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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. 69: Arkansas State

At some point, it became clear to Gus Malzahn that the major doors weren’t opening. North Carolina seemed interested, but the Tar Heels eventually went with Larry Fedora, who established his B.C.S. conference credentials during Southern Mississippi’s run to a Conference USA title. Likewise with Arizona State: the Sun Devils, if they were ever interested at all, quickly moved onto other candidates. If this was a game of musical chairs, Malzahn grabbed a seat before the record skipped — and just so happened to inherit a team fresh off the finest season in program history. So Malzahn returns home, in a way, though Jonesboro is just about as far away as you can get from Springdale, where Malzahn made his name as a high school coach, while staying within Arkansas’ borders. It’s not North Carolina, it’s not Arizona State, it’s not a B.C.S. conference stop, but it’s home, and it’s a start.

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Jonesboro, Ark.

Nickname
Red Wolves

Returning starters
9 (6 offense, 3 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 80

2011 record
(10-3, 8-0)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 36

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    at Oregon
  • Sept. 8
    Memphis
  • Sept. 15
    at Nebraska
  • Sept. 22
    Alcorn St.
  • Sept. 29
    W.K.U.
  • Oct. 4
    at F.I.U.
  • Oct. 13
    South Alabama
  • Oct. 23
    at U.L.L.
  • Nov. 3
    at North Texas
  • Nov. 8
    La.-Monroe
  • Nov. 17
    at Troy
  • Dec. 1
    Middle Tennessee St.

Last year’s prediction

I love the Hugh Freeze hire. I really, really do. We saw last fall how quickly he made his presence felt in Jonesboro: the offense clicked from the start, contrary to what I believed, and should be even better in 2011. The offense is clearly going to lead this team, win or lose, as the defense – even with seven returning starters – isn’t going to be good enough to clamp down on the opposition on a weekly basis. That’s the biggest negative with this team. So while Troy and Florida International come to Jonesboro, the Red Wolves are probably still a year behind that pair when it comes to taking home the Sun Belt. Still, we will see a nice improvement in the win column. I don’t think seven wins is out of the question, though I do think six is the safer bet; that leaves A.S.U. right on the verge of bowl eligibility. I love the hire, and love Arkansas State’s future as long as Freeze is in town.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Well, that came out of nowhere, right? Not quite. Last fall wasn’t Hugh Freeze’s first with the program; he spent 2010 as Arkansas State’s offensive coordinator, and it was clear that the program he inherited as Steve Roberts’ successor was already one step ahead of the curve. Most first-year coaches – and first-time head coaches, unless you count the N.A.I.A. and Tennessee high schools – need at least one season to figure out what they’re doing. Forget that: Freeze had a plan, even if he was figuring some of it out on the fly. Most of all, he convinced everyone inside of Jonesboro that he had all the answers – that contrary to the perceived reality, he knew exactly what he was doing. Confidence is contagious. Freeze proved himself to this team in 2010, meaning everyone was completely on board last spring. The Red Wolves believed that they were the Sun Belt’s best despite a decade-plus of mediocrity. That was Freeze’s first, last and only miracle. He was one-and-done, yes, but Freeze leaves a legacy.

High point The steady growth of a team that, beginning with a 34-16 win over Florida International on Oct. 18, believed it should blow every team out of the water. And it did: A.S.U. outscored its final six regular season opponents by 230-105. The last of the bunch, a 45-19 shellacking of Troy, snapped the Red Wolves’ four-game losing streak against the Trojans. And snapped it in style, mind you.

Low point It would have been interesting to see A.S.U. take on Illinois in November instead of September – as it was, the Illini took control late in the first half in a 33-15 win. The Red Wolves’ bubble burst against Northern Illinois in bowl play, a loss that snapped an eight-game winning streak. A.S.U. lost early, though you didn’t know it yet: the offense didn’t capitalize on two red zone opportunities, instead settling for field goals when it needed touchdowns.

