Arkansas State Red Wolves 2017 Mega Monster Preview
Coach Blake Anderson and the Arkansas State Red Wolves enter 2017 as the defending Sun Belt co-champion. Is this the year the Red Wolves ascend to the the Group of Five elite? The monster parts need only be properly assembled.
In the Middle Ages, nautical maps often featured huge expanses of unknown waters. These regions were labeled with a cryptic warning: Here There Be Monsters. In Jonesboro, there are many unknowns regarding the Arkansas State Red Wolves. But one thing is certain: Coach Blake Anderson is building a monster, and he’s set to let it loose upon the peasantry of college football.
2016 Flashback (Warning: may cause headaches, nausea, and heartburn, followed by bursts of pure euphoria)
The 2016 Red Wolves were supposed to challenge the Group of Five Elite. Instead, Anderson’s athletic but sometimes undisciplined crew opened the season 0-4, including a bitter loss to in-state FCS program Central Arkansas.
The Red Wolves turned the season around against Georgia Southern, beginning a 7-1 Sun Belt tear that would earn Arkansas State a share of the conference title. The season concluded with a 31-13 thumping of UCF in the Cure Bowl.
Half a Sun Belt trophy and the Cure Bowl victory were satisfying, but there is an uneasy feeling among Red Wolves’ fans that too much was left on the table.
What’s different about the 2017 Red Wolves?
I feel a list coming on? Do you guys feel a list coming on? Yep, here comes a list:
Key Positions On Offense Are Filled With Seasoned Veterans
Last year, the Red Wolves were charged with replacing full-time talent at quarterback, running back, tight end, and wide receiver. Now those positions are occupied by battle-hardened vets, led by a second season from QB Justice Hansen and emerging superstar TE Blake Mack.
Blake Anderson is Calling the Offensive Plays
When the dust settled on the season, Anderson decided to take a more active role in the offense, confiscating play calling duties from 1st year OC Buster Faulkner. Arkansas State averaged 16.75 points in its four OOC losses last year, and while the mark improved as the season matured, the offense never seemed to regain its signature firepower.
Last season, the Red Wolves totaled 379 yards of offense per game. As the OC for the North Carolina Tar Heels, Anderson’s offense produced 485.6 yards per game in 2012. In 2013, Anderson’s offense gained 432.4 yards per game. In Fall camp, the offensive pace looked fast and clean, hinting that the Red Wolves offense may finally catch up to the defense.
The Offensive Line is Raw But Beefier
During last year’s opening game between Toledo and Arkansas State, the size disparity between the Rockets and the Red Wolves was jarring. Toledo pushed and bullied its way to a fairly easy 31-10 victory.
Through JUCO recruiting and acquiring transfers, OL coach Allen Rudolph has assembled a raw but beefier offensive line. Check out this chart I made of expected starters and contributors.
|Jaypee Philbert||Sr (T)||6’5″||310|
|Nour-Eddine Seidnaly||Jr (J)||6’5″||309|
|Marvis Brown||Jr (J)||6’3″||337|
|Lanard Bonner||Jr (J)||6’5″||330|
“Tall and wide” is the theme here, but so is “inexperienced.” Jacob Still, a red shirt freshman, is projected to start at center. Jaypee Philbert, who is expected to start, is a transfer from Iowa State. Several more are newly arrived JUCO products. Still, word has been positive out of Fall camp and Philbert carries himself like a legitimate leader. Anderson said the line “will have the look of a Power Five unit.” That’s encouraging.
What’s remains the same at Arkansas State?
The strengths that made the Red Wolves a conference co-champion remain largely intact for 2017. Let’s examine them!
The Human Mario Kart Returns
Warren Wand, the diminutive 5’5″ running back, returns to the offensive with added muscle. Wand looked speedy and formidable in Fall practice, employing his extra weight to plow right up the middle rather than using his considerable speed around the edges.
Also returning to the backfield, red shirt senior Johnston White (472 yards, 5 TDs) and Armond Weh-Weh, the 6′ 210 back who spent the majority of last year sidelined by injury, is healthy and ready to go.
The Defensive Front is Going to Cause Problems
The Red Wolves front seven are as dangerous as ever, spearheaded by Sun Belt Player of the Year Ja’Von Rolland-Jones (13.5 sacks). Arkansas State lost Chris Odom (now sacking QBs for the Atlanta Falcons), but Jr. DE Griffn Riggs and JUCO Jr. Ronheen Bingham are expected to make up for the lost production.
