Position review: Quarterback

Arizona State held its first quarterback competition since 2012 during fall camp, and three different players started games at quarterback for the Sun Devils this season.

For the first time since Taylor Kelly overcame Mike Bercovici and Michael Eubank to earn the starting quarterback job in 2012, Arizona State held an open competition to determine its 2016 signal-caller.

Much like 2012, ASU began fall camp with a three-way competition for the starting job, but unlike Todd Graham's first season in Tempe, the player who entered the battle with a slight edge, sophomore Manny Wilkins, ended up outlasting his challengers, redshirt freshmen Brady White and Bryce Perkins

While Kelly came from behind to receive a starting nod against Northern Arizona in the season-opener in 2012, Wilkins earned the start in ASU's 2016 opener against the Lumberjacks thanks to his ability, in Graham's eyes, to ignite the 10 offensive players around him.

Through the first four games of the regular season, Wilkins looked the part of leader and playmaker, helping ASU to four straight victories as he threw for more than 1,000 yards and rushed for an additional 263 yards in the month of September. 

Though Wilkins' 4-0 start came against inferior competition, he appeared destined to hang onto the starting job if he could continue his level of play through a tough gauntlet featuring USC, UCLA and Colorado in the first three weeks of October.

The opportunities to face the Bruins and the Buffaloes at full strength never materialized for Wilkins, though, as he suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter of the Sun Devils' 41-20 loss against the Trojans that served as a turning point in ASU's season.

With Wilkins down, White temporarily provided a stopgap in the first start of his career against UCLA, but after breaking his foot in the fourth quarter against the Bruins, the Sun Devils were forced to hit the panic button. In the first week of fall camp, Perkins suffered a season-ending neck injury that forced true freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole into the third spot on ASU's depth chart, and suddenly, with Wilkins and White both out, the four-star recruit out of Westfield High School in Texas was thrust into the spotlight.

Entering the year, ASU had never boasted three four-star quarterback recruits on its roster (Wilkins, White, Sterling-Cole), but by mid-October, the Sun Devils' quarterback depth chart may never have looked as disastrous. 

After Wilkins added a turf toe and shoulder injury to his already hampered ankle, Sterling-Cole came the third different quarterback for ASU to start a game this season in the Sun Devils' 54-35 loss to Oregon.

In 2012, Kelly won an open quarterback competition and wound up as a three-year starter. In 2016, Wilkins outlasted his fellow competitors, and by the end of the season, wound up as the last man standing. 

With Sterling-Cole unprepared to take over ASU's offense in the middle of the season, the Sun Devils limped to the finish line behind a limping quarterback who barely practiced past the month of September.

In the early fall, hope sprang eternal for the Sun Devils, and by the time Halloween rolled around, ASU faced the scary proposition of starting three different signal-callers in the same season for the second time since 2000.

Without a quarterback capable of stressing opposing defenses through the air or on the ground, the Sun Devils dropped their last six games of the season and failed to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2010.

Twelve games after holding its first quarterback competition since 2012, ASU enters the offseason facing the very real possibility that it could be right back to square one, unsettled on who will calls the signals for the Sun Devils' offense in 2017. 

What we learned

If we learned anything about the Sun Devils' quarterback situation in 2016, it's that the uncertainty ASU entered the season with will assuredly carry over into the offseason.

Wilkins won the first four starts of his career -- but he made those starts against Northern Arizona, Texas Tech, Texas San-Antonio and Cal -- a group that includes two of the five worst defenses in the FBS and an FCS team. 

Head coach Todd Graham said after Wilkins' ankle sprain against USC that the first-year starter never practiced at full speed or with full contact, which severely hindered his development as a decision-maker and a field processor. Practice repetitions are critical for a quarterback's ability to become more situationally aware and more secure with the football, and Wilkins lost potentially more than half of the reps he would have earned if he was healthy for the duration of the regular season.

With injuries clouding the futures of White and Perkins, Sterling-Cole could enter the spring with the best opportunity to challenge Wilkins for his starting spot next season. In limited action in 2016, the freshman completed 28-of-55 attempts for 388 yards. 

However, the Sun Devils may also elect to bring in an outside challenger, as ASU is pursuing former Alabama quarterback and junior college transfer Blake Barnett, who Scout ranked as the No. 2 quarterback recruit for the Class of 2015. 

If 2016 was supposed to offer clarity for the Sun Devils at the quarterback position moving forward, the team's second straight sub .500 season did the opposite, as the future is practically as cloudy as it was a year ago at this time.

