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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 106: Arkansas State

Yeah, these wolves are cute... now. They'll grow into mean, fierce, killing machines.

Arkansas State, like the rest of the Sun Belt, enters each season with one goal in mind: win the Sun Belt, and in the process land one of the conference’s two guaranteed bowl births. Unfortunately for the Red Wolves, it’s difficult to realize this goal when stuck in neutral. There is something to be said for consistency, however, even if it’s consistent mediocrity. While last year’s team slipped to 4-8, Arkansas State won at least five games in each season from 2005-8, yet remained unable to earn a bowl invitation. I understand that success is relative, and A.S.U. is not a program that figures into the national picture, but how long can the program remain satisfied with second-tier finishes in the nation’s weakest conference?

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Jonesboro, Ark.

Nickname
Red Wolves

Returning starters
8 (4 offense, 4 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 87

2009 record
(4-8, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 102

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    at Auburn
  • Sept. 11
    at La.-Lafayette
  • Sept. 18
    La.-Monroe
  • Sept. 25
    at Troy
  • Oct. 2
    Louisville
  • Oct. 9
    at North Texas
  • Oct. 16
    at Indiana
  • Oct. 23
    Florida Atlantic
  • Nov. 2
    Middle Tennessee
  • Nov. 13
    Western Kentucky
  • Nov. 20
    at Navy
  • Nov. 27
    at F.I.U.

Last year’s prediction

The Red Wolves have an experienced, able quarterback; one of best backs in school history; the best defensive player in the conference; and a good enough back seven to compete against the mediocre Sun Belt offenses. All in all, I’m putting the Red Wolves right alongside Florida Atlantic – which I believe has a little more potential – as the second-best teams in the Sun Belt, though a gap does exist between A.S.U. and Troy. Not a knock: I think Troy will be very good. I predict Arkansas State to finish 7-5, the program’s first seven-win season since 1987, and be eligible for one of the Sun Belt’s four bowl tie-ins.

2009 recap

In a nutshell A disappointing season for Arkansas State, a team I thought very capable of earning a second-place finish in the Sun Belt. It didn’t turn out that way… though it could have. The Red Wolves lost five games by eight points or less, all over a six-week span from Sept. 26 through Nov. 7. At that point, with a 2-6 mark, the season was over. And Arkansas State played like it over the next two weeks, losing to Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee State by a combined 32-73 margin. The most disappointing part? On paper, this was the most talented team of the Steve Roberts era at Arkansas State. When considering all that lost talent, could A.S.U. finish the 2010 season anywhere but in the bottom 20 on the Countdown?

High point A two-game winning streak to end the year, regardless of the fact that the victories came over Western Kentucky and North Texas. At least the pair allowed Arkansas State to leave the season with a small sense of accomplishment to build upon entering off-season workouts and spring practice: An Oct. 24 win over Florida International was sandwiched by a quartet of losses coming by a combined total of 20 points.

Low point Those five losses by eight points or less. In one, a 30-27 loss to Troy, Arkansas State held a fourth-quarter lead. The Red Wolves outscored their opponent in the fourth quarter in each of the other four defeats, though late comebacks stand for naught when trailing by double-digits entering the final frame.

Tidbit Arkansas State has outscored its opponents in a season only once since 1989. That came in 2008, when the Red Wolves scored 324 points while allowing 285. Though A.S.U. has been outscored by less than 10 points four times over this span (1989, 2005, 2009), it has also been outscored by 100 points or more 13 times, with a high of a 272-point scoring differential in 1992. Believe it or not, that was the lone season the program was led by Ray Perkins, the former Alabama coach. You know what they say: it’s not the X’s and O’s, it’s the Jimmy’s and Joe’s.

Former players in the N.F.L.

7 CB Marcus Brown (Seattle), DE Alex Carrington (Buffalo), S Tyrell Johnson (Minnesota), TE David Johnson (Pittsburgh), FB Oren O’Neal (Oakland), CB Daylan Williams (Atlanta), DE Corey Williams (Detroit).

Arbitrary top five list

Most famous Wolfs
1. Dick. Creator of the “Law & Order” television series.
2. Howlin’. Famous blues musician.
3. Ron. Former general manager of the Green Bay Packers.
4. Warner. Sportscaster known for going to the videotape.
5. Joe. Former center for the Hornets, among other teams.