On the interior, Dee Liner (6’3″ 337) suffered in practice what is believed to be a minor groin pull, but he looks to be damn near unstoppable on the defensive line. Joining him are two equally humungous men: Donovan Ransom (6’2″ 280), and “Big” Tony Adams (6′, 344).
Providing the hits at linebacker: rSo. Tajhea Chambers and senior Kyle Wilson, the latter a First-Team Sun Belt All Defense selection. Wilson is seen as a leader of the defense, and he’s looked the part during Fall camp. Last year, Chambers played a back-up roll behind Xavier Woodson (who’s now with the Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders). This is the season that he lives up to potential he flashed as a freshman.
Justice Hansen will be even better in Year 2
Last year, the former Oklahoma 4-star QB was locked in a position battle with Pitt transfer Chad Voytik. This year, after giving a long look to promising rFr Logan Bonner, Anderson has given Hansen the nod. Hansen delivered a solid season in 2016, earning the conference’s best QB rating (138.9). The 6’4″ signal caller is said to be more comfortable behind center this year, gaining rapport with his stable of tall wide receivers.
The Great Unknowns
Turnover hit certain positions harder for the Red Wolves than others. But Anderson and Co. recruited well during the off season, bringing to Jonesboro intriguing pieces that could assuage all worry.
Corners and Safeties are actually pretty solid
The Red Wolves lost Chris Humes (currently with the Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders) and All-Sun Belt safety Money Hunter, but super genius Blaise Taylor returns at corner, as does Justin Clifton (Sun Belt First Team Defense) and an improved Nehemiah Wagner. Riding in from JUCO ranks are some options with size: 6’4″ Jefferie Gibson, 6’1″ Michael Johnson and 6′ Darreon Jackson.
Jackson has been especially effective, earning high praise from A-State DC Joe Cauthen and raising eyebrows from media attending practices.
About that Offensive Line
Everybody who started on the offensive in 2016 is gone, including standouts Colton Jackson and Jemar Clark. The only returning talent with some experience is Troy Elliot. And yet, there is a positive buzz surrounding the current unit, which is loaded with size and talent. Phillbot and Bonner are immovable on the line of scrimmage, and Anderson has plenty of talent to pick from among his sophomores. Will this unit gel in time to face Nebraska? Big shrug!
The wide receivers are the most unheralded and underrated in the Sun Belt
Troy receives the bulk of press for its pair of fine receivers, and Penny Hart out of Georgia State deserves his recognition. But the Red Wolves’ squad is deep with speed and size. Veterans like Sr. Dijon Paschal (6’1″ 214) and Omar Bayless (6’3″ 206) return. Also, 6’6″ Justin McGinnis is back for a second year, and he looks tremendous this fall. Christian Booker and Chris Murray bring senior leadership, and So. Darveon Brown is turning heads, too.
But the guy who provides the most intrigue is the Jr. transfer from Arkansas, Kendrick Edwards. At 6’5″, Edwards presents a huge target for Hansen, and he’s arguably the fastest man on the team.
The weapons don’t start there. Freshman WR Johnathan Adams was dynamite in fall camp and is rumored to be a contributor. And don’t forget Blake Mack, who will lay claim as the best pass-catching tight end in the Sun Belt this season.
Three emerging superstars to watch in 2017
Lanard Bonner, OL
Justin McInnis, WR
Darreon Jackson, DB
Breaking the OOC Curse
Technically, the Red Wolves beat their OOC curse with its win over UCF in the Cure Bowl. But if you’re a stickler, what you really want to see is the Red Wolves collecting its first signature victory over a P5 opponent since upending Texas A&M in 2008.
The 2017 out-of-conference schedule is entertaining: two P5 opponents (one at home), an in-state FCS and a 1980s superpower.
Ha ha! That tweet is funny because it’s true. But credit AD Terry Mohajir for strategically scheduling this OOC slate in a favorable decade. The chances for victory aren’t bad:
@ Nebraska, September 2
Nebraska lost about 30 seniors and their new QB is Tanner Lee, a transfer from Tulane who’s tossed 23 career TDs on top of 21 interceptions.
Miami, September 9
Miami, who destroyed Appalachian State in Boone last season, will roll into Jonesboro likely ranked generously by the AP. So? Red Wolves will sport new Adidas threads for the game, and that’s really all the edge the team needs.
UAPB, September 16
The last time the Red Wolves hosted the Golden Lions, new head coach Bryan Harsin dropped 62 points on UAPB. Anderson will want to double that, just to rinse the UCA out of his mouth.
