Sun Belt

Preview 2015: Arkansas State Red Wolves

Blake Anderson did a strong job in his first season. He just didn’t come up with a Sun Belt title.

Arkansas State has set the bar ridiculously high as a head coaching factory, with Gus Mazlahn, Hugh Freeze and Bryan Harsin all winning championships before moving on to the bigger gigs. Anderson wasn’t able to do that in his first time around the block, but he still got the program to a bowl game, he still came up with a winning season, and he still got the offense rolling.

It’s hard to be compared with guys hailed as offensive geniuses like Malzahn, but Anderson and offensive coordinator Walt Bell were able to come up with more yards and more points than any of the other championship coaches produced. They just couldn’t get the defense to help the cause in some key losses.

The Red Wolves are now at a high enough Sun Belt level where winning seasons have to be considered the norm. Trips to bowl games have to be regular occurrences, and yes, not winning the Sun Belt championship last season really was a major disappointment. Just getting close, and coming up with a win over Utah State, isn’t enough for a successful season at ASU.

It’s going to take some defense to do that, but the firepower will still be there on the other side.

The offense gets back playmaking QB Fredi Knighten along with GoDaddy Bowl star target Booker Mays, but there’s more to get excited about. Michael Gordon and Johnston White are back after finishing the year as the team’s top two backs, and the receiving corps is loaded with everyone of note returning including Dijon Paschal and Tres Houston. Three starters return up front, losing C Tyler Greve and OG Devin Mondie.

The defense returns loaded, too, with three of the four starters back up front, losing DT Dexter Blackmon, and while hitting-machine Qushaun Lee is finished, Xavier Woodson is back. The secondary is the problem with three starters gone including FS Sterling Young and CB Artez Brown, but SS Money Hunter should be terrific as the new leader of the bunch. Now the production has to follow.

The pieces are there to make 2014 a blip on the run of Sun Belt championships. But it’s not like the program fell too far under Anderson, and it’s not like it can’t be right back at the lofty level again in a hurry.

What to watch for on offense: The running game will be unstoppable. The Red Wolves had to revamp the O line going into last season and had to mix in a few new parts to the puzzle. That won’t be a problem this year with 2,805 of the 2,813 yards of rushing production returning. RB Michael Gordon and QB Fredi Knighten will get the bulk of the work, but there are plenty of backs to use in a rotation to keep the production cranking. This was a balanced, efficient offense last season, but it’ll be too tempting not to keep running and running some more.

What to watch for on defense: More toughness from the defensive front. The ASU ground game might be fantastic, but the run defense has a long way to go to be far better. Ripped up in losses to Louisiana-Lafayette, Toledo, Appalachian State and Texas State – all losses – the front six in the 4-2-5 was never able to establish anything against the precision ground games. This year, Dexter Blackmon is gone from the interior, but everyone else is back on the line including a few young options who struggled throughout last year. Chucks Ota was a true freshman on the nose, and most of the reserves were underclassmen. The experience will start to pay off.

The team will be far better if … the penalties stop. First and foremost, ASU has to be better against the better running teams, but even in the shootouts the games were mostly right there for the taking. The Red Wolves were able to win their truly bad penalty games, but they were hit for 11 or more sins three times and finished with 104 penalties for over 900 yards. Two years ago, ASU were nailed 64 times.

The schedule: It’s going to be a rough start going to USC to start the season, and while Missouri is coming to Centennial Bank, it’s still Missouri. Can ASU get revenge against Toledo after the bowl loss? It’s on the road.
– There are two back-to-back home dates – Missouri and Missouri State early, and Louisiana-Lafayette and Georgia State in the middle of the season. The Red Wolves need to take advantage.
– November starts out rough with three straight road games at Appalachian State, ULM, and after two weeks off, New Mexico State. ASU has to win two of those three.
– It’s not a positive to miss a bad Troy team, but not playing Georgia Southern is a huge, huge, huge break.
– WATCH OUT FOR … South Alabama. It’s a quirky Tuesday night game coming after a ten-day layoff and a layup against Idaho. Not that the Red Wolves are going to be looking ahead, but a showdown with Louisiana-Lafayette comes on the following Tuesday evening.