Coaching

Steve Roberts (Ouachita Baptist ’87), 41-55 after eight years with the Red Wolves. Only once prior to last fall had the Red Wolves finished with less than five wins in a season under Roberts, a 3-8 mark in 2004. That makes last season’s finish – given Arkansas State’s recent commendable play and the amount of talent on the roster – all the more confounding. Though Arkansas State has yet to break the six-win barrier under Roberts, having finished with that total on four different occasions, one must appreciate the improvement the program has seen under Roberts when taking into account how poorly it fared during its first 10 years in the F.B.S. Only once in that first decade did A.S.U. finish a season with more than five wins (a 6-5 mark in 1994); the Red Wolves actually averaged less than three victories a season from 1992-2001, and lost at least seven games nine times. So it was under these circumstances that Roberts took the A.S.U. job, and, despite last season’s disappointment, the program is much better for it. This season, his ninth, will provide Roberts with an opportunity to return Arkansas State to that six-win range. Prior to being hired at A.S.U. in 2002, Roberts spent two seasons as the head coach at Northwestern State (2000-1), where his two-year record of 14-9 included a 2001 upset of T.C.U. in Forth Worth. Prior to N.S.U., Roberts spent six seasons as the head coach at Southern Arkansas (35-24-1 from 1994-99), where he also served as an assistant for five years (1990-94) prior to his promotion. His first three teams at Southern Arkansas went 9-19-1, but his final three finished 26-4 (9-2, 8-2, 9-1). Though it has been only eight seasons since Roberts took over in Jonesboro, he currently ranks fifth on the school’s career win list. With his extensive Arkansas ties – he is from Little Rock – and despite last season’s struggles, Roberts remains a candidate to remain at Arkansas State for the foreseeable future.

Tidbit (coaching edition) There is one new addition to the Arkansas State coaching staff. Hugh Freeze, formerly at Mississippi, among other stops, will take over as A.S.U. offensive coordinator. His hiring was surprising, if only for this reason: Freeze had been hired by Mike MacIntyre at San Jose State on Jan. 5, but spent less than two months with the Spartans before becoming part of A.S.U. staff. He spent the last two seasons as the head coach at Lambuth University, part of the N.A.I.A., finishing with a 20-5 record. Here’s what I know about Freeze: Having read Bruce Feldman’s wonderful book “Meat Market,” I know that Freeze will have a spectacular impact upon Arkansas State’s recruiting. No, the Red Wolves will never beat out an SEC program for a recruit. But with Freeze as the point man, A.S.U. could become a fall-back option for recruits throughout the South if better — more traditional — options fall through.

Players to watch

Arkansas State will have a new face at quarterback, having lost four-year starter Corey Leonard. That’s the bad news: Leonard grew as a passer over his tenure under center, eventually developing into a capable thrower with the added ability to hurt opponents with his legs. Now, the good news: injuries cost Leonard most of the final month of 2009, allowing sophomore Ryan Aplin to gain valuable experience. Unlike Leonard, who never completed more than 55 percent of his passes in any of his four seasons, Aplin has already shown himself to be an accurate passer. As a freshman, he completed 65.3 percent of his attempts (77 of 118) for 889 yards and 3 touchdowns; he did throw six interceptions, however, though I believe he’ll begin to even out that ratio in 2010. Aplin can also hurt you with his legs; again, like Leonard. He rushed for 253 yards and 4 scores a year ago. Still, don’t count out redshirt freshman Phillip Butterfield, who excelled during spring practice. Some say there might be a quarterback controversy at A.S.U.; let’s see if Butterfield, who unquestionably has the better arm, can replicate his spring success when practice resumes in August.

The plan to replace Reggie Arnold, perhaps the finest running back in program history, is a simple one: insert junior Derek Lawson. His sophomore campaign was somewhat disappointing, though Lawson’s 4.2 yards per carry average did lead the team. After rushing for 695 yards — 7.2 yards per carry — in 2008, Lawson slipped to only 254 yards a year ago. Most of that damage came early, however: Lawson rushed for 103 yards over the first two weeks of the year, and did not top 16 yards in any of Arkansas State’s next six games. Again, the Red Wolves lost five games by eight points or less over that stretch. More depth will come in incoming freshmen Frankie Johnson and Sirgregory Thornton, though neither will arrive until the fall.

Four starters return on the offensive line, including right tackle Derek Newton. The former JUCO transfer was a pleasant surprise in 2009, starting all 12 games — the only A.S.U. offensive lineman to do so — and earning second-team all-Sun Belt honors. He’s the cornerstone of an offensive line that will also feature Kiano Prater, Sifa Etu and Drew Hilton. Prater started 10 games at right guard last fall, but may be moved out to left tackle for his senior season. Prater’s move out to the blindside would move Etu inside. Etu, like Newton a former JUCO transfer, might be better suited on the interior, where his shorter frame will allow him to have a greater impact in the rushing game. Hilton is the most versatile offensive lineman on the roster: he made seven starts at left guard, two at right guard and one at left tackle a year ago.

There are holes on the defensive line, especially at end. The line will be rebuilt around senior defensive tackle Bryan Hall, a second-team all-conference pick in 2009. Hall, like the rest of the A.S.U. defense, certainly benefited from the attention a few of the defense’s lost starters earned from opposing offenses in conference play. His 30 tackles and 9 tackles behind the line of scrimmage ranked second among A.S.U. defensive linemen a year ago; his tackles for loss total ranked in the top 15 in the Sun Belt. After rotation in as the line’s top interior reserve last year, junior Dorvus Woods will serve as Arkansas State’s starting nose tackle in 2010. He’s a bit undersized for the position, however, though Woods makes up for his lack of optimum size with a quick first step.

