The 2018 season will be the fourth at Arizona State for Manny Wilkins. It will also be the fourth time the 6’3″ quarterback from California will be working with a new offensive coordinator.
Wilkins, who took over the starting job last season, is getting ready to lead the Sun Devils against North Carolina State in the Dec. 29 Hyundai Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. His offensive coordinator who helped get him and his team to the bowl game, Billy Napier, has already committed to take over as the new head coach at Louisiana-Lafayette next season.
The grinch who stole Christmas also snatched Napier. On Dec. 5, ASU announced that Napier had been promoted to associate head coach and offensive coordinator for the 2018 season. Ten days later, Napier let Sun Devil fans know he was leaving for Bayou Country.
To make matters worse, Wilkins’ head coach, the man who recruited him out of Marin High School in California, will also be gone next season. Todd Graham was let go immediately after defeating rival University of Arizona in the season finale, replaced by former NFL player and coach, Herm Edwards.
That’s just the latest round of upheaval in a program that has its players adjusting to a new coaching staff season-to-season for the last couple of years. Wilkins was mentored by Mike Norvell, one of the best offensive coordinators in the country, but Norvell left after the 2015 season to become head coach at Memphis. Chip Lindsey replaced Norvell, but lasted just one season before leaving for Auburn to become the Tigers’ coordinator.
Graham has had to deal with unusually high staff turnover the last two seasons. In fact, there are no assistant coaches left from his original staff when he took over in 2012.
Edwards tried to retain defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, but says Bennett declined, citing health and personal issues. So, with just three assistant coaches on board, Edwards has some serious hiring to do. Dave Christensen, who served as a consultant this season, has accepted the role of offensive line coach, and John Simon will continue as running backs coach.
His first new hires were just announced. Antonio Pierce will take over as linebackers coach and Joe Connolly is the new head coach of sports performance. Pierce comes from the prep ranks where he was head coach at Long Beach Poly and Connolly was hired away from University of Massachusetts where he was the assistant athletics director for sports performance.
Wilkins brought his team back this year from the disappointment of back-to-back losing seasons to post a 7-5 record and a tie with Arizona for second place in the Pac-12 Conference. And Napier was a big part of his ability to do that.
Fortunately, he’s going to feel much more comfortable with this new OC. Actually, it’s not even fair to say that he’s new. Rob Likens, who was just promoted from his role as wide receivers’ coach, will be the new offensive coordinator next season. And since he also functioned as the co-coordinator with Napier, the adjustment should be pretty seamless.
Graham added Likens to his staff right after the 2016 season, hiring him away from Kansas, where Likens had been the offensive coordinator for the previous two years. Prior to Kansas, Likens was at Cal where he served as assistant head coach and passing coordinator.
But that doesn’t mean Likens won’t be making changes now that he’s on his own, able to do things his way. But at least there is a relationship already established between the two key ingredients in the offense.
That assumes, of course, that Likens does’t decide to follow Napier out the door. There’s a long off-season ahead and plenty of time for more change.
But that’s not something Manny Wilkins wants to even think about.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)