Best offensive player: Senior QB Fredi Knighten. RB Michael Gordon is right up there after ripping off close to 2,000 yards over the last two seasons, but Knighten is the do-it-all kickstarter to the offense with all-star skills. While he’s a shifty, dangerous runner, he’s at his best when he gets to make plays and decisions on the move, finishing second on the team with 779 yards and 11 scores while throwing for 3,277 yards and 24 scores with just seven picks. He helped make the offense explosive.

Best defensive player: Sophomore DE Ja’Von Rolland-Jones. He started out the year coming back from a knee injury, and he missed the last three games knocked out with a knee problem, but he was a terror when he was on the field. At 6-2 and 224 pounds he’s too small to be a physical defensive end, but he can fly coming up with 7.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss before getting hurt. If he’s right, he’s the difference-maker the line needs.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore DT Chuks Ota. The defensive front has to be better, and it has to start in the interior. The 6-2, 285-pound Ota got thrown into the mix as a true freshman after coming in as a great recruit for the program. Very young, but very strong, he came up with 22 tackles and got into the backfield once in a while. Now he needs to be an anchor for a porous run D.

The season will be a success if … ASU wins the Sun Belt championship. Finished tied for fourth in the conference isn’t going to get it done after winning at least a share of three straight Sun Belt titles. It’s not going to be easy with Appalachian State and South Alabama on the road, but Texas State and Louisiana-Lafayette are at home. There’s too much talent and experience returning to not make it four in five years.

Key game: Oct. 20 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette. Losers of two straight and five of the last seven in the series, the Red Wolves were ripped up by the Ragin’ Cajun running game in a 55-40 loss last season and were shut down 23-7 in 2013. A home game this year, ASU will be in a really, really tough spot for the Sun Belt title if it loses a third straight. Win it, and then being in the title mix will come down to dates with Appalachian State and Texas State.

2014 Fun Stats:
– Average Yards Per Game: Arkansas State 476.5 – Opponents 421.2
– On-side Kicks: Arkansas State 2-of-8 – Opponents 0-of-1
– Punt Return Average: Arkansas State 7.1 yards – Opponents 3.1 yards

What You Need To Know About The Offense: The offense that exploded throughout last year finishing 18th in the nation in scoring should be even more dangerous. The running game gets everyone of note back with the running back tandem of Michael Gordon and Johnson White dangerous, and QB Fredi Knighten a do-it-all playmaker who’s devastating on the move and with a good deep arm. J.D. McKissic is an all-star target for a passing game that gets back the top nine pass catchers, and it all works around a good line that welcomes back three starters.

What You Need To Know About The Defense: The secondary was okay, but the run defense was destroyed in all the big games. The hope is for experience to translate into production with four of the front six returning, and that doesn’t even include pass rushing terror Ja’Von Rolland Jones, who’s trying to return from a knee injury. Three of the top four tacklers are gone and three starters are gone in the secondary. However, there’s plenty of experience coming back among the reserves to fill in the gaps in a hurry. This won’t be a rock of a D, but it just needs to be able to hold serve while the O rolls.

Players You Need To Know

1. QB Fredi Knighten, Sr.
The quarterback play was mediocre in 2013, but Knighten took the job by the horns last year and turned in a First Team All-Sun Belt performance, completing 62% of his passes for 3,277 yards and 24 touchdowns with seven picks, and running for 779 yards and 11 touchdowns to go along with a receiving score. Not all that big at 5-11 and 189 pounds, he’s not built to take a beating, but he’s able to run 15-to-20 times a game, topping out with a 153-yard, two touchdown rushing day against New Mexico State. An effective passer, he saved his best for last with 403 yards and five touchdowns in the wild loss to Toledo, while he was able to limit his mistakes throughout the year and throw for 200 yards or more nine times. As long as he can stay in one piece, he gives ASU a chance.