The secondary must replace three key contributors at cornerback, but hope to offset that loss with the return of a trio of talented safeties. The first is junior Kelcie McCray, whose four interceptions in 2009 tied for second in the Sun Belt. Those four picks were also the most by an A.S.U. defender since Tyrell Johnson intercepted six passes back in 2007. McCray, who will start at strong safety, will be joined in the starting lineup by free safety M.D. Jennings. The senior finished second on the team with 64 tackles last year, adding an interception; the latter gives him five for his career. Jennings had three fumble recoveries last fall, tied for most in the Sun Belt. Jaquan Kilcrease played well as the top safety reserve last fall, making 29 tackles (2 for loss) while making a pair of starts, including one at free safety in the season finale.

The strength of the Arkansas State defense is at linebacker. The group welcomes back senior Darius Glover, who missed all of last season due to injury. He opened the year as the team’s top linebacker after making 54 tackles and a sack in 2008, his first year in the starting lineup. If fully healthy, Glover is an all-conference contender. Junior Demario Davis is another contender for all-Sun Belt honors. He posted a team-best 80 stops (8 for loss) and 3 sacks last fall, his first year in the starting lineup. Both Davis and Glover are best suited for the strong side, though A.S.U. would be wise to do its best to get both players on the field at the same time. Javon McKinnon will start on the weakside, with junior Michael Lombardo his likely reserve.

Position battles to watch

Defensive end It’s hard not to keep an eye on how Arkansas State fills the spot vacated by Alex Carrington, the former conference defensive player of the year and multiple time all-Sun Belt selection. (Carrington was one of the most underrated defensive linemen in the country over the past two years.) In addition to Carrington, the Red Wolves must replace fellow starting end Stanley Wawke. A.S.U. returns one player with starting experience at end: Jeremy Gibson, a junior, made 22 tackles (6 for loss) and 3 sacks last fall. Gibson made one start, but was the team’s top reserve at end during his sophomore season. Gibson produced enough in his secondary role to expect a solid performance in 2010. There is not much experience at the position beyond Gibson. Justin Robertson is currently penciled in as the starter opposite Gibson, with sophomore Timothy Starson and junior Brandon Joiner also in the mix for playing time. However, the likely starter — once he gets his legs under him — is JUCO transfer Blake Chavis, who signed with Texas A&M out of high school. I’d be surprised if Chavis does not eventually step into the starting lineup; still, I’d be more surprised if A.S.U. can come close to replacing Carrington’s production.

Game(s) to watch

Troy remains the top dog in the Sun Belt, so any quest for a conference championship goes through the Trojans. However, Arkansas State’s hopes for another six-win season will depend upon the result of games against Middle Tennessee State, Florida Atlantic and the two Louisiana schools, all of whom will battle for the second spot in the conference.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell You can take this to the bank: In any given season, Arkansas State — as long as the program is led by Steve Roberts — will win between four and six games. I’m banking that this coming season will see the Red Wolves fall closer to that four-win total. Why? I have concerns on each side of the ball, for starters. The offense is lacking in play makers, and where there might be strength — quarterback and running back — there remains question marks. Is Aplin the answer under center? If not, is Butterfield the right guy? Replacing Arnold’s production will be very difficult, though Lawson, if he can regain his 2008 form, can help recoup some of the lost yardage. The 2009 Arkansas State defense was built around its talented defensive front, which must replace three starters — including, in Carrington, a program great. The Sun Belt isn’t great. No, it’s certainly not. Yet I don’t get the impression that these Red Wolves are capable of finishing in the top half of the conference. A.S.U. also has four difficult non-conference games, three on the road. It may be difficult for this team to repeat last season’s win total.

Dream season Not only does A.S.U. rebound after last season, it sets a new program-high on the F.B.S. level with eight wins.

Nightmare season The Red Wolves continue to struggle: 2-10, 2-6 in conference play.

In case you were wondering

Where do Arkansas State fans congregate? I’m a huge fan of The Den, Arkansas State’s premier message board. There aren’t very many other options, but that’s fine; if you’re interested in A.S.U. chatter, you can find all the talk you want and more at The Den. By the way, still have not received the proper recognition from the Arkansas State fan base for giving them the idea to call that site “The Den.” In 2008, during the Countdown’s first year, I suggested that the site, then called the “Tribal Grounds,” rename itself “The Wolves’ Den.”

Up Next

Who is No. 105? Our next school is located roughly 70 miles from the 40th-most populous city in the U.S. and about 25 miles from a professional sports hall of fame. An easy one today. You’ve earned it.

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Comments

  1. [...] do I expect to take a step back? Buffalo (No. 108) and Louisiana Tech (No. 104) are two; while Arkansas State (No. 106) and Akron (No. 105) were not great last fall, I think both will continue to struggle in [...]

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