Edwards sighs over lost desert quarterbacks
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Edwards sighs over lost desert quarterbacks

Arizona State's new coach faces task of keeping talented players home

Photo: Herm Edwards

Herm Edwards recently appeared on a Michigan State-based sports talk radio show. Always engaging, insightful and entertaining, Arizona State's new football coach has been one of my favorites to deal with over the years.

We all know him for his memorable lines, most notably this one from his time with the New York Jets:

"YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME!" It's a line repeated so often it was the natural title to his 2005 book.

The interview was on “The Drive with Jack and Tom” in Lansing, Mich. Jack Ebling, the host, asked Edwards about the Spartans traveling to Arizona State for the second game of the season on Sept. 8 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe.  Ebling noted Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke was recruited out of ASU’s backyard, Phoenix’s Pinnacle High.

“Yeah, I know a lot about that guy; got away obviously,” said Edwards with a sigh.

Herm Edwards on facing Michigan State and Brian Lewerke

Losing such a productive college player is a touchy subject with many coaches, but Edwards’ note of resignation was in contrast to coaches that don’t suffer fools – think Saban, Nick, or Belichick, Bill. They would have responded in a defensive tone, reminding anyone that he wasn’t the ASU coach when Lewerke committed to leave the state.

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But that’s not Edwards’ personality. He understands why Arizona State and Arizona fans, the desert state’s two Pac-12 schools, are frustrated. After all, Lewerke is not alone among talented quarterbacks to leave the state’s growing talent base.

Lewerke, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound redshirt junior, led the Spartans to a 10-3 record last season. He threw for 2,793 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions and ran for another 559 yards with five TDs.

ASU doesn’t play North Carolina State, but Ryan Finley out of Paradise Valley in Phoenix, is another Power 5 starting quarterback.

He makes his 27th career start for the Wolfpack in the season opener against Football Championship Subdivision power James Madison on Sept. 1 at Carter-Finley Stadium. Finley threw for 3,514 yards and 17 touchdowns with six interceptions last season after totaling 3,059 with 18 touchdowns and eight picks in 2016.

“Arizona hasn’t been able to close the borders when it comes to high school quarterbacks,” said Brad Cesmat, CEO of Sports360Az.com that features the Brad Cesmat Show. “Brett Hundley left Chandler for UCLA. Finley and Lewerke bolted.”

Others Cesmat mentioned were Class of 2018 signees Brock Purdy (Iowa State) and Tyler Shough (Oregon) from Arizona high schools. Three early commitments from in the Class of 2019 are Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma), Jacob Conover (BYU) and Spencer Brasch (Cal); one from the Class of 2020 is Jack Miller (Ohio State).

Maybe that’s why Edwards sighed, but he can’t be blamed for a trend that pre-dates him.

Cesmat added, “Kyle Allen (Texas A&M and Houston) and Connor Brewer (Texas, Arizona and Virginia) went to Texas schools and it didn’t quite work out. When will ASU or Arizona be able to convince top-flight, in-state QBs to stay home? Your guess is as good as mine.”

Lewerke was a Class of 2015 recruit that Rivals.com ranked a 4-star prospect and the No. 9 pro-style quarterback in the nation. His Rivals profile listed his interest in ASU as “none” and didn’t make an official visit despite a scholarship offer.

Rivals.com ranked Finley a 3-star prospect without a national QB ranking in the Class of 2013. ASU didn’t offer him a scholarship before he signed with Boise State, according to his Rivals profile.

Hindsight, of course, is 20-20 when grading Graham’s recruiting failures based on Lewerke and Finley having success elsewhere, but missing too many times is what costs coaches their jobs.

Lewerke and Finley are not only productive players on the NFL radar, they emphasize they found a home despite having to leave their habitat.

“He’s a very productive football player,” said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio at the Big Ten media days. “What he brings to the table, though, is the ability to stay calm and collected in times of uncertainty. That's what was very impressive from day one when he started out there as a true redshirt freshman quarterback in '16 before he was injured that last season.

“He has the ability to get out of problems. He doesn't take himself too seriously, which sometimes is a positive as well. And I think he has a great future ahead of him.”

Prior to N.C. State, Finley was on track for success at Boise State until he suffered a broken ankle in the third game of the 2015 season. Brett Rypian, who was then a true freshman and is the nephew of Washington Redskins two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Mark Rypian, came on with a hot hand to finish the season.

But once Eli Drinkwitz left his position as Boise State’s offensive coordinator for a Power 5 OC job at that N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren offered, Finley followed him to the ACC school.

“My path at Boise wasn’t easy, getting hurt when I got there and getting hurt again once I was the starter,” Finley said at the ACC media days. “I never got in a rhythm. I’m thankful for opportunity to come to N.C. State. Coach Drinkwitz and Coach Doeren gave me an opportunity. I feel like I’ve gotten a second chance at college football and I’m trying to make the best of it.”

Meanwhile, the Sun Devils return Manny Wilkins (Novato, Calif.) as a senior starter. Redshirt sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole (Houston) is competing for the starting nod. However, Graham deserves credit for signing a homegrown 4-star quarterback in his Class of 2017, although Ryan Kelley of Chandler Basha hasn’t made an impact yet.

If Lewerke plays well against Arizona State, a certain section of Sun Devil Stadium may be loud enough to remind Edwards that Lewerke got away.

At the Big Ten media days Lewerke offered this: “A lot of my high school friends will be there wearing Michigan State gear.”

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I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055

Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu

-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.


Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom spent the bulk of his career in San DIego writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has covered NCAA Tournaments, Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, the NBA Finals and the World Series in a career that included writing for Voice of San Diego, the San Diego Hall of Champions and Chargers.com. He contributes to the Detroit Free Press, Raleigh News & Observer, MLB.com, Rivals.com and the National Football Foundation's Football Matters. He won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003. USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter presented its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. It explains Duffy Daugherty's pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer: "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."