Tidbit Arkansas State won 10 or more games three times as part of the Southland Conference: in 1970, 1975 – both undefeated seasons – and 1986. Prior to last season, however, A.S.U. had posted only one winning season since moving up to the F.B.S. level in 1992. That came in 1995, when John Bobo led the Red Wolves to a 6-5 finish. So what happened to Bobo? He went 4-7 a year later, in 1996, and then asked the university for improved facilities and a larger recruiting budget – and was relieved of his duties. Maybe Bobo should have asked after 1995. A.S.U. did post three non-losing seasons under Steve Roberts, its head coach from 2002-10: in 2005, 2006 and 2008.

Former players in the N.F.L.

11 CB Marcus Brown (Miami), DE Alex Carrington (Buffalo), LB Demario Davis (New York Jets), DT Bryan Hall (Baltimore), S M.D. Jennings (Green Bay), TE David Johnson (Pittsburgh), S Tyrell Johnson (Miami), LB Brandon Joiner (Cincinnati), S Kelcie McCray (Miami), OT Derek Newton (Houston), DT Corey Williams (Detroit).

Arbitrary top five list

Sun Belt quarterbacks (2001-present)
1. Rusty Smith, Florida Atlantic (2006-9).
2. Levi Brown, Troy (2008-9).
3. Ryan Aplin, Arkansas State (2009-present).
4. Brian Lindgren, Idaho (2001-3).
5. Buck Pierce, New Mexico State (2001-4).

Coaching

Gus Malzahn (Henderson State ’90), entering his first season. Malzahn took a similar path to becoming Arkansas State’s next head coach as Dick Cheney came to becoming George W. Bush’s Vice President: He called athletic director Dean Lee – Lee thought to give another candidate – and, in brief, suggested himself for the position. Lee accepted, of course. It’s not often that a program like A.S.U. can land a coach like Malzahn, who will take a large pay cut from his last job as the offensive coordinator at Auburn. He spent the last three seasons with the Tigers, both as coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and it’s safe to say that the program – with some help from Cam Newton – would not have won the national championship in 2010 without Malzahn’s sublime leadership on the offensive side of the ball. He took Auburn out of the stone age, implementing the same non-stop, frenetic, attacking offense that first worked wonders at Springdale High School in Arkansas before doing the same at Tulsa – where Malzahn spent the 2007 and 2008 seasons under Todd Graham. His stay with the Golden Hurricane followed a disastrous single season under Houston Nutt with the Razorbacks: Malzahn and Nutt clashed – well, Nutt clashed – over the direction of the offense, with Malzahn eventually ceding control of his system to Nutt, who turned it into the most vanilla offense in the country. Malzahn got the last laugh; as he showed at Tulsa and Auburn, this offense is among the most dangerous in college football. So why did he choose Arkansas State? Partly because of the fact that no B.C.S. conference opportunities became available after Auburn’s decline on offense last season. While Malzahn likely could have become the head coach at Maryland or Vanderbilt in 2010, his reluctance to leave Auburn cost him: one year later, teams like Kansas, North Carolina and Arizona State inquired but went elsewhere. Another reason why Malzahn chose A.S.U. is the fact that he’s comfortable here, having deep ties to the state, and a second reason is that the Red Wolves are built to experience some success right from the start.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Malzahn’s defensive coordinator, John Thompson, spent the last three seasons in the same capacity at Georgia State; over the course of his career, Thompson has been the coordinator at Mississippi, East Carolina, Florida, Arkansas and Southern Mississippi, among other stops. The Red Wolves’ offensive coordinator, Rhett Lashlee, is a Malzahn disciple – he played for him in high school and was a graduate assistant during Malzahn’s lone season at Arkansas. Like his mentor, Lashlee ran an up-tempo, no-huddle offense as the coordinator at Samford. He and Malzahn will get along wonderfully; after two or three years, if not less, Lashlee should be moving up the ladder. Malzahn also retained one of Freeze’s assistants in defensive backs coach David Gunn, who was the interim coach in the bowl loss. Good move: Gunn knows the program and the area – and the high schools – better than anyone.

