Thirteen and Oh! The Most Unreasonable Arkansas State Red Wolves Preview Yet
The Arkansas State Red Wolves open the 2018 season with the usual unrealistic, bombastic, and completely unreasonable expectations. But maybe this is the team that meets them?
Just like the kitchen crew at your local Little Caesars Pizza, Red Wolves expectations are always crazy high. At least, they have been since Hugh Freeze delivered a 10-win season in 2011, opening wide the doors of fan perception. Now it’s ten wins or else for the Red Wolves faithful.
Frustratingly, the Red Wolves have yet to match the Herculean feats of that 2011 squad, which was lead by legendary A-State QB Ryan Aplin and featured NFL dudes like Ryan Carrethers, Demario Davis, Darion Griswold, Don Jones, Kelcie McCray, and JD McKissic. And yet, there’s something special about this 2018 group that smacks golden of that 2011 team. The talent is there, man.
What remains is execution.
Let’s chat briefly about 2017
Last season didn’t lack for entertainment, with QB Justice Hansen breaking school touchdown records and Ja’Von Rolland-Jones nearly breaking the NCAA all-time sack record. By scoring a robust 37.8 points per game, the Blake Anderson called offense ranked 12th in the nation. Thumping conference foes like Louisiana was deeply satisfying, and out-slinging ULM was must-see TV.
It was also a season of chest hair-pulling aggravation. The Red Wolves piled up 828 gruesome penalty yards in 2017, ranking them 110th for on-field discipline. The Red Wolves were horrendous in the Red Zone, ranking a miserable 122nd for execution. The Red Wolves continued to flounder out of conference, winning only 1 of 3 (Miami bailed). The Red Wolves dropped games they should of won (South Alabama) and lost games they could have won (Nebraska, Troy). The season ended on a pair of painful losses to Troy (which cost the Red Wolves a Sun Belt Championship) and Middle Tennessee (which cost the Red Wolves a bowl win).
So yeah, Red Wolves fans were a bit surly by season’s end.
And yet, 2018 feels like a special season
Holster your rainbow, Sunshine! you might be shouting, but hear me out, man. The cosmic dice favor the Red Wolves with a palatable schedule and a roster full of offensive A-Bombs. Let’s tic off some of these advantages:
Justice Hansen may be more chill than Ryan Aplin
Everybody likes Justice – at least everybody with an award to shill. The 2017 Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year and the league’s 2018 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year is watch-listed for the Walter Camp Award, Wuerffel Trophy, Davey O’Brien Award, Maxwell Award, The Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, and the 2018 Manning Award. The dude is gold.
And why not? Last season, Hansen set new single-season Arkansas State and Sun Belt Conference records for passing touchdowns (37), touchdown responsibility (44) and total offense (4,389 yards). And that was while dealing with a body full of busted ribs. Entering his senior season, Justice Hansen is healthy, wiser, and settled into his role as team leader.
The Red Wolves receiving crew is insane
The magic of Anderson’s 2017 offense revolved around Hansen’s mutant ability to distribute the rock to a variety of receivers. Though Hansen loses reliable targets like Dijon Paschel and Blake Mack, this year’s receiving corpse may be deeper and more talented.
Omar “One Hand Grab” Bayless, Kendrick Edwards, Justin McInnis, and Johnathan Adams return with their crazy height and speed. We know exactly what these guys are capable of (mayhem, destruction, points), but it’s the three new arrivals to the huddle that have fans intrigued.
Bubba Ogbedor (6-0, 198) is a 3-star recruit who starts anew after his transfer from Boise State. He will be an asset to Hansen, but he also brings speed to special teams.
Dahu Green (6-5, 197) is described as “uncoverable” by coaches. A three-star recruit, the humungous Green gets a change of scenery after spending a couple seasons at Oklahoma. Green, Edwards and McGinnis is as tall a WR trio as you’re going to see in college football.
Kirk Merritt (6-0, 215) is a JUCO transfer who played for both Oregon and Texas A&M. Merritt is a former 3-star talent who, like Ogbedor, has value as a lethal special teamer, too.
The schedule is juuuuuuuuust right
At first glance, the 2018 Red Wolves schedule looks pretty juicy. After all, UNLV and Tulsa combined for seven wins last season and Arkansas State avoids Troy while hosting many of its more formidable conference foes at Centennial Bank Stadium. Phil Steele isn’t very impressed. He ranks the Red Wolves’ schedule 126 out of 130.
