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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. 80: Arkansas State

You know those online sports quiz games? You know, the fill-in-the-blank tests that give you 15 minutes to name all 120 F.B.S. head coaches? Those are always good fun, and I hope that loyal readers of this space do better than others, but I digress. If taken at this time a year ago, I’d bet the knowledgeable college football fan would get around 85 coaches, with the lower conferences giving the most trouble. You know which coach you never, ever got – the one that bugged and bugged you as the minutes and second ticked away? Steve Roberts, that’s who, the former coach at Arkansas State. You never, ever, got Steve Roberts. Now, meet Hugh Freeze, his replacement. You may know him from such books as “The Blind Side” and the movie of the same name. Compared to Roberts, he’s a megawatt celebrity.

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Jonesboro, Ark.

Nickname
Red Wolves

Returning starters
14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 106

2010 record
(4-8, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 92

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at Illinois
  • Sept. 10
    Memphis
  • Sept. 17
    at Va. Tech
  • Sept. 24
    C. Arkansas
  • Oct. 1
    at W.K.U.
  • Oct. 8
    at La.-Monroe
  • Oct. 18
    F.I.U.
  • Oct. 29
    North Texas
  • Nov. 5
    at F.A.U.
  • Nov. 12
    La.-Lafayette
  • Nov. 19
    at M. Tennessee
  • Dec. 3
    Troy

Last year’s prediction

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. 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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell The offense was vastly improved under Freeze, then the first-year coordinator, now the head coach. But as expected, Arkansas State fell into the dreaded Roberts Range: from four to six wins, as always, though on the lower end in 2010, unfortunately. That simply wasn’t enough for Roberts to keep his delicate hold on his job, and A.S.U. knew it had a capable replacement waiting in the wings. So Freeze takes over, with the goal of continuing his progression on offense and, if he has time, working on getting the Red Wolves over the hump in close games. As was the case in 2009, A.S.U. was not good in close games – perhaps it’s a mental thing at this point. The Red Wolves lost six games by 10 points or less, four in conference play, which essentially ruined their chances at landing in the upper half of the Sun Belt. But this team was competitive, which bodes well for how quickly Freeze can turn the Red Wolves into a bowl team.

High point Three wins in four weeks during the middle of the season. Each came in Sun Belt play: at North Texas, home for Florida Atlantic, home for Middle Tennessee. The final win, which came by 27 points, pushed A.S.U. to 4-5 overall and 4-2 in conference play, right on the verge of a bowl berth.

Low point An overtime loss to Western Kentucky the following week wasn’t just disappointing; it was devastating for this team, which then dropped its final two to end the year 4-8. A.S.U. had several chances to put the Hilltoppers away, driving back to take a late four quarter lead only to allow W.K.U. to score with no time remaining to force overtime. In the extra frame, W.K.U. matched Arkansas State’s first score and then went for two, converting the try to escape with a 36-35 win. A very painful setback for A.S.U., and probably the loss that sealed Roberts’ fate.

Tidbit Arkansas State gained at least 300 yards of offense in each of its 12 games a year ago, a program first. The Red Wolves cracked the 400-yard mark seven times, including in four straight weeks in the first half of the year. And this team was equal-opportunity: while the Red Wolves did fare better during Sun Belt play, as expected, they averaged 369.3 yards of offense per game in non-conference play – Auburn, Louisville, Indiana and Navy.

Tidbit (double-duty edition) There were 12 F.B.S. head coaches pulling double duties during the 2010 season, coaching an individual position in addition to their big-picture responsibilities. Only eight on that list remain employed as head coaches: B.Y.U.’s Bronco Mendenhall, Maryland’s Randy Edsall, Louisiana-Monroe’s Todd Berry, Nevada’s Chris Ault, Michigan’s Brady Hoke, Pittsburgh’s Todd Graham, Utah State’s Gary Andersen and Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer. In addition to Roberts, Ball State’s Stan Parrish, Kent State’s Doug Martin and Louisiana-Lafayette’s Rickey Bustle were dismissed after the 2010 season.