@SMU, September 23
The Red Wolves are well versed in trouncing middle-of-the road AAC teams (Re: Cure Bowl, UCF). The Mustangs, who will be coming of a bruising game with in-state rival and former SWC buddy TCU, are still figuring out how to win under Chad Morris.
Can the Red Wolves smoke the conference (again)?
Blake Anderson is a cool 15-1 versus the Sun Belt the last two seasons and he still hasn’t won Sun Belt Coach of the Year. HOW IS THIS EVEN POSSIBLE, SUN BELT?
Sure, dominating the Sun Belt may be ho-hum to, say, whoever votes for the Sun Belt Coach of the Year, but trophies still pump up the fanbase. This year, the schedule isn’t as juicy as the Mountaineers.
In fact, it’s pretty challenging.
After what will likely be a hard fought game in Dallas against the Mustangs, the Red Wolves head to Statesboro to see how deeply Georgia Southern has returned to the triple option. Then it’s a mini-home stretch with conference newbie Coastal Carolina and hated arch nemesis Louisiana.
After paying visits to New Mexico State Aggies and the dangerous South Alabama Jaguars, the Red Wolves get to beat up Texas State and ULM again. Finally, the season ends with Troy coming to Jonesboro to reclaim the Sun Belt Sheriff’s Badge from A-State. Good stuff!
By the time Troy arrives to Arkansas State, the conference should be balled up in some kind of crazy six-way tie for first. This is the Sun Belt after all.
|Sept 2||@ Nebraska||W 35-24|
|Sept 9||Mimai (FL)||L 28-24|
|Sept 16||UAPB||W 75-7|
|Sept 23||@ SMU||W 21-7|
|Oct 4||@ Georgia Southern||W 38-17|
|Oct 14||Coastal Carolina||W 48-10|
|Oct 19||Louisiana||W 31-28|
|Oct 28||@ New Mexico St.||W 41-17|
|Nov 11||@ South Bama||L 35-24|
|Nov 18||Texas State||W 56-13|
|Nov 25||@ULM||W 45-14|
|Dec 2||Troy||W 35-21|
Red Wolves get stronger as the season progresses, which is why I think Arkansas State handles Troy at season’s end. The game at South Alabama worries even though Mobile and Ladd Peebles is practically a second home to A-State thanks to four-consecutive GoDaddy Bowl invites. My worries are based on two reasons: 1) the Red Wolves tend to lose focus at least once during the conference slate, and 2) even without Gerald Everett, the Jags will be tough. As for the OOC, I believe the Red Wolves surprise the Cornhuskers in Lincoln, but I have a feeling this is a magic year for the Hurricanes.
More cheeky predictions for the season
Warren Wand will record his first 1,000 yard season
As a sophomore, The Human Mario Kart gained 879 yards on the ground in 2016. This year, Wand looks just as fast but even more powerful, delivering hits in Fall camp reserved for running backs twice his size. 2017 will be The Magic Year of Wand.
Kendrick Edwards and Justin McInnis are the Sun Belt’s next wide receiving super tandem.
McInnis only caught 10 balls for 83 yards and one score in 2016, But the 6’6″ receiver appears to be establishing a smooth rapport with QB Justice Hansen. His size should help him win a lot of cornerback battles. Meanwhile, Edwards has the speed and size (6’5″) to create trouble on his own. The two should make a dynamic duo in 2017.
The secondary will be better than fine
Losing Chris Humes and Money Hunter caused some concern for Red Wolves fans, but Justin Clifton is projected to be among the top strong safeties in the Sun Belt. And JUCO transfer Darreon Jackson appears to be a legit talent. Freshman A.J. Cayetano is drawing praise from the staff and may see valuable minutes. The Red Wolves may not have a shut-down secondary, but it should blend perfectly in Joe Cauthen’s “bend-don’t-break” defense.
The Final Analysis
Last year, Red Wolves fans, staff, and media (me included) became far too infatuated with what we saw through scarlet tinted lenses. This year, the staff (Anderson in particular) is more carefully measured in its predictions for the season, choosing to keep the enthusiasm close to the vest.
But the weaknesses of last year’s team is a strength in 2017. The offensive skill positions are packed with veterans. Ja’Von Rolland-Jones is only seven sacks from breaking Hau’oli Kikaha’s all time college sacks record (36). The offensive line lacks experience, but then again, last year’s line struggled and it was the most experienced in the Sun Belt.
Coach Blake Anderson preaches “faith, family and fun.” This will be a fun season.
A former notary public, Jeremy Harper is a professional writer and Chief Instigator for Storm the Castle Creative. He spends much of his free time staring blankly into space.