Players to watch

Ryan Aplin is going to love working with Malzahn, of course. The feeling will be mutual: Aplin is the Sun Belt’s best quarterbacks – a dual-threat slinger who needs only a few subtle tweaks to take a Chandler Harnish-like leap in his senior season. What will help Aplin grasp this offense from the start is the fact that Freeze’s system is based on the same principles. This is an important factor to keep in mind for the entire offense: Malzahn and Freeze don’t run the same exact offense, but each system shares the same basic tenets. You know Malzahn’s offense – speed, up-tempo, no-huddle, spread.

More specifically, Malzahn’s goals include running as many plays as possible, keeping his offense on the field; resetting once the defense lines up; being fairly simplistic in the different number of plays he runs, albeit in as many different ways as possible, if that makes sense. And above all else, Malzahn wants to destroy the will of the opposition. He wants to run the defense ragged, eating away at its resolve until there are hands on hips, mouths agape, hands clutched in prayer, begging for the clock to run out.

In Aplin, the Red Wolves have a major weapon at the center of Malzahn’s offense. He can provide the running threat: Aplin (588 yards) led the team in rushing last fall and in rushing touchdowns in each of the last two years. As a passer, Aplin is consistently accurate. He completed 63.9 percent of his attempts last fall in a similarly quarterback-friendly offense after hitting on 61.2 percent of his attempts as a sophomore. What Aplin does need to do as a thrower is take slightly better care of the football; those 16 picks he tossed as a junior must come down, and they should. More than likely, Aplin’s bouts with turnovers – he had three multiple-interception games – was an aberration.

So there’s Malzahn’s quarterback. Is Aplin the next Cam Newton? Of course not. But he’s more like Newton than Barrett Trotter, Auburn’s pocket-passing starter from a season ago. You can draw up the qualities Malzahn is looking for from his starter; Aplin is a nice match. He’s the Sun Belt’s best quarterback and a player to watch nationally in 2012.

The line was an issue last fall, even if substandard play up front didn’t prevent A.S.U. from setting another handful of school records. This is a group that lacked an adequate punch on running downs – even if the Red Wolves finished second in the S.B.C. in rushing – and did not do a good enough job protecting the quarterback. With weapons at the skill positions, Malzahn will search for a more complete effort from a line that breaks in three new starters. First, the holdovers: senior Zach McKnight at right tackle and junior Cliff Mitchell. There are your anchors in the running game.

Two of the lost starters, left tackle Delano Moore and center Tom Castilaw, earned all-conference honors as seniors. A.S.U. will likely go with a JUCO transfer on the blind side, whether that’s Aaron Williams, who took a redshirt last fall, or incoming transfer DeShawn Byrd, who will enter the competition in August. Last year’s reserve, Eric Allen, will step in for Castilaw at center. A.S.U. has a few options at left guard: Jake Campbell made two starts at right guard last fall, for example. It’ll be either Campbell or junior Steve Haunga, another former JUCO transfer who took a redshirt season last fall. More help is on the way; Malzahn signed six offensive linemen in February.

The receiver corps loses its star, all-conference pick Dwayne Frampton, but there’s enough returning depth and experience to think that A.S.U. can recoup his lost production with ease. Two players will lead the way: Josh Jarboe (54 receptions for 730 yards) and Taylor Stockemer (48 for 756), both seniors. You’re probably familiar with Jarboe, who spent brief – very brief – stints at Oklahoma and Troy before finding a home in Jonesboro. There’s no questioning his ability, obviously. While Jarboe is poised for a breakout season, A.S.U. is extremely confident in Stockemer’s ability to take advantage of the opportunities sure to come his way in this offense.

The depth continues. Sophomore Earl Lucas (2o for 220) is coming off a nice freshman season; like Jarboe, he has the potential for more. Senior Allen Muse (16 for 154) made four starts last fall after making 42 receptions as a sophomore. Juniors Carlos McCants and Julian Jones are in line for increased roles. A.S.U. even has a few youngsters in the mix, including one, redshirt freshman J.D. McKissic, who should see plenty of time behind Stockemer. This offense will also utilize the tight end on the intermediate level and in the red zone; this means more touches for senior Anthony Kincy, who should also line up in the backfield, and potentially some immediate playing time for redshirt freshman Darion Griswold.

