Jay Dieffenbach and Doug Haller discuss ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins and whether Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer will be out of a job.
Diana Payan, The Republic |

Manny Wilkins looked at the waitress.

“Burger or wings – which one?” the Arizona State senior quarterback asked.

“They’re both good,” the waitress responded.

Wilkins is a picky eater. Even the secretaries at ASU’s football offices know this. He likes everything plain. He doesn’t mix foods. He doesn’t try different things. No need to tell him. He knows. He’s a “weirdo” when it comes to food.

“What’s your mood?” Wilkins asked the waitress.

Burger, she says.

“I’ll do a burger then,’’ Wilkins said. “And can I have it plain? Just bacon and cheese. Well done.”

It’s about two months before ASU starts practice. The Sun Devils are deep into summer workouts and I’ve invited Wilkins here, at a restaurant near campus, to discuss his college career. To help, I have brought three photos of Wilkins. Each reflect a different point of his career.

Over the next hour, the quarterback will open up, sharing details he’s never publicly shared. About how injured he was during his sophomore season, his first as a starter. About how betrayed he felt to learn ASU had brought in Blake Barnett to try to take his job. About his relationship with a fan base that’s never fully embraced him.

All of this, Wilkins insists, has put him in a perfect state entering his final season. He has persevered through four offensive coordinators. He has beaten out three quarterbacks, all of whom have left the program. He’s in the best shape of his career. Perhaps best of all, he’s in love with the woman of his dreams.

Wilkins knows: This is his time.

“I used to be, ‘Look at me,’ but now I just live my own life,’’ said the quarterback, who turns 23 in November. “I don’t, like, introduce myself (as ASU’s) quarterback. I’m Manny. That’s who I am.”

The beginning

It’s April 19, 2014. 

Although he has signed with ASU, Wilkins is still a senior at San Marin High in Novato, Calif. He is at ASU on an official visit, taking in the spring game at Sun Devil Stadium.

An azcentral photographer captures a baby-faced Wilkins on the field wearing a black “Fear the Fork” T-shirt. He is holding a black ASU cap and looking over his left shoulder, smiling as if he owns the world.

“This is confident, cocky man,’’ Wilkins said, looking at the photo. “That’s what I thought I was going to be here right away – the man. It seems like forever ago. It kind of is forever ago.”

The photo is a mix of excitement and anticipation. After his visit, Wilkins would go home, attend prom and graduate. Then he would report to Tempe, ready to battle. Taylor Kelly was the starter. Mike Bercovici was the back-up. Wilkins thought he could push – maybe leapfrog — both.

Then reality hit, especially in the weight room. San Marin didn’t have much of a weight program so Wilkins didn’t have much weight-training experience.  At ASU, he looked at his teammates. They were built. He could barely bench 135 pounds.

“I didn’t know how to do any of the lifts,’’ Wilkins said. “Power cleaning? Good night. Couldn’t do it. First power clean I did I thought my wrists were going to break.”

He spent his first season, red-shirting, trying to learn. Kelly was cool. Bercovici wasn’t.

“Berco hated me when I first got here,” Wilkins said.

(Bercovici’s response: “Hated? In a very light term, yes. I was very frustrated with Manny because I saw he was a good kid but he did everything wrong. But what’s so great about that is he had so much room to improve.”)

One thing going well at this time: Wilkins’ social life.  

“I wanted to be friends with everybody,” he said. “Wanted to get with girls all the time. I was this 18-year old kid coming to college. I didn’t have anybody blowing my phone up saying you need to be home at 11 p.m., 12 a.m. I could come home at 3 a.m. and get up at 5 and nobody’s going to say anything to me as long as I’m there.

“I was just trying to live my best life.”

The injuries

Fast forward two years. After seeing limited duty as Bercovici’s back-up, Wilkins won the starting job over Brady White and Dillon Sterling-Cole in 2016, Wilkins’ sophomore season. The Sun Devils surprised, opening with wins over Northern Arizona, Texas Tech, Texas San Antonio and California.

But Oct. 1 everything changed.

In the second quarter of a Pac-12 contest at USC, Wilkins injured his left foot trying to escape pressure. As he limped to the locker room for evaluation, an AP photographer captured Wilkins with his arms around ASU medical personnel. The quarterback’s face says everything.