Former players in the N.F.L.

6 CB Marcus Brown (Seattle), DE Alex Carrington (Buffalo), TE David Johnson (Pittsburgh), S Tyrell Johnson (Minnesota), OT Derek Newton (Houston), DT Corey Williams (Detroit).

Arbitrary top five list

Veteran leaders on the Washington Redskins, 2000-10
1. OG Ray Brown (2004-5).
2. LB London Fletcher (2007-present).
3. QB Mark Brunell (2004-6).
4. DE Renaldo Wynn (2002-6, 2009).
5. DE Marco Coleman (1999-2002).

Coaching

Hugh Freeze (Southern Mississippi ’92), entering his first season. Freeze spent the 2010 campaign as the Arkansas State offensive coordinator, helping the Red Wolves set several new school records. The offense was extremely productive, more than exceeding the standard I believed they’d reach in Freeze’s debut season. Most notably, he had an impact on the passing game: A.S.U. set new high-water marks in attempts (438), completions (266), completion percentage (60.7), passing yards (3,057) and passing scores (23), while also setting a new program-high in first downs (262). So the impact Freeze was immediate; I thought it would take him a year to get things rolling. As of last January, Freeze was poised to serve as San Jose State’s coordinator; he spent two months there before coming to Jonesboro, perhaps seeing the potential for greater things than with the Spartans – not a bad call, in hindsight. Prior to moving back to the F.B.S. Freeze spent two years at Lambuth University, part of the N.A.I.A., where he compiled a two-year mark of 20-5. As with the Red Wolves, Freeze led the offense to several new program records. His initial taste of big-time football came at Mississippi (2005-7), where he spent three seasons under Ed Orgeron, first as an assistant in the football offices before taking on the tight ends in 2006 and the receivers in 2007. He was the interim coach for a short time after Orgeron was dismissed, and was not part of Houston Nutt’s plans once he came aboard from Arkansas. Most notably – thanks to the book detailing Michael Oher’s recruitment – Freeze was featured in the book “The Blind Side,” where he first drew attention for his work as a high school coach in Tennessee. You get the drift here with Freeze: not overly experienced on the college ranks but talented as an offensive coach and a recruiter, Freeze is just what the doctor ordered at Arkansas State. I’m a huge fan of the hire.

Players to watch

Ryan Aplin was the largest beneficiary of Freeze’s addition as offensive coordinator. His first season as the full-time starter saw him leave countless school records in his wake, earning first-team all-Sun Belt honors in the process and setting him up as a leading contender for conference player of the year honors in 2011. Among the new school marks set in 2010: completions (252), attempts (420), passing yards (2,939) and touchdowns (21) – his completion percentage, 61.5, was the second-best in school annals. So he’s a happy camper, and the sort of dual-threat option – he also rushed for 477 yards, second on the team – built for this offense. He’s looking at a huge junior season, and should shatter many of the school’s meaningful career marks before December. Aplin is the centerpiece of this talented offensive attack.

And there are receivers to work with: three, four, five, six options capable of making an impact in the passing game. Aplin’s favorite pair, Dwayne Frampton and Allen Muse, are back in the fold. Frampton led the Red Wolves in receptions (69), receiving yards (738) and scores (6) last fall, his first on campus as a JUCO transfer. A year wiser, he’s ready to earn more significant all-conference accolades. Muse, a junior, chipped in with 42 grabs for 635 yards, while fellow junior Taylor Stockemer added 34 for 560. Keep an eye on Josh Jarboe, whose rough road to Jonesboro led him through Oklahoma and Troy – he didn’t stay long at either stop. Freeze thought his talent was worth the risk, and Jarboe is the most physically gifted receiver on the roster. He just needs to keep his act together.