This defense needs work. Eight starters must be replaced, five of whom earned all-conference honors – four on the first team. In addition, A.S.U. will make a fairly dramatic scheme change under Thompson’s direction. The new defense will be a 4-2-5 with some bells and whistles: one hybrid end-linebacker – a bandit end – and a rover, a hybrid safety-linebacker. You’re seeing a confluence of factors that should decline to a worsened defensive performance for the Red Wolves: the scheme change and the revamped cast of characters. It’s not a recipe for success.

It’s on defense that A.S.U. doesn’t match up with its two prime Sun Belt rivals, Florida International and Louisiana-Lafayette. Not that the latter’s defense is perfect; the Ragin’ Cajuns also need work, but that defense is not overhauling its system. The Red Wolves are, and with eight new starters in the fold it’s natural that this group will need at least one month, if not more, before everything starts working in concert.

The defensive line returns junior Ryan Carrethers (29 tackles), who moved into the starting lineup midway through last season. His role will change: Carrethers will now play over the nose. He’s certainly big enough to play the spot, and it helps A.S.U. that a player with starting experience is occupying such a key position. He’s joined inside by junior Amos Draper, who showed some promise in a reserve role last fall, with depth coming from senior Ronnell Wright and sophomore Markel Owen. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wright, a former JUCO transfer, ends up being the team’s top interior lineman by the end of the season.

The Red Wolves are in a little trouble at end – more than a little trouble, perhaps. This defense won’t replace Brandon Joiner, who dominated the Sun Belt as a senior. But perhaps the new scheme can help, especially if senior Shervarius Jackson can blossom at the bandit position. That’s asking a lot: Jackson barely played last fall, his first as a JUCO transfer. But at 230 pounds, he should be able to bring some speed off the edge. As of now, senior Tim Starson, Joiner’s backup last fall, is the starter on the other side. Malzahn knew he needed help at end, which is why he signed three JUCO transfers in February. They’re needed – for the first time in several years, A.S.U. doesn’t have a major threat at the position.

Losing Demario Davis robs A.S.U. of its playmaker at linebacker; in my mind, Davis would have been a terrific fit in this new system. What the Red Wolves return is a top three that includes two players with starting experience and one of last season’s leading reserves. With only two starting spots, someone is going to get pushed into a backup role. It should be the loser of the battle for the starting role in the middle, seeing that senior Nick Nelms (41 tackles) has claimed the top spot on the outside. A.S.U. can go with either senior Nathan Herrold (66 tackles) or sophomore Qushaun Lee (49 tackles, 2 interceptions) in the middle – Herrold’s the likely pick, but Lee needs to see the field. He will, seeing that A.S.U. will move into a 4-3 on occasion.

Everything is up in the air at cornerback. On one side, senior Chaz Scales (33 tackles, 1 interception) is battling sophomore Andrew Tryon. On the other, redshirt freshman Terrious Triplett is going toe-to-toe with sophomore Artez Brown. You’d think that Scales would be one starter, seeing that he’s the most experienced of the bunch. However, A.S.U. will carry this position battle over into August, adding a pair of true freshmen into the mix, before naming its two starting cornerbacks. Obviously, the Red Wolves are going to take a major step back from the starting combination of Darryl Feemster and Darron Edwards – both all-conference picks as seniors.

The lone returning starter in the secondary is sophomore Sterling Young (51 tackles), who started the final seven games of last season at free safety. He’ll reclaim that role – no surprise there – but A.S.U. needs to find a replacement for strong safety Kelcie McCray and locate a starter at rover. McCray’s replacement will be senior Don Jones, who began his career as a running back, left for a stint on the JUCO ranks and returned as a defensive back. Jones can make plays, as evidenced by his strong play on special teams last fall, and has enough experience in the secondary to hold a key leadership role for this entire defense. Sophomore Kyle Coleman will get first crack at rover; he didn’t see much of the field as a rookie.