Despite last year’s records, UNLV and Tulsa aren’t pushovers. The Rebels are projected to finish just behind Fresno State and San Diego State in the stacked Mountain West (er) West Division, and Phil Steele ranks Tulsa the most experienced team in the AAC. Furthermore, the Red Wolves get Alabama (ranked #1 by some services) at Tuscaloosa.
The Red Wolves have an entertaining Sun Belt schedule at home, playing host to Appalachian State, Georgia State, South Bama and ULM. But Louisiana is always tricky in Lafayette, and Georgia Southern is no picnic to play in Statesboro. Both are trap games.
Phil Steele may think little of the schedule – as well as ESPN FPI, which ranks Arkansas State’s strength of schedule at 127th. But the Red Wolves cannot afford to look past anyone.
The Red Wolves aren’t without mystery
You know how many times I’ve declared the Red Wolves unstoppable while completely ignoring the team’s glaring weaknesses? Every season! Why spoil an unblemished record?
Well, because the Red Wolves have some soft spots.
Is Joe Cauthen’s defense still bendy but not breaky?
Defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen delivered another great defense last season, led by sack master Ja’Von Rolland Jones and hard-hitting linebacker Kyle Wilson. The defense gave up 377 yards per game, but stiffened significantly in the red zone, and was simply murder at the line of scrimmage.
But Wilson and Rolland-Jones are gone, along with all-conference players Dee Liner and Blaise Taylor. Wilson’s departure leaves the linebacker position thin, though vets like Tajhea Chambers (6-2, 240) and Caleb Bonner (6-1, 213) have the confidence of the coaches.
Despite losing Liner, this year’s defensive line is extraordinarily deep, and the coaching staff is expecting big dividends from Ronheen Bingham (6-2, 242), a senior sack monster who tied for the team’s second most sacks (5) in 2017. Some believe that the Red Wolves sack production won’t miss Rolland-Jones with Bingham dropping QBs.
In the backfield, all-Sun Belt studs Justin Clifton (6-0, 204) and B.J. Edmonds (6-0, 213) lead a talented but lightly tested squad of pass defenders. But the cornerback position is largely made of transfers and even freshmen, with Brandon Byner (5-11, 174) the most experienced of the bunch. The defense line will need to keep the quarterback perpetually rattled until the cornerbacks gel.
So what about that offensive line?
Depending on who you talk to, the Red Wolves either have the biggest and toughest offensive line in program history, or it’s a fractured unit in need of bodies. There’s no doubt that massive redshirt senior Lanard Bonner (6-5, 315) is a conference beast, and that redshirt sophomore Jacob Still (6-1, 295) is transforming into an NFL pick. There is no lack of talent on the line.
Or size. One glance at the roster reveals that the offensive line is loaded with 300-pound behemoths, which is terrific. But this is OL coach Allen Rudolph’s second season in Jonesboro, and fans are hoping to see the run game improve behind these big lugs making holes.
Is the terrible Out-of-Conference Curse lifted?
If you want to listen to a Red Wolves fan grumble, mention the team’s OOC performance over the last few seasons. Not counting bowl games, the Red Wolves have notched exactly two out-of-conference victories in three seasons – and both came at the expense of FCS competition. Arkansas State hasn’t defeated an FBS out-of-conference, regular season opponent since 2014, with an overtime home win against Utah State.
This year puts glorious redemption on a platter, with a pair of rebuilding programs in Tulsa and UNLV on the slate. With FCS SE Missouri State as the opener, the Red Wolves have the talent to notch three OOC wins. (We’ll talk about Alabama momentarily).
The big question, can the Red Wolves finally sign on the line that is dotted? Last year’s losses to Nebraska and SMU were disappointing. To lose to Tulsa and UNLV would be a complete and utter disaster.
Can the Red Wolves survive the Tide?
It’s hard to go 13-0 with the nation’s #1 college football team on the schedule. But Lyle Lovitt’s marriage to Julia Roberts taught us that nothing is impossible. After all, ESPN FPI gives Arkansas State a solid 1.8% chance of victory. Rounded up, that’s a 2% chance.
Listen, the last time Arkansas State rolled into Tuscaloosa, in was 2008, Steve Roberts was the coach, and Nick Saban’s bullies pounded out a methodical 35-0 victory. But a lot can change in a decade. Today’s Red Wolves are far better equipped to go toe-to-toe with the SEC’s grandmaster. And besides, the Red Wolves passing game is pretty great, and the Bama secondary is a little green. Plus…PLUS, Alabama is going through a bit of a QB controversy at the moment. (Google it.) Surely such a distraction works to Arkansas State’s favor, right?
