After challenging college career, Manny Wilkins gets to work behind his former ‘coach,’ Aaron Rodgers
GREEN BAY — Manny Wilkins knew how what he was about to say was going to sound.
“I don’t want to be a fanboy,” he said with a smile. And then, he couldn’t help himself.
Wilkins and Aaron Rodgers first crossed paths in 2013. Wilkins was a high-school senior from San Marin High School in Novato, Calif., and Arizona State commit taking part in the Elite 11 quarterback camp. And Rodgers was the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl champion and NFL MVP, working at the high-profile camp.
Last week, the two got reacquainted when the Packers’ rookies joined the veterans for the final week of Phase II of the offseason program and Wilkins made his way into the Packers’ quarterbacks room, where he found the future Pro Football Hall of Famer.
As organized team activity practices kick off this week with the start of Phase III, Rodgers, who’s already taken a shine to his latest protégé, can expect the undrafted free-agent quarterback to be watching his every move and following him everywhere inside — and maybe even outside — Lambeau Field
“I’m not just saying this because I’m here, but I grew up in the Bay Area, so I’ve been a fan since he was at Cal,” Wilkins said of Rodgers. “When I was going through the Elite 11 process, he was one of our counselors and there were some times where I got some coaching from him. He was in the league for a few years at that point, so it was really cool to get that experience.
“I don’t want to be a fanboy, but in my eyes, he does things no other quarterback can do. Obviously, he’s the leader of this football team and has been for years. That’s the biggest thing about coming into a spot like this: You’ve got to look at the guys who’ve been here a long time, follow in their footsteps — in the building, outside the building, on the field — while still being your own person.”
‘Not here to be your friend’
While the two quarterbacks’ paths to the NFL aren’t similar — Rodgers, of course, was in the conversation as the No. 1 overall pick in 2005 before falling to No. 24; Wilkins went undrafted after a knee injury in his final college snap, the Sun Devils’ Las Vegas Bowl loss to Fresno State — they do share a few qualities: They’re both hypercompetitive, can make plays inside and outside the pocket, avoid interceptions like the plague and have natural leadership skills.
“I think the biggest thing that I’ve really learned is that when you’re a leader, you’re not always going to be liked. I’m not here to be your friend,” Wilkins said. “When we cross those white lines, this is a business at the end of the day. We’ve got to get the job done and win football games. I know there’s moments when guys take coaching differently. Some guys might need a pat on the butt and you put your arm around them, and some guys need you to rip them a little bit to get them going.”
First, the 6-foot-2, 193-pound Wilkins must make the team, of course. And he’ll certainly has his work cut out for him making the Packers’ 53-man roster, with DeShone Kizer and Tim Boyle as the incumbent backups behind Rodgers.
Kizer, acquired last offseason in a trade with the Cleveland Browns, struggled in his limited regular-season action last year when Rodgers went down with a knee injury in the opener and a concussion in the finale, but he started 15 games for the Browns in 2017 and the team remains intrigued by his potential. Boyle was one of the pleasant surprises in camp with his laser arm and made the team despite an unremarkable college career.
Wilkins, though, is hardly afraid of competition. After redshirting his first year at ASU and then sitting behind senior Mike Bercovici, Wilkins won the starting job as a redshirt sophomore in 2016. It would be the first of three quarterback battles he’d win, including in 2017, when highly touted ex-Alabama starter and 5-star recruit Blake Barnett transferred to ASU expecting to be the Sun Devils’ starter. Instead, Wilkins beat him out and kept the job.
“Quite honestly, it wasn’t close,” Arizona State offensive coordinator Rob Likens, who was the Sun Devils’ wide receivers coach and pass-game coordinator at the time, said in a telephone interview. “He didn’t flinch, he didn’t complain. He didn’t say, ‘Oh, here we go again. How many quarterback battles am I going to have to go through here to prove myself before you guys believe in me?’ He never did any of that. He just came to work every day. It wasn’t close. He just beat (Barnett) out.