The kicking game is in good hands – feet, I mean – with junior Bobby Davis, who made 18 of his 22 attempts last fall. But Davis doesn’t have a strong leg, so A.S.U. needs to find a kicker who can step in on kicks of 40 or more yards. Ryan Wilbourne takes over punting duties on a full-time basis after splitting time last fall, and it’s safe to say that the Red Wolves need more out of his leg – especially to help bail out a questionable defense. Tryon excels in the return game.

Position battle(s) to watch

Running back What Arkansas State needs at running back is speed. Not to knock last year’s starter, Derek Lawson, who did several things well – run hard, run tough, earn yards between the tackles – but he wasn’t the sort of quick-twitch runner this offense demands behind Aplin. Having a big-play threat at running back opens up this entire offense; it forces opposing ends to consider both the quarterback and the running back on the read play, for example, and provides an entire defense with food for thought when approaching the Red Wolves’ running game.

Michael Dyer probably isn’t going to play in 2012. At the very least, you’d have to lean towards him not being eligible via a hardship waiver rather than Dyer stepping right from Malzahn to Malzahn, from Auburn to Arkansas State, without losing any eligibility. A.S.U. would love to have Dyer, of course, but in recent transfer David Oku, the Red Wolves land the next-best thing. Oku is quick, for one, but he’s also a multifaceted back who can help this offense in more ways than as a pure runner. After sitting out this past season following his transfer from Tennessee – where he sat in Derek Dooley’s doghouse – Oku is eligible to play in September.

But he’ll need to learn this offense. Until he does, Oku will sit behind sophomore Frankie Jackson (355 yards and 6 touchdowns), last year’s backup. Again, it’s a different system with similar principles; it’s not as if Jackson was starting from scratch during the spring. With Oku a recent addition, A.S.U. went into the summer with Jackson in the starting role and sophomore Sirgregory Thomas nipping at his heels. That may change in August – and I think Oku will be the starter by the time the calendar turns to Sun Belt play. But Jackson will see plenty of touches throughout the year.

Game(s) to watch

Here’s one way to start your head coaching career on the college level: take on Oregon in Autzen Stadium. Malzahn’s first two road dates take him to Eugene and Lincoln; a nice way to get your team’s name out there, but not good for the bottom line. A.S.U. balances out those two clear losses with two clear wins, against Alcorn State and South Alabama. The Red Wolves should also have little trouble again taking Memphis behind the woodshed – did you know that Memphis is due to join in the Big East in 12 months? For A.S.U., the year comes down to four games: Western Kentucky at home and Florida International, Louisiana and Troy on the road. This team isn’t going to sweep this quartet, but with the Sun Belt much deeper than in the past, it likely won’t take another 8-0 record to win the conference title.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell It’s an interesting question: Would Arkansas State be the Sun Belt favorite had Freeze returned for another season? Maybe, but I don’t think that this team is going to take a major step back merely due to the coaching change. If the Red Wolves do drop from first in the league to third, it’ll have far more to do with a very questionable defense than any alterations in scheme – though the defense will encounter a learning curve moving into Thompson’s tweaked system. The offense will hit the ground running playing under Malzahn. He has his quarterback in Aplin, who should have a superb senior season. The receiver corps is loaded. The backfield is in good shape, and could get even stronger should Dyer be eligible to suit up in 2012 – again, I’m not convinced that this will occur. The offensive line isn’t great, but it won’t hold up the rest of the offense if the two former JUCO transfers can hold down the left side. Again, the issue is this defense. Is it good enough to lead A.S.U. to another 10-win season? Absolutely not. In all, due to the lost talent and the new system, it’s likely that A.S.U. drops from being the Sun Belt’s best all-around defense to the middle of the pack. In this new league – this offense-driven, far deeper league – it’s not possible to simply outscore the opposition. So I think that A.S.U. steps back from last season’s success, likely winning seven games in the regular season but finishing behind F.I.U. and Louisiana-Lafayette in the final standings. What about this program’s future? Let me ask another interesting question: What second-tier recruit in the Southeast wouldn’t want to play for Malzahn? The future looks bright.