2. RB Michael Gordon, Sr.
An All-Sun Belt performer for the second year in a row, he followed up a 754-yard 2013 season with 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns and 25 catches for 191 yards and a score. Not all that big at 5-9 and 187 pounds, he’s not going to be a workhorse, but he can bring a little bit of pop to go along with his flash in the open field, averaging 6.9 yards per carry. More of a gash runner who puts up yards in chunks, he had a string of four straight 100-yard games with 105 yards and five scores against Idaho. If he stays healthy, he might come up with 1,500 yards of total offense.

3. DE Ja’Von Rolland Jones, Soph.
After not getting a chance to show what he could do as a true freshman – getting hurt in camp with a torn MCL and missing the entire season – he came back roaring earning All-Sun Belt honors coming up with a team-leading 7.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss with 30 tackles despite missing the final three games of the year. While he’s built like a smallish linebacker at 6-2 and 224 pounds, he flies off the line in a hurry coming up with four sacks against Idaho and two against Georgia State. The line needs him as a disruptive force behind the line on a consistent basis if he can come back 100%.

4. DE Chris Stone, Sr.
While he’s not a pure pass rusher, he can get behind the line making three sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss with 47 tackles in 2013, and followed it up with 45 tackles with seven sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss, once again coming up with a steady season on the way to an all-star season. A good, solid all-around end, he’s 6-3 and 252 pounds with good toughness and good enough athleticism to make dominate at times.

5. WR Tres Houston, Sr.
The 6-2, 188-pound former JUCO transfer went from being a nice reserve and turning into one of the team’s most dangerous receiving weapons. A big play target at times, he only came up with four touchdowns and averaged 12.9 yards per catch, but he led the team with 53 catches for 685 yards with one 100-yard day – catching four passes for 102 yards against New Mexico State. He should be the No. 1 target again and should push for around 70 catches if he gets the ball his way more.

6. LB Xavier Woodson, Jr.
The undersized 6-1, 214-pound weakside defender was a part-time starter two years ago, but filled in well last season finishing second on the team with 95 tackles and four sacks with nine tackles for loss. What he lacks in raw bulk he makes up for in athleticism and smarts, coming up with 14 tackles against Louisiana-Lafayette and 13 against Utah State as a good, sound run stopper. He might be used even more as a pass rusher this year.

7. WR J.D. McKissic, Sr.
The veteran was a top kick returner a few years ago, but he was used primarily as a receiver last season finishing second on the team with 52 catches for 629 yards with a rushing touchdown despite missing two games and most of another. However, he didn’t catch a touchdown pass. The 5-11, 193-pounder has okay size and tremendous quickness, but his real worth is as an ultra-steady, sound target, catching five passes or more seven times with a season-best eight-catch, 120-yard day against ULM.

8. CB/KR Blaise Taylor, Soph.
A future key cornerback, the 5-9, 170-pound speedster showed why he was such a good recruit late in the year, taking over the kickoff returning job and dominating, averaging 24.5 yards per pop on 12 tries. He got in a little work on defense, making nine tackles with a forced fumble and a few plays behind the line, and now he’ll get more work as a pure cover-corner.

9. TE Darion Griswold, Sr.
A do-it-all tight end, the 6-5, 264-pound veteran is a blaster of a blocker, but he’s also a key receiver catching 18 passes for 221 yards and four scores after catching 24 passes in 2013. Averaging around 13 yards per grab and will always find the seam and will stretch the field a bit. A high school quarterback, he had no problems switching positions, and he should be a focal point of the attack again with the ability move the chains.

10. SS Money Hunter, Jr.
Along with his excellent name, he has the game to go along with it. At 6-1 and 193 pounds, he has the size to play either safety spot and the hitting ability to be a physical force. Fifth on the team with 65 tackles to go along with a sack, he made a few plays when the ball was in the air and did a decent job in coverage. However, late in the year he was used mostly as a tackler, making 11 stops against New Mexico State and 11 more against Toledo.