Who will start? ASU football searches for clarity at the quarterback position

Dillon Sterling-Cole appears to be a front-runner in ASU’s quarterback competition. (Photo by Matthew Andujo/Cronkite News)

Freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels turned heads with his feet during ASU spring practices. (Photo by Matthew Andujo/Cronkite News)

Ethan Long is one of three Arizona State freshmen involved in a four-man quarterback competition. (Photo by Matthew Andujo/Cronkite News)

Joey Yellen is one of three Arizona State freshmen involved in a four-man quarterback competition. (Photo by Matthew Andujo/Cronkite News)

TEMPE – Few positions in college sports garner more attention, criticism and praise than a university’s starting quarterback. Typically the face of the team and invariably the program, the demands anointed to a team’s starting quarterback can be taxing.

With a void at the position following the departure of three-year starter Manny Wilkins, coach Herm Edwards and the rest of the ASU coaching staff have a tall task ahead of them as they look to identify not only the talent but the mental toughness necessary to succeed at the sport’s most high-profile position. With less than a month until the Sun Devils kick off their 2019 season, the pressure to name a starter only intensifies.

“Who can lead the team,” Edwards said when asked what quality will help clarify the quarterback position. “We have some very good candidates there, a lot of youth and not a lot of experience. The last time I checked, the only way to get experience is to play. Someone’s going to have to go play, and whoever we determine that to be we’re going to throw him out there and he’ll have to play.”

Edwards has a host of intriguing options, bringing in freshmen Jayden Daniels, Joey Yellen and Ethan Long to compete with last season’s backup Dillon Sterling-Cole. All four took snaps under center at practices just a few weeks ago during ASU’s spring session. Whether it was Sterling-Cole’s elite arm strength, or Daniel’s impressive speed, each quarterback displayed some of the unique traits that make them legitimate options to start week one for the Sun Devils.

“Our offense is set up in such a way that it can accommodate two very different types of quarterbacks,” said offensive coordinator Rob Likens. “It’s set up that way because of injuries. I think that if you’ve set up your offense one way and that’s all you can do is one thing and that guy goes down, I think you’re in trouble.”

At those spring practices, Sterling-Cole and Daniels played well enough to earn the majority of first team reps and establish themselves as the two likeliest options to start. Although the two have relatively different play styles, with Sterling-Cole more of the traditional pocket passer compared to Daniels and his dual-threat capabilities, each have impressed in their individual growth as well as their ability to uplift and improve the players around them.

Sterling-Cole especially has caught the eye of coaches and players alike. A redshirt junior, much of his time at ASU has been spent backing up Wilkins. His most substantial playing time came in 2016, when the Sun Devils traveled up to Eugene to face the Oregon Ducks. Sterling-Cole started in place of an injured Wilkins and proceeded to go 21 for 38 for 302 yards with two touchdowns (one passing, one running) and three interceptions, including a back-breaking, red zone interception late in the fourth quarter.

Yet with Wilkins now in the NFL as a member of the Green Bay Packers, Sterling-Cole is the only quarterback on the ASU roster with any actual college football experience.

“I’ve seen (Dillon) really improve his reads, getting the offense down,” Likens said. “I saw him maturing as a leader, maturing in how he prepares and approaches practice on a daily basis. The day Manny (Wilkins) walked out of the building you could see on Dillon like ‘This is going to be my responsibility, even if I’m not the starter, it’s my responsibility to teach these guys the way because they don’t know the way and I’m the only one here in this room that’s done all of this before.'”

Sterling-Cole’s main competition for snaps appears to be Daniels, who enrolled at ASU after a standout high school career that saw him set a number of California state records as well as lead the Cajon Cowboys to a CIF 4A championship in 2017. A four-year varsity starter, Daniels was near the top of almost every recruiting list, including the No. 1 spot among dual-threat quarterbacks, according to 24/7 Sports, and comes to ASU as the most high-profile recruit of Edward’s short tenure.

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For Daniels, his playing time will likely be less contingent on his natural talent and instead on his ability to grasp the complexities of a college playbook. As he adjusts to everything that comes with beginning your first semester of college, Daniels has made a strong impression as he works to prove his readiness.

“Just very composed,” Likens said. “Doesn’t panic in the pocket. I really liked his ability to stay in the pocket. He’s such a good athlete, it’s very easy for him to take off and run but it doesn’t look like he’s ever looking to take off and run. He’s always looking to get the ball downfield. That’s what I think makes athletic quarterbacks even that more special. He’s a passing quarterback that just happens to be a really good athlete.”

With fall practices underway, the ASU coaching staff has remained coy on who currently holds poll position on the starting quarterback job. As the team prepares to embark on its annual preseason journey to Payson for Camp Tontozona, Edwards provided even more intrigue to the team’s most pressing question.

“I think when we come off of Kush Mountain, everything will come into focus,” Edwards mused. “That’s why you go up there, the light air you can breathe, the trees and all that stuff, you gain knowledge up there. Hopefully we’ll know by then.”

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