Dream season The Red Wolves drop games to Oregon and Nebraska, as expected, but work through another perfect conference season. For the second straight year, A.S.U. heads into bowl play at 10-2, 8-0 in the Sun Belt.

Nightmare season The offense doesn’t hit the ground running, as most are expecting, but hits some speed bumps in September and October. The bigger issue is a defense that can’t stop anyone – not Memphis, not the Ragin’ Cajuns, not Troy, not anyone. A.S.U. slides down to 4-8 in Malzahn’s debut.

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 this site. By the way, I 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.” I will continue to mention this fact until one generous Arkansas State fan recognizes my contribution. I’m still waiting.

Arkansas State’s all-name nominee CB Quitin Sparkmon.

Word Count

Through 56 teams 213,793.

Up Next

Who is No. 68? The head coach at tomorrow’s university has an approval rating roughly 96 percent higher than a certain individual who shall not be named.

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Comments

  1. dawgs1 says:

    Hello Paul!

    Great in-depth article on Arkie St. But who or whom is Louisiana? That is a state & not the name of any college football team in Louisiana. And no college team in the state of Louisiana has the right to use that name.

    Pease enlighten your readers as to why you used that name for south LA coonasses (Ragin Cajuns). You can fact check me if you like, but they should be referred to as the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. There is also a university of Louisisiana-Monroe. Louisiana Tech was first offered to become the University of Louisiana and declined the opportunity to change its name & risk losing its identity.

    If the media keeps perpetuating this scam, there will soon be a major lawsuit against one of these universities.

  2. Parker says:

    Wash St?

    Mike Leach vs. Craig James?

  3. WinstonWolf says:

    The finest season in program history was 1975 – stAte’s first season in D-1. One of two undefeated teams (11-0). Led the nation in rushing yards. Blocked NCAA record 11 punts.

    14 players off that team signed pro contracts.

    21st in final poll, which was top 20 back then.

    11-0 and nowhere to go spawned the Independence Bowl, or so the legend goes.

  4. trinjboro says:

    One of the best overall articles I’ve seen this year on ASU. You hit the nail on the head on most aspects of our team. I’ll be satisfied with 7-5 or 8-4, considering our having to reload on defense.

  5. RedWolfFan says:

    I’ve been looking forward to your write up on A-State since you started this years countdown.

    It sounds like your saying Malzahn settled for ASU “If this was a game of musical chairs, Malzahn grabbed a seat before the record skipped”. I tend to disagree with that and don’t understand why so many people criticize him for taking this job. ASU is a perfect opportunity for him to build a lower mid-major program into an nationally recognized contender. What coach wouldn’t want that chance. It was the perfect place at the perfect time.

    Also, I wasn’t around on the The Den when you made this suggestion, but I’d give you credit if I was. ;-)

  6. Greg says:

    Pitt? I’m sure Paul Chryst has an approval rating at least 1000% higher than Fraud

  7. Frank says:

    Could be NIU. Jerry Kill did not leave on a high note. Dave Doeren is loved after 11-3 last year.

  8. GoB1GRed says:

    I would guess tomorrow’s team is either Pitt or Penn State…does anyone have a lower approval rating than you know who?

  9. David says:

    I think Parker’s right — James got 3.6% of the vote in the primary.

  10. Eksynyt says:

    Washington State is next.

  11. DotBone89 says:

    Paul: You have to catch up. 61 days, 68 teams. Keep up the good work.

    Paul: Thank you. Not sure how I’m going to do it this year. It’s going to be close.

  12. Parker says:

    Bingo!

  13. Lawrence says:

    Keep it up, Paul. Looking forward to your Husker preview… as well as your Tulsa preview.

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