“When it first happened, I thought I tore everything in my knee, just the way I fell and the way my leg landed,” Wilkins said, studying the photo.

He watched the rest of the game on crutches. Upon returning to Tempe, an MRI revealed Wilkins had torn ligaments in his ankle. Not the worst news, but enough to put him on the sideline.

Initially, ASU kept his injury quiet. At practice, as the Sun Devils prepared for a home contest against UCLA, then-coach Todd Graham had Wilkins dress as usual to throw off news reporters.

“Coach Graham didn’t want any of the media to know I wasn’t going to play,’’ Wilkins said. “Literally, my ligaments were torn in my left ankle. And he made me, like, get ready to go to practice, do all the things I normally do and he told me to jog in stretch lines and all this stuff. And I’m dying. The second (the media leaves), straight to the trainer’s table, put my boot on. I did that the whole week until Friday when it was like, ‘All right, he ain’t playing.’”

White started against UCLA, but he suffered a season-ending foot injury. That left ASU with just one healthy quarterback – Sterling-Cole, a true freshman.


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“I remember walking out of the stadium (that night) and in my head I was like, ‘Man, what are we going to do?’’’ Wilkins said. ”I’m in a boot walking to my car. And I walk by some guy – I don’t even know the guy – he was super drunk. And he goes, ‘Manny, I hope you’re playing next week because we ain’t got nobody.’”

After missing the UCLA game, Wilkins returned the next week at Colorado, getting a shot in his foot before the contest. Although he showed toughness, Wilkins had a serious problem. He couldn’t move. He got hit 11 times in a 40-16 loss.

“I couldn’t feel my left foot,” Wilkins said.

Making matters worse: Wilkins broke his right big toe. The next week he hurt his shoulder against Washington State, an injury that sidelined him for the Oct. 29 contest at Oregon. After suffering his first injury against USC, Wilkins estimates he never was better than 65 percent the rest of the season.

Not surprisingly, ASU finished 5-7, tying for fifth in the Pac-12 South. Many fans – not knowing the extent of his injuries – blamed Wilkins.

“A lot of people don’t understand: That first year my body, I sacrificed so much just to step across those white lines,’’ Wilkins said. “The only game I wasn’t prepared to play in physically was Colorado. The other games I knew I could do it. If I don’t get hurt against Washington State, land on my shoulder, we blow them out.

“The season would be so different. We started off 5-1! That’s what people forget. But then I got hurt, and we lost every single game after UCLA.”

The challenge

Nov. 25, 2017.

Wilkins throws three touchdowns to lead ASU to a 42-30 win over rival Arizona. The Sun Devils improve to 7-5, wrapping up second place in the Pac-12 South. During the postgame celebration, an azcentral photographer captures Wilkins raising the Territorial Cup high in his right hand, a look of satisfaction on his face.

“That was a great feeling,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins felt he grew his junior season, both on and off the field. But it hadn’t started that way. In fact, at one point Wilkins pushed to get his academics in order so he could graduate in December. That way, he could transfer to another school and play immediately, if necessary.

The reason: Blake Barnett.

“I’m not going to lie,’’ Wilkins said. “I felt disrespected.”

He paused.

“I have never told this story …”

One winter morning, Wilkins went to a Tempe restaurant for breakfast and couldn’t believe his eyes. Then-offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey was there with Barnett and the quarterback’s father. Lindsey introduced the two. Then Wilkins left and contacted Brady White.

“I was like, ‘Yo, I don’t know what, but there’s something fishy going on,’’ Wilkins said.

While Wilkins was stunned no one had told him about Barnett’s visit, he wasn’t concerned.

“I was like, ‘All right, the kid’s (leaving) Bama. I’m starting here, Brady’s here. There’s no way he’ll come,’” he said.

Barnett committed.

Fans went crazy.

 A former five-star high school quarterback, a starter at Alabama, was coming to Tempe – and everyone assumed he would take Wilkins’ job.

“I can’t tell you how many people were like, ‘Dude, are you going to transfer? What are you going to do?’” Wilkins said. “It was unreal.”

He seethed.

“It took me probably about a month and a half (to get over),” Wilkins said. “I wasn’t like answering coaches’ calls. I was just over them. I felt so — I just felt betrayed.”

