Wilkins emerges as big-time talent

Manny Wilkins zips another impressive pass during 2012 Northern California Elite 11 event. Tom Hauck/ESPNHS

The Northern California quarterback prospect, who will be a junior this season, has grown up quickly in the aftermath of a parent’s death plus a move from Texas.

There was no question that Manny Wilkins of San Marin (Novato, Calif.) turned heads with his performances three weekends ago at two elite football camps in the San Francisco Bay Area, but what the 16-year-old didn’t immediately realize was one of the heads he turned was his own.

On a blustery Friday afternoon on May 18 at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, the 6-foot-2, 172-pound Wilkins entered the final drill at the Elite 11 regional quarterback camp already having impressed lead coach Trent Dilfer, other evaluators, and the assembled media analysts.

In the final drill, with Dilfer staring him down and barking out signals, and throwing into a near gale-force headwind, Wilkins was on the money with a perfect spiral on every throw.

Most everyone who witnessed his performance felt Wilkins was the best of the 11 incoming juniors who came that day and was among the best overall, including the seniors.

On Sunday in drills and in seven-on-seven tests at the Nike Football Training Camp, Wilkins’ all-around athleticism stood out among the 200 boys that competed, and again not just the juniors.

As a result, Manny was named the NFTC Top Underclassman and a member of the Oakland All-Nike Camp Team.

That’s quite an accomplishment for a young man that only played quarterback in five varsity games last season as a sophomore. He couldn’t have played immediately for the Mustangs anyway due to the CIF North Coast Section out-of-state transfer rule after moving to San Marin from Texas.

“I walked away from today with my head held high and ready to change my life in a positive way,” Manny tweeted.

In his evaluation of Wilkins, ESPNHS director of football events Brian Stumpf said Manny “certainly looked like a future star, flashing a strong and accurate arm as well as terrific athletic ability.”

“He threw the ball very well, very consistent, coachable, competitive, and athletic,” Stumpf added. “There’s a lot to like about him.”

Yes, there is. And when you find out more about him, it’s hard to believe he’s risen above a difficult childhood.

Manny’s story

Wilkins was a local standout in mighty mite and Pop Warner football in Novato, but both of his parents suffered from addictions. Then in 2006, when Manny was 10, his father, Manuel Wilkins Sr., who had a very rough and checkered life, died.

In 2008, after his mother found a job in Texas, Manny was transplanted to Missouri City (near Houston) where he would enroll at Elkins, a Class 5A Texas school.

Despite the excellent coaching and excitement about football in Texas and the bonding he had with Elkins players like Oregon-committed Chance Allen (a friendship that still endures), Manny’s family situation did not improve. In fact, because of his mother’s inability to overcome her addictions, he left home last summer after his freshman year and lived nearly a month at the home of a friend.

Family to the rescue

The fortunate part of the story for Manny is that his maternal uncle, Novato resident Chris Casanovas, and his wife, Nicki, became so concerned about their nephew that that they decided to intercede.

“My wife tracked him down,” said Casanovas, a stockbroker and Novato resident who once coached Manny in Pop Warner.

Soon thereafter, Wilkins was back in Marin County living with the Casanovas family that contains three of their own children, including a son with special needs.

“My uncle and aunt have been there for me my whole life and helped me a lot –keeping me on the right track,” Manny said. “When they offered to have me come back and live with them I felt coming back would definitely be a better environment.”

Amazing talent trying to stay humble

In Texas, Wilkins was a small fish in a huge bowl. At San Marin, despite only being a sophomore heading into his junior year, he’s the best athlete in the school – and has already established himself as one of the best ever seen in Marin County.

When the ESPNHS Cal-Hi Sports caravan tracked him down after school last week, the right-handed quarterback was punting left-footed, with three of his buddies, junior wide receiver Jason Shannon, junior running back David Marinoff, and junior wide receiver Kaden Svahlin, shagging balls.

Even with a crosswind just as strong as the one at the Elite 11 Camp, the self-taught punter hit a couple of high boomers over 50 yards in the air.

“I realize one of the keys to my success will be staying humble. A lot of people, including my uncle, have told me that,” said Wilkins in the San Marin locker room after his punting display.

Getting tutored as a signal-caller

Like a lot of Bay Area quarterbacks, including his friend and Elite11/NFTC top performer Jared Goff from nearby Marin Catholic of Kentfield, Wilkins is working with quarterback coaching guru and former Cal coach and NFL assistant Roger Theder.

“I’ve had 15 or 16 lessons with Coach Theder,” Manny said. “Working with him has helped me big time. He’s helped a lot of guys become better players, better quarterbacks and better leaders.”

Theder thinks Wilkins has only scratched the surface.

“He had some mechanical problems that I fixed, and he’s never had a lot of individual coaching, so there are better quarterbacks, but I like him. He throws the ball really well,” Theder told Cal-Hi Sports. “The great thing is Manny is going to get better and better and better because he listens and he’s really a great kid.”


Being long and lean with a wingspan of someone 6-foot-7 has made Wilkins a pretty good hoopster. This past season, despite not playing for a couple of years, the Mustangs’ forward led the team in rebounding with a 6.0 per game average while also adding 5.2 points a game.

“He’s the most versatile player on the team, can play any position,” said basketball coach and San Marin athletic director Craig Pitti.

Summer plans

Wilkins had already attended a few camps prior to the Elite 11, must notably the Prep Football America event in Hayward where he posted a personal best 4.75 in the 40-yard dash and the National Underclassmen combine in Pleasant Hill where he was awarded Best Underclass quarterback and was on the team that won the air raid competition.

This summer, he is definitely going to the San Diego State and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo camps, and the Nevada camp in Reno where former Marin Catholic, college and pro quarterback Nick Rolovich is the offensive coordinator. He also hopes to attend other Pac-12 camps, including Cal’s, where one of his mentors, senior defensive lineman Kendrick Payne, is enrolled.

Goals for the future

Besides improving on the gridiron, Manny knows another key to his success lies in the classroom.

“One of my goals is improving my study habits and staying more focused in academics, since a big part of college is study habits,” said the 2.7 GPA student-athlete whose favorite subject is history.

“Yes, I’ve overcome some adversity, but I’m hoping for a bright future, and not just being a football player but someone successful in life.”

Pitti is certainly in Wilkins’ corner, but wants to see actions follow words.

“He’s overcome a decent amount of adversity but Manny has a lot of people behind him. If he’s going to rise above what he’s come through, it’s going to be by following through.”

If the overall follow-through can match the release of that perfect spiral, we may be hearing a lot about Manny Wilkins next season and beyond.

Corrections or comments? Email Mark.Tennis@espn.com. Follow Harold Abend on twitter @HaroldAbend