Manny Wilkins told us it was going to be emotional.
In front of a scrum of reporters following a recent Wednesday afternoon practice, the 23-year-old looked ahead to ASU’s Senior Day matchup with the UCLA Bruins.
The red-shirt senior says walking out of the tunnel and into Sun Devil Stadium for the final time of his college career would bring tears to his eyes.
“I’m going to be very emotional. I put a lot of hard work, dedication and I grew up tremendously here. This place will forever be special to me and I know when I walk out that tunnel for the last time, it’s going to be hard to comprehend it.”
Wilkins was emotional, as promised. As the Senior Day festivities commenced on November 10, he anxiously waited behind the Pat Tillman statue. Before his name was called, first-year head coach Herm Edwards pulled in his quarterback for a lengthy embrace.
Then, for the final time in Tempe, Wilkins trotted onto the field, teary-eyed and into the welcoming arms of the ASU faithful.
While it may be hard for Wilkins to comprehend it, it’s likely even harder to accept that he’s putting the finishing touches on his Sun Devil career, an illustrious five-year swing dating back to 2014.
But don’t let the tears of his farewell tour distract you from the fact that he has ASU playing its best football in the most important month of their season.
After squeaking out a 31-28 win over the Bruins that Saturday, the Sun Devils control their own destiny in the Pac-12 South Division. If they win their remaining two games against Oregon and Arizona, they’ll be crowned the conference champions for the first time since 2013.
“We all know what the situation is,” Wilkins says. “You gotta win. We told ourselves always that November is the month you want to win and you have to win and we’re going to have to do that, but we’re going to be alright.
“When people are telling us now, ‘Oh, you’re doing really well. It was your best game. Blah, blah, blah.’ All of that stuff. X all that out. Come to work like we’re 0-9 or whatever. You have to have that attitude, you have to have that hunger to be better and we’re doing that.”
The Sun Devils have had a bit of an up-and-down year in Edwards’ first season. They opened with back-to-back wins, the latter coming against then-No.15 Michigan State in front of an electric Tempe crowd.
They coupled those two wins with two losses that were both decided by a touchdown, the first against San Diego State and the next versus Washington. They managed to then beat USC in Pasadena before dropping their next two.
Their current stretch has been their most important – a three-game winning streak that’ll be tested November 17 in Eugene, Oregon.
And through it all, through their four agonizing losses that have all been decided by seven points, the services and leadership of Wilkins have not wavered.
In his senior year, it’s been a collection of learning and growing up – “the story of a boy turning into a man,” he says – that’s allowed him to reflect on his Tempe tenure.
Wilkins has evolved into somewhat of a college football veteran. It’s a rarity, considering the ebb and flow that is college football.
In that sense, he’s a bit of an anomaly. Wilkins arrived at ASU in June 2014. Though he fielded a handful of other offers in high school, he enrolled early at ASU the summer leading into his freshman year.
He redshirted his true freshman season and did not see the field. The following year, he only accumulated 55 rushing yards on seven attempts.
He took over the starting quarterback position during his red-shirt sophomore season, the fall of 2016, after beating out Brady White in training camp. He was 20 years old.
The differences between those two players – the 20-year-old Wilkins who was just named the team’s starter and the 23-year-old leader he is now – are night and day.
It’s evident when he speaks and how he carries himself just how much he’s grown with the Sun Devils.
Take, for example, a crucial interception thrown during ASU’s emphatic win over No. 16 Utah on November 3.
Wilkins told reporters that following a crucial stop from the defense, he had an opportunity to deliver a backbreaking blow to the Utes. A touchdown there would cause Sun Devil Stadium to erupt.
But Wilkins made a mistake and was picked off. How he handled the situation is a snapshot of his growing ability to lead a football team.
“Walking off the field, instantly I knew it. I was smiling, because I knew I was going to come back out and do better because I have confidence in the guys around me that we’re going to do things right away. I told Coach Herm right away, ‘Hey, I know I made a mistake. Apologies for that. It won’t happen again. Let’s move on. Let’s keep rolling.’ I got on the phone with Coach Likens, and before he could even say anything, I told him what I saw and what I did. ‘I made a mistake. It won’t happen again. Let’s move on. Let’s go score.’ And we did it. We came out and there wasn’t anything that was holding us back after that moment. We just continued to play football and we played well.”
Regardless of what transpires in these final two weeks, Wilkins will go down as one of the best quarterbacks in Sun Devil history.
He currently ranks tenth in career passing yards with 8,048. He has a chance to leapfrog Jake Plummer, trailing 578 yards, and become the fourth-best passing quarterback in the program’s history.
In his last two years, he’s amassed 5,719 passing yards, 36 touchdowns and 13 rushing touchdowns.
Not to mention, the hiring of offensive coordinator Rob Likens marked the fourth offensive coordinator Wilkins has seen since arriving at ASU. Throw a new head coach into the mix and you’d often question how a young quarterback would respond to such drastic change.
Wilkins is just bred differently.
“It’s been great,” Wilkins says of the personnel changes. “Coach Herm has been amazing. I have a lot of good quotes from him that I’m sure I’m going to use for the rest of my life. He’s just been, truly, just a blessing. Smart guy, been around the game for a long time. He’s been where everybody in this facility that plays wants to be.”
Coach Edwards’ time with Wilkins will be short-lived, but he’s been thrilled to see what the offense has been capable of with Wilkins under center – especially in the last three weeks, where the offense has looked more and more confident every Saturday.
“We’ve been pretty good at converting third downs,” Edwards says. “That opens up your offense. It keeps the defense on the field, then the full display of your offense is shown. You can run it, you can throw it. Offenses get confidence once they run more than three plays. You can start getting into the six-play, seven-play drives. You’ve got the defense on their heels now, so that’s the key. Then we’re able to make some big plays.”
It’s unclear if Wilkins’ playing career will dip into the National Football League. He’s eyed as a potential sleeper in next spring’s NFL Draft, but is currently pursuing a degree while taking classes at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law.
Wilkins’ rocky childhood is well-documented. His father, Manny Wilkins Sr., passed away from a drug overdose when Wilkins Jr. was 10 years old.
He was expelled from a Texas high school his freshman year, and then reportedly moved nine times to five different states from fifth grade to tenth grade.
Tempe has been a constant for Wilkins; it’s been home. That’s why it is, and always will be, so special to the Novato, California native.
“I’ve been through so much, so many opportunities to just give up, so many opportunities to just accept what was being put in front of me. But that’s not how I was raised. It’s been a hell of a ride.”