A month later, Graham hired Alabama receivers coach Billy Napier as offensive coordinator. Like everyone else, Wilkins put together the Bama-Bama connection. That’s it, he thought. They’re forcing me out.

He met with Napier. He told the coach how he felt. How he had worked three years to get to this point and how he wouldn’t let Barnett come in and just steal his job.

Napier put his mind at ease.

“He was just honest,’’ Wilkins said. “He said, ‘I want to let you know me coming from Bama and Blake coming from Bama, it don’t got s–t to do with anything. I’m not handing anybody the job. Whoever earns it, earns it.’’’

Wilkins went to work. Even though Graham had said the same offensive principles would remain in place, ASU’s offense had an Alabama flavor. Wilkins studied. He worked his butt off. The expected quarterback competition never materialized.

Wilkins finally knew: This was his team.

The final chapter

An hour into lunch, Wilkins barely had touched his food.

“I’ll probably just heat it up at home,” he said.

He’s not proud of his initial reaction to the Barnett transfer. Ignoring coaches – “very immature,” he said. But Barnett’s arrival helped push him to a higher level. No, he wasn’t outstanding last season, but Wilkins feels he was solid, especially playing nearly all season with a broken big toe (yes, another, this one on the opposite foot), an injury that required a shot before nearly every contest.

“The most painful thing ever,” Wilkins said.

A final season remains.

Wilkins feels different, stronger. Last season he played around 195 pounds. This season he’s up around 210. Part of that stems from diet. Earlier in his career Wilkins ate In-N-Out Burger, Five Guys and pizza. Now he meal preps nearly every Sunday with girlfriend Evyn Murray.

“I can’t lie — he doesn’t cook, so it’s kind of up to me,” Murray said with a laugh. “… “There are specific things that I know he likes. He’s been pretty good about trying to branch out because before he wouldn’t eat anything green. So we’ve incorporated some green in there.”

Will fans finally embrace him?

Wilkins used to worry about it. He points to the first photo, the one snapped on his official visit. That Manny wanted to be friends with everyone. Today, if you’re not in his inner circle, he doesn’t care. Harsh? No. That’s the life of a quarterback, Wilkins said. People love you during the highs, they hate you during the lows. It’s the job.

“People are always going to find something negative, no matter what,’’ he said. “I could throw for 700 yards, break a school record, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you missed the freaking out route.’ I’ve learned to cancel all that out.”

He’s ready to put all his experience to use.

“I feel like I’ve grown so much each year,’’ said Wilkins, who’s taking classes in the Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law. “Confidence-wise, man, the way I see the game and my knowledge of the game is obviously at an all-time high. I still have room to improve. I’m not perfect. I don’t make perfect decisions. I’m not saying that.

“I just know I’m a vet in this league. And I can do some special things, especially with the guys around me. It’s just about everybody clicking at the right time.”

Contact Doug Haller at 602-444-4949 or at [email protected]. Follow him at Download and subscribe to the ASU Pick Six Podcast, available on iTunes, Stitcher and the Google Play Store.

Moving up in the record books

If Manny Wilkins repeats his 2017 numbers (3,270 yards, 20 TD passes), he’ll finish third all-time in career passing yards (8,869) and sixth all-time in career TD passes (52).

ASU’s career passing yardage leaders

10,617 – Andrew Walter (2001-04)

10,491 – Rudy Carpenter (2005-08)

8,827 – Jake Plummer (1993-96)

8,819 – Taylor Kelly (2011-14)

6,912 – Ryan Kealy (1997-00)

6,717 – Danny White (1971-73)

6,610 – Jeff Van Raaphorst (1984-86)

5,761 – Paul Justin (1987-89)

5,599 – Manny Wilkins (2014-18)

ASU’s career TD passing leaders

85 – Andrew Walter (2001-04)

81 – Rudy Carpenter (2005-08)

79 – Taylor Kelly (2011-14)

65 – Jake Plummer (1993-96)

64 – Danny White (1971-73)

48 – Mike Pagel (1978-81)

46 – Dennis Sproul (1974-77)

46 – Ryan Kealy (1997-2000)

44 – Jeff Van Raaphorst (1984-86)