Departing personnel

All four quarterbacks on the Sun Devils' roster are underclassmen, and none of the players have announced an intent to transfer this offseason.

Returning personnel

Manny Wilkins: Wilkins' growth and development as a passer and decision-maker was obviously stunted by the ankle, toe and shoulder injuries he incurred over the course of the 2016 season, but Wilkins' somewhat reckless style lends itself to big hits. Even before suffering a season-changing ankle injury against USC, Wilkins possessed tendencies to lock in on receivers too early in his progressions, tuck and run while the pocket was still clean, drop his eyes instead of keeping them downfield on scramble attempts, and subject his body to crushing blows from defenders running at full speed. Wilkins finished the year with 10 starts and completed 197-of-311 passes (63 percent) for 2,329 yards with 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions, but the lack of practice time clearly hurt his overall capabilities. After rushing for 263 yards in the team's first four games, Wilkins finished the year with 246 rushing yards due to negative yardage from sacks, which were a product of Wilkins' limited mobility, failure to make quick decisions, and ASU's deteriorating offensive line play. 

Brady White: White lost the starting quarterback competition to Wilkins, but remained upbeat and positive about his role on the team through the first month of the season. When White's chance to enter the starting lineup came following Wilkins' injury, White's coaches and teammates commented on his preparedness and dedication to film study as two of his best qualities. While White's play was decidedly shaky in the second half of ASU's 41-20 loss against USC, he finally began to find his rhythm in the third quarter of the Sun Devils' 23-20 victory over UCLA. After a lackluster first half, White completed 5-of-7 attempts for 75 yards in the third quarter against UCLA and also finished 6-of-8 for 64 yards in the fourth quarter before suffering a season-ending foot injury. The sample size we saw from White wasn't enough to determine if he possesses a higher ceiling than Wilkins within the offense, but his performance against a veteran Bruins' secondary in the second half of that game suggested White has raw potential ASU might be able to tap. It's going to be an uphill battle for White to compete for the starting job in the future, though, as he will miss all of the Sun Devils' spring practices with a broken foot that ASU is hoping will heal in time for White to partake in fall camp. 

Bryce Perkins: At the start of fall camp, Perkins faced a tough road to the starting job as he was unofficially behind both Wilkins and White. While that didn't deter Kelly in 2012, SunDevilSource reported ASU's coaching staff approached Perkins about a potential position change after the first weekend of fall practices. SunDevilSource also reported that instead of switching positions, Perkins began the process of filing paperwork for a potential transfer. However, Perkins' process came to a halt when he suffered a season-ending neck injury at practice. After being recruited to ASU as a quarterback and spending the 2016 summer working with local quarterback coach Dennis Gile to improve on his mechanics, Perkins expressed no interest in switching positions prior to his injury. After spending much of the season in a neck brace, it's unclear where Perkins' health stands entering the offseason and whether transferring schools coming off of a severe injury is still a feasible option. Furthermore, after the way the 2016 season unfolded for the Sun Devils, Perkins may still believe he has an opportunity to compete for a starting job if ASU reopens its quarterback competition this spring.

Dillon Sterling-Cole: A four-star recruit out of Westfield High School, Sterling-Cole arrived in time for fall camp and ASU's coaching staff intended on redshirting the signal-caller to allow him a year to grow and develop within offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey's system. Sterling-Cole practiced for the first month of the regular season as the Sun Devils' scout team quarterback, learning the offenses of ASU's opponents and preparing the first-team defense for games on a weekly basis. When Wilkins suffered his ankle injury, though, Sterling-Cole was bumped up to the second-team offense, where he received limited repetitions as White moved up to speed with the first-team unit. However, when White was hurt, Sterling-Cole was thrust into action, as he began to lead ASU's offense regularly during the week as Wilkins took time to recover from various injuries. Sterling-Cole received extended action in ASU's 37-32 loss against Washington State when Wilkins suffered a shoulder injury, and made his first career-start against Oregon the following week in a 54-35 loss. Though Wilkins returned after ASU's loss against the Ducks to reassume control of the Sun Devils' offense, Sterling-Cole showcased intriguing raw potential and an NFL-caliber arm that ASU hasn't had since the days of Andrew Walter. While Sterling-Cole's inexperience hurt his ability to process certain passing concepts and defensive adjustments, as evidenced by his 1:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, it's entirely possible an offseason full of repetitions with ASU's first and second team units could put him in position to challenge Wilkins for the starting job in 2017. 


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