportunities Sterling-Cole has to process defenses in live action, the more experience he’ll gain and the more refined his natural abilities will become.