Jan 5, 2014; Mobile, AL, USA; Arkansas State Red Wolves defensive lineman Darius Dunaway (left) and teammates lift up the trophy after defeating the Ball State Cardinals 23-20 at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

Can the Arkansas State Red Wolves continue their recent success in 2014?

Want to get a big-time head coaching job? Try spending a year at the Arkansas State School for Coaches. Since Steve Roberts resigned, the last 3 non-interim head coaches have gone on to bigger jobs after just one season. Last year’s coach, Bryan Harsin, was offered the top job at Boise State, and he jumped at the chance to go home. The new man in charge is Blake Anderson, most recently the offensive coordinator at North Carolina, and he takes over a talented team that still has a lot of potential. Last season the Red Wolves won 8 games, and tied for the conference title at 5-2, slightly down from 20 wins and 2 outright league crowns over the previous 2 years. Both the offense, particularly the passing game, and the defense regressed a little last season, but after 2 fantastic seasons, some dropoff must be expected. Anderson’s offense at UNC improved nicely over the season, despite the loss of his starting quarterback. He could provide a shot in the arm in Jonesboro.

 

Offense

Nov 16, 2013; Jonesboro, AR, USA; Arkansas State Red Wolves running back Michael Gordon (34) rushes against the Texas State Bobcats during the first half at ASU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t unreasonable to expect some problems in the absence of graduated star quarterback Ryan Aplin, but it was a surprise to see stopgap Adam Kennedy perform less well down the stretch after a decent start. Backup Fredi Knighten saw increased action over the last couple of games as a knee injury forced Kennedy to the bench. All-conference receiver JD McKissic has 82 receptions for just 662 yards, while Julian Jones struggled along with the passing attack after a hot start. The running game, on the other hand, did the opposite. With David Oku (511 yards, 6 TDs) failing to repeat his 2012 success, the Red Wolves turned to sophomore Michael Gordon (754 yards, 10 TDs), who gave them the shot in the arm they needed over the second half of the season. Gordon’s production opened up holes for Kennedy and Knighten. Despite returning 4 starters, the offensive line must hold up its hand when blame is being apportioned for the early struggles in the ground game but they were also a factor in the second half resurgence. They also gave up 29 sacks, but some can be put on Kennedy.

With Kennedy one-and-done, the Red Wolves find themselves back where they started – with a quarterback competition. Logic would dictate that Knighten will take over as he is the most experienced, but while he’s a good runner, he hasn’t shown he can throw the ball downfield with any consistency. There are other contenders. Chandler Rogers is a senior who played well at the JUCO level, while Cameron Birse has been in the system for 2 years now. Junior Stephen Hogan is a 1-time Arkansas player of the year, while James Tabary arrives this season. The real battle is likely between Knighten and Rogers. ASU will need to find some receivers to throw to – McKissic is back, but Jones and number-3 receiver Allen Muse are gone. Tight end Darion Griswold (24-312-3) will help, but finding someone to stretch the field could really open up the offense. Gordon is back at running back, and should see a lot more of the football, but a quality reserve needs to be found with Oku gone. Unless Frankie Jackson switches back from defense, 160-pound Kendrick Daniels or Marquis Walker (if he doesn’t switch to the secondary) will be the second rusher. The lack of a big back could hinder the offense when power is needed. The offensive line could be better despite losing Steve Haunga to graduation. Center Bryce Giddens is an all-conference center, while Alan Wright and Colton Jackson, among others, have starting experience. There is a stockpile of talent on the line that should be ready to bloom this year, and with spring camp around the corner, the picture should be clearer going into August.

 

Defense

Sep 21, 2013; Memphis, TN, USA; Arkansas State Red Wolves defensive back Artez Brown (10) breaks up pass intended for Memphis Tigers defensive back Bakari Hollier (37) at Liberty Bowl Memorial. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The stats may not back it up, but the defense was pretty good last season. Sure, they struggled against the big boys on the schedule, and Troy put up 504 passing yards, but they were solid down the stretch over the team’s 5-1 finish. All-conference pick Ryan Carrethers was the star of the show at tackle, racking up a massive 93 tackles, good for second on the team, with 8 coming in the backfield. Joining him on the all-conference first team was linebacker Qushaun Lee, who racked up an even more impressive 134 tackles. The secondary wasn’t without it’s stars either, as running back-turned-cornerback Rocky Hayes and free safety Sterling Young both made the second team. Hayes had 46 tackles and 3 interceptions, breaking up 10 passes, while Young had 80 tackles, 2 picks and a couple of fumble recoveries.

So with the offense looking like it could be good, if Anderson can solve the aerial attack questions, the defense looks like it could be in even better shape, with the entire back 7 returning. Not just the starters either, almost everyone is back, with the exception of reserve middle linebacker LaAngelo Albright. Lee will be back making plays in the middle, and will have strongside linebacker Kyle Coleman riding shotgun and pitching in. Hayes and Young will lead a potentially great secondary. Artez Brown will man the other corner spot, with Andrew Tryon a decent reserve. Chris Humes is solid as the rover, while Jackson is making the ‘wolf’ (a hybrid linebacker) role his own. The major concern on defense is on the line, where only defensive end Chris Stone returns. He made 9.5 of his 47 tackles behind the line of scrimmage to lead the team. Despite the gaping Carrethers-sized hole up front, the new blood has potential. Nose tackle Dexter Blackmon, a senior who’s been a career backup, now gets his chance to start. He had 30 tackles and 3.5 sacks last season, but he lacks ballast at 268 pounds. Tackle Darrius Rosser Is bigger, but lacks Blackmon’s experience. The other end will likely be Chris Odom, who had 17 tackles and 3 sacks last year. Keep an eye on massive Austin Moreton, and also JUCO Charles Alexander, both of whom have the bulk necessary to plug the middle. Depth could be a concern though.

 

Special Teams

The Red Wolves have had a great 4-year kicker here in Brian Davis, who hit 15 of 18 field goals last season, including a 50-yard effort. He was solid on kickoffs too. Paul Jones and Luke Ferguson shared punting duties, and both had their moments. It remains to be seen whether Arkansas State will stick with this approach in 2014, or settle on a single punter. In addition to catching the lion’s share of the passes, McKissic also returned punts and kicks. He had an okay 8.3 average on the former, but averaged 30 yards per kick return, taking 1 back for a score. The coverage teams were great, while the unit blocked 4 kicks.

Davis is gone, and will be a huge loss. Jones may attempt to replace him, as might Max Coffin, who should be a punter with a name like that. This would leave Ferguson to punt, but sophomore Hunter Holmes will get a look. The rest of the special teams unit should be great again, but replacing Davis will require some good fortune.

 

Prediction

After 2 great seasons, and then a good one, the Red Wolves fanbase has high expectations for their ‘interim’ coaches. Anderson has some big questions at quarterback and on the defensive line, but this is a talented team, and it looks (currently) like only Louisiana-Lafayette stands in their way for another conference crown. But first, they have to survive a tough out-of-conference slate relatively unscathed.

 

Tags: Alan Wright Andrew Tryon Arkansas State Football Artez Brown Austin Moreton Blake Anderson Bryce Giddens Cameron Birse Chandler Rogers Charles Alexander Chris Humes Chris Odom Chris Stone Colton Jackson Darion Griswold Darrius Rosser Dexter Blackmon Frankie Jackson Fredi Knighten Hunter Holmes James Tabary JD McKissic Kendrick Daniels Kyle Coleman Luke Ferguson Marquis Walker Max Coffin Michael Gordon Paul Jones Qushaun Lee Rocky Hayes Stephen Hogan Sterling Young Sun Belt Football

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