(Photo: Gabrielle Mercer/WCSN)
It’s a new week for Todd Graham and the Arizona State football team, and with that, comes all new uncertainty surrounding starting quarterback Manny Wilkins, as has been the case for the last four weeks.
Wilkins was knocked out of ASU’s 37-32 loss to Washington State on Saturday on the Sun Devils’ second possession of the game. His injury was described as a shoulder stinger.
“There is not much of any update as of now,” Graham said. “Obviously, he got pretty banged up so he will be on a day-to-day and a week-to-week basis.”
Graham then turned to true freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole – one of five Arizona State quarterbacks to complete a pass this season – to lead the offense in the wake of Wilkins’ injury. Sterling-Cole entered the spring as the projected fourth stringer, then was redshirted to start the season, with the hope of any immediate playing time looking bleak.
Sterling-Cole’s redshirt was burned following Brady White’s season ending foot injury against UCLA on October 8.
He entered the game against the Cougars in relief for the injured Wilkins and struggled to get up to speed, completing seven of his 16 attempts for 86 yards. Regardless, Graham commended his ability to adapt on the fly.
“He doesn’t have the foundation or a strong number of first-team reps through the summer and spring ball,” Graham said. “I thought he did a solid job and he got better as the game went on. I was really proud of the effort that he went out there and gave. Dillon made some fantastic throws. Once he got a few completions under his belt, he got better as the game progressed.”
Above all else, Graham made sure to credit the creativity of offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and the execution of the special packages. Given the state of the quarterback position, he viewed the work of running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage as instrumental.
Ballage and Richard combined for 119 and two touchdowns on 24 carries.
“Kalen [Ballage] and Demario [Richard] worked a lot with our different packages and special plays. Using them for our Sparky and Moose formations really helped us,” Graham said. “Coach Lindsey did a great job with creating versatility. One of the challenges with a new quarterback is the lack of flexibility with plays because you don’t have the chance to master a lot of them.”
In addition to the use of unique packages, the Sun Devils needed the contributions of the special teams to try to erase a 37-21 deficit in the fourth quarter.
It was wide receiver and returner Tim White who came up big, retuning a punt 70 yards for a touchdown. Graham called him one of the toughest players he’s ever coached on Monday.
“He’s another guy that’s been banged up. I mean he had to go in after he missed part of the first quarter, absolutely courageous,” Graham said. “He is one of the toughest players I’ve ever coached. That punt return was phenomenal, not just by Tim, it was an absolutely extraordinary effort by him, but also the blocking and the execution of our guys. That was a pretty incredible play and Tim is a very courageous performer and player.”
As the ailing Devils prepare to face Oregon, Graham made one thing certain on Monday – last year’s 61-55 triple-overtime loss in Tempe isn’t weighing on anyone’s mind.
“I don’t think our guys think about last year very much,” Graham said. “Obviously, they are a very talented team offensively. Their wide receiver core is great and they probably have the best running back core in the conference. Offensively they are explosive and they can really hurt you, but their defense has struggled. They are very dynamic on special teams. (Charles) Nelson is the best punt returner and kick returner that we will face. Obviously, it will be a difficult place to play, but we have to get on the road and play well.”