Any questions about Derek Lawson’s ability were answered during his freshman campaign, when he rushed for 695 yards on 7.7 yards per carry as a complimentary option to Reggie Arnold, A.S.U.’s last 1,000-yard back. But Lawson hasn’t stepped up to fill the void left by Arnold’s departure in 2009, though he did lead the team with 500 yards on the ground a year ago. That’s probably where the leading rusher in Freeze’s system is bound to top out, but Lawson can do more – and maybe should, if the offense wants greater balance. Senior Jermaine Robertson (348 yards, 5 scores) and sophomore Sirgregory Thornton (258 yards) lend added experience, and A.S.U. thinks that incoming freshman Artez Brown can be a explosive option out of the backfield. Aplin, as noted, also does plenty of work on the ground.

The defense is holding the Red Wolves back. This is a group that does return seven starters, so some improvement may be seen, but don’t forget that the defense will be in a somewhat new system, which might lead to some growing pains. The new coordinator, Dave Wommack, is an experienced, game-tested hand with a resume that includes recent stints at Arkansas, South Carolina and Georgia Tech, the latter as coordinator. He has some work cut out for him.

This is a defense that wasn’t all that bad getting to the quarterback, finishing in the top half of the Sun Belt despite losing all-conference end Alex Carrington. A few newcomers stepped up in his stead, and bigger things should be expected in 2011. This includes senior Brandon Joiner, a JUCO transfer via Texas A&M, who made 34 stops (5.5 for loss) and 4 sacks despite starting only six games. He has the potential for a breakout season. Joining him at end are returning contributors like senior Justin Robertson (37 tackles, 3 sacks)and senior Dorvus Woods (45, 9 for loss), the latter a second-team all-conference pick a year ago. It’s a good situation at end, which bodes well for another stellar season from the pass rush.

The interior of the line is an issue. It’s inexperienced, though sophomore Amos Draper (33 tackles, 3 sacks), the star of the group, was a pleasant surprise a year ago. He’ll likely be joined in the starting lineup by another sophomore, Derek Johnson, though he’s very raw. Depth is also an issue: only one senior is in line to play a role, and like Johnson, most of the interior linemen are lacking in game experience.

It’s all about senior Demario Davis at linebacker: the reigning first-team all-Sun Belt pick had another fine season in 2010, following up on his breakout sophomore campaign of the year before. Davis will again start on the strong side, where he combines the size needed to stand up against the run with nice ball skills, as illustrated in his two-interception performance in the win over Middle Tennessee. Joining him in the middle is junior Nathan Herrold (78 tackles), who made nine starts a year ago, playing in every game. That leaves only the weak side open to debate – the Red Wolves lost Javon McKinnon – and while Nick Helms is the next-most experienced linebacker on the roster, he’s built for the middle, not the outside. To be honest, Arkansas State will probably start with a fifth defensive back more often than not, so nickel back Tausean Holmes is as much a starter as whomever A.S.U. selects to start on the weak side.

Holmes played extensively in all 12 games last fall, starting six, making 51 tackles (3.5 for loss) to go with an interception. Whether Holmes will remain in his current role or move into the starting lineup is an interesting question: he’s a nice fit where he is, so perhaps A.S.U. will move former JUCO transfer Darryl Feemster into the spot left vacant by Walter Moody’s departure and leave Holmes in the slot. One thin is sure: Darron Edwards will draw the toughest assignments every Saturday. The senior, yet another JUCO transfer, had a very nice first year on campus in 2010. The Red Wolves lose free safety M.D. Jennings but return senior Kelcie McCray (79 tackles, 2 interceptions) at strong safety. In no surprise, Jaquan Kilcrease is a favorite to replace Jennings; Kilcrease, a senior, backed up his successor a year ago,