Let’s be real. Saban will likely try to crush the Red Wolves’ plucky souls immediately, ordering his gigantic five stars to flood the end zone with first quarter scores. But…
What if Cauthen’s defense doesn’t break?
What if Hansen picks apart the Alabama secondary?
What if the Red Wolves become the first Sun Belt team since the Warhawks to make Saban eat Heat?
Dumb Info: Tulsa plays three of four major Arkansas football programs in 2018
Tulsa opens the season by hosting Central Arkansas (who shamed Arkansas State in 2016). In week three, the Golden Hurricane welcomes the Red Wolves. On October 20th, Tulsa takes the short drive to Fayetteville to meet Arkansas.
Why is this interesting?
It’s not, really, but there are no in-state donnybrooks in Arkansas this year. Tulsa will have to serve as the cypher that determines Natural State pigskin supremacy. If you don’t like it, take it up with the University of Arkansas Athletics Department.
About those nutty expectations
Arkansas State fans are feeling it a bit more than usual because people who don’t usually feel it about Arkansas State are suddenly feeling it now.
One of those guys feeling it is Phil Steele, who places the Red Wolves #25 on his Preseason Top 40. Here’s what the powerful Mr. Steele had to say about his Arkansas State selection:
“Arkansas State is just No. 73 in my Power Poll, but was arguably the best team in the Sun Belt last year and returns QB Justice Hansen. They do face Alabama on the road, but they could end up being favored in 11 games this season.”
Essentially, Phil’s 73rd best team is also his 25th best team. Say whuh? According to Phil, his power rankings differ from his Top 40 in that his Top 40 take things like Strength of Schedule, experience and foe schedules. You don’t have to be a genius like Phil Steele to understand the math, guys. Just accept it.
What does this all mean? Listen, I’m not one of those bushy-bearded hipster guys who insist that preseason polls are meaningless. It’s cool to breathe this rich air. But one vote from a pile of AP reporters isn’t exactly receiving the key to the executive bathroom. Still, they hype around this Red Wolves team has punctured the national membrane. Time to execute.
Five Superstars for Arkansas State in 2018
Well, gosh, aren’t all student-athletes superstars? Of course. Some are just more super starry than others. Here are five combusting balls of hydrogen that will shine brightest for the Red Wolves this season:
Justice Hansen, Senior QB
Yawn. Hey, you’re not paying me enough to take big risks. But Hansen has to head this list. The “Yoo-Hoo Hitman” made six preseason watch lists and enters 2018 among the most decorated Sun Belt gunslingers of all time.
Omar Bayless, Junior Wide Receiver
Pick an A-State wideout. Any one of them. There’s a good chance he’s going to be atomic. But it’s no secret that I’ve been gooshy-excited about Omar Bayless since 2015, when somebody recorded him executing a perfect, flat-footed back flip in the Red Wolves locker room. Three years later, Bayless finds himself an elite option among the deepest set of wide receivers in the Sun Belt. Look for more one-handed grabs from the long and athletic receiver.
Ronheen Bingham, Senior Defensive End
When you talk about the Red Wolves defense, the conversation always centers on Sack Monster Bingham, who is expected to pick up where the great Ja’Von Rolland-Jones left off. Bingham (6-2, 242) is nearly the same height and weight as Rolland-Jones (6-2, 244), which makes him a bit undersized for an NFL defensive end. But Bingham also has Rolland-Jones’ motor, which should put the fear of turf in opposing QBs.
Justin Clifton, Senior Defensive Back
Quietly – almost too quietly – Clifton has become the Red Wolves’ career leader in almost every major defensive statistical category, including tackles (179), tackles for loss (18.0), pass break-ups (19) and forced fumbles (4). At a clean 6-0, Clifton brings boss-size to the Red Wolves backfield.
Lanard Bonner, Senior Offensive Lineman
Can an offensive lineman be a superstar? Only if you don’t want your superstar quarterback to flame out. The hulking 6-5, 315 tank barricade enters the season ranked third on Lindy’s list of Sun Belt NLF talent, joining Hansen (2) and Clifton (9).
Three Emerging Dudes to Watch
Marcel Murray, Freshman Running Back
The 5-11, 197 dynamo has impressed with his power and speed during fall camp. Warren Wand and Armond Weh-Weh are