“He doesn’t shy away from competition. He’s a fighter. And he doesn’t expect things to be handed to him. That’s the biggest thing. Having been through those quarterback battles here in college, whether people are doubting him or he’s having to drown out the noise of outside stuff — media, fans, whatever — he’s used to all that. He’s done that. That’s not going to bother him.”
What did bother Wilkins — or at least affect his production — was having to deal with upheaval on the Sun Devils’ offensive staff. While the arrival of ex-NFL head coach Herm Edwards and Likens’ promotion to offensive coordinator helped Wilkins get more NFL-ready last season, the constant change under previous head coach Todd Graham wasn’t ideal.
“You’ve got to understand: He had four quarterback coaches and four different offenses in four years,” Likens said. “I don’t know of any quarterback that’s going to excel in that situation. I can’t even think of one across the country who had to endure that. Quarterback’s the hardest position in all of sports, in my opinion. To have four different guys telling him four different ways to do it, I can’t imagine the confusion the kid has had. No quarterback plays their best in their first year in the system. He’s never had the chance to play two years in the same system.”
Likens admits that he and the headstrong Wilkins did not hit it off right away, but after an Oct. 18 loss at Stanford, the two came together and talked about the offense — what worked, what didn’t, and what plays Wilkins felt best about. After all of the different playbooks he’d seen in his first four-plus years at Arizona State, Wilkins finally had one he felt comfortable in — and it showed.
Over the final five regular-season games, Wilkins completed 82 of 131 passes (62.6 percent) for 1,097 yards with seven touchdowns and three interceptions as the Sun Devils won four of their last five, including wins over USC, UCLA and rival Arizona. The lone loss was a 31-29 defeat at Oregon.
“He’ll even tell you, we had kind of a rocky start to our relationship – and I understand it, because here I am the fourth guy coming into his life telling him what to do. But we really clicked about a third of the way into the season,” Likens said. “I brought him in after the Stanford game and I wiped off all the pass plays on our board and said, ‘All right, we’re going to revamp our entire pass game. Tell me what you like, and that’s what we’re going to run.’
“I trusted him, he trusted me and from that point, our offense started to take off. What’s great is, he can communicate to you (and say), ‘Coach, this is what I think I can do well, this is what I’m really not comfortable with.’ A lot of guys don’t have the confidence to communicate that to his coach.”
Wilkins, who accounted for 71 career touchdowns (51 passing, 20 rushing) and left ASU as the school’s fifth-leading passer in history, likely would have been picked on Day 3 of last month’s NFL Draft if not for the torn medial collateral ligament he suffered in his right knee in the bowl game, on the final play of his college career. Surgery kept him from taking part in the NFL scouting combine in February, but he was cleared in time for ASU’s March 27 on-campus pro day, where he threw the ball well.
His film and workout piqued the Packers’ interest, and they used one of their top-30 pre-draft visits on him, bringing him to Green Bay to meet with the offensive coaches.
“So we got a chance to really sit down with him, watch a lot of tape with him. I thought he was a pretty impressive guy,” said first-year head coach Matt LaFleur, whose Packers were one of six teams to make an offer to Wilkins. “He definitely has some of those traits that you look for in a quarterback, but he’s at the bottom now. It’s time for him to develop and really learn what we’re all about.”
LaFleur said he and Wilkins worked on some of the young quarterback’s “quick-game footwork” during the rookie camp, and Likens said he thinks Wilkins’ skill set will mesh well with what the Packers will do in LaFleur’s scheme. As an added bonus, Wilkins did things last season that fewer and fewer college quarterbacks are doing nowadays: Line up under center, and call plays in the huddle.
“Once we put him under center a little bit and watched him with his play-action game, which he hadn’t had to do in the past,” Likens replied when asked when he thought Wilkins was a legitimate NFL prospect. “And seeing his ability to huddle up an offense — which is a lost art, where quarterbacks huddle and spit the play out. You’d be amazed at how many quarterbacks nowadays can’t do that, because everything is hand-signaled from the sideline.
“Herm made me do that to get him prepared (for the NFL). And one of the quarterback coaches from an NFL team told me, ‘I really think he can do it, because we can see him doing things that we have in our offense.’”