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line This group is somewhat in shambles, thanks to the departure of four starters: left tackle Kiano Prater, left guard Dominic Padrta, right guard Sifa Etu and right tackle Derek Newton. Of that bunch, Newton – an eventual draft pick – is the biggest loss. But the losses are enormous altogether, and A.S.U. needs to get cracking in an effort to put together a line that can keep this offense rolling. It helps that the one returning starter, center Tom Castilaw, is a good one: he might be the Sun Belt’s best at the position, in fact. It’s not surprising, given the losses, that Freeze dipped so heavily into this position in recruiting, landing six linemen during the most recent cycle. One, JUCO transfer Kevin Galindo, is the favorite to replace Prater on the blind side – talk about a new addition that must step up immediately. Another JUCO transfer, James Williams, is poised to replace Newton at right tackle. Williams is the rare transfer who holds only one more year of eligibility, so it’s now or never for the senior. Are we done with the JUCO transfers? Nope, not yet: add guard Lawrence Martin to the list, as he’s projected to battle for the starting spot at guard. Oh, one more JUCO transfer, before I forget. Let’s include Aaron Williams, who along with Martin is set to play along the interior of the line. It speaks volumes about the state of the line prior to Freeze’s arrival that he needed to dip so heavily into the JUCO ranks to fill out his starting lineup, but A.S.U. will need holdovers to step up and challenge for starting roles, if only to create competition. Sophomore Cliff Mitchell is one of those guys: a reserve behind Etu last fall, he needs to step up his game and join the line rotation. Likewise for Eric Allen and Delano Moore, two linemen with some starting experience who can lend depth to this group.

Game(s) to watch

Home games against Troy and Florida International. The Red Wolves have the good fortune to get both of the Sun Belt favorites at home, but they’ve got to make the games count  — winning both would be wonderful, but a split is mandatory. In order to separate itself from the rest of the pack, A.S.U. must deal with bottom-feeders like Florida Atlantic, Louisiana-Lafayette and North Texas; the latter pair come to Jonesboro.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell 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. There’s a great quarterback in place with Aplin, who must thank his lucky stars every time he considers where his career was pre-Freeze and where it could go under his tutelage. There are talented receivers, including a pair that ranks among the Sun Belt’s best. There’s a talented running back, albeit one that hasn’t quite broken through like some expected. But the offensive line is a concern, thanks to the lost starters, and that’s one reason why we should perhaps temper our expectations of this attack heading into the fall. Even with that issue, however, 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: Arkansas State may take a nice step forward defensively, but there’s a long way to go before this group catches up with the offense. 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. It would mean an incredible amount to this program if Freeze gets it into bowl play in his first season. Even if he doesn’t, even if he comes just short, he’s the right man for this job, and a breath of fresh air for a program that had grown stale under his predecessor’s watch. I love the hire, and love Arkansas State’s future as long as Freeze is in town.

Dream season Freeze doesn’t just get Arkansas State into bowl play; he gets A.S.U. to the top of the Sun Belt, thanks to home victories over Troy and F.I.U., and leads the program to its first eight-win season since joining the F.B.S. in 1992.

Nightmare season The offense takes a dreadful step back, pushing A.S.U. back down from 4-8 to a woeful 2-10, 1-7 in the Sun Belt. Hey, it’s called a nightmare season for a reason.

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.

Word Count

Through 41 teams 114,478.

Up Next

Who is No. 79? Three of the last four first-year coaches have won at least seven games in their debut seasons, including last year’s addition. Each of the four won at least six games, but fans of this program prefer not to speak of the coach who won only six games as a first-year coach.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. stAte Fan says:

    Good article. I agree with your assessment of the WRs and there are some talented guys behind that front four as well. One nmae to add to the mix is Frankie Jackson. He is on track to be eligible from all acounts and he should push for the starting spot at RB alongside Sirgregory Thornton. Those two along with the two returning inside runners in Lawson and Robertson should flourish. Jackson was very highly regarded as a recruit. Artez Brown could help at any number of positons.

  2. Steve says:

    Lewisville or Louisville which ever you prefer.

  3. Ezra says:

    sounds like Louisville.

  4. Zac says:

    Pronounced “Loo-uh-vul”

  5. Clayton says:

    Agreed with Zac

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