TEMPE, Ariz. -- Often quarterback competitions are more like coronations, when everyone knows who's going to win the job -- think UCLA last year. If not that, observers often pick up cues, both from watching practices -- performances and how reps are portioned -- and from chatting with other players and coaches -- think Marcus Mariota at Oregon in 2012.
But if we've learned anything from Arizona State QB competitions under coach Todd Graham, it's that one shouldn't count ones pitchforks before they've... er, fully trifurcated? No one in 2012 thought Taylor Kelly was going to beat out Mike Bercovici and Michael Eubank until Graham made his ultimate decree, and even then immediate speculation was the decision wasn't written in ink.
When the Sun Devils conclude spring practices on April 16, their three-man QB competition is almost certainly going to remain just that -- a still open battle between sophomore Manny Wilkins and redshirt freshmen Bryce Perkins and Brady White. For one, new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey is just getting the lay of the land after shipping across the country from Southern Miss. Further, the typically open Sun Devils have closed much of their spring practices, making it more difficult to read the entrails.
"I think we can win with any of the three," said Lindsey, who was generous in his praise of all three candidates.
An interview with Wilkins reveals little. His expression and body language doesn't change when gently prodded about the competition. The outgoing owner of a bushy beard, firm handshake and impeccable eye contact knows his talking points well.
"That's not for me to speak on -- that's for the coaches," he said. "My job is to go out there and elevate the other 10 guys on the field and make sure I'm leading. I think I'm doing a good job of leading and moving the ball down the field."
Wilkins almost perfectly parrots what Graham said before spring practices, and what Lindsey said after Wednesday's workout -- "It's really who brings the other 10 guys on the field with him," he said.
Perkins, younger brother of former UCLA running back Paul Perkins, is the best athlete. Wilkins is a pure dual threat. White is more of a pocket passer, though he's capable of tucking the ball or running a competent zone-read.
As for how each fits into Lindsey's offense, that's more about fitting the offense around the eventual winner. Graham tapped Lindsey to replace Mike Norvell, hired to be Memphis' head coach, because Lindsey's offense is essentially what the Sun Devils ran under Graham/Norvell. There haven't been wholesale changes to terminology and concepts this spring, which has shortened the Getting-to-Know-You period.
If anything is going to change, it's likely to be more emphasis on running the ball, even with four new starting offensive linemen.
"The philosophy is really the same -- a lot of dink and dunk, quick passes, then take a shot downfield," Wilkins said. "Really, we're focused on running the ball. We've got two very talented backs and our line is powerful up front. I think the difference is running the football a little bit more and a little bit more quick game."
When you cut to the chase, quarterbacks are charged with making plays and not making mistakes. While the Sun Devils did an adequate job of protecting the football last year -- their 19 turnovers ranked fifth in the conference -- they were awful in the red zone, their touchdown percentage ranking 11th in the conference and 108th in the nation.
When a team loses three games by a total of six points and suffers through a pattern of folding in the fourth quarter, those wasted red zone opportunities stand out.
"Not making mistakes leads to making big plays," Wilkins reasoned.
The Sun Devils open on Sept. 3 against Northern Arizona, an FCS team. That will give whoever wins the job a preseason contest to increase his comfort level. Then Texas Tech comes to Sun Devil Stadium, which is getting a significant face lift this offseason. That game should be revealing.
As it is, it seems unlikely we'll know who will line up behind center until late August.
Said Lindsey, "We're just letting this thing play out. We're not living or dying on each day, although I'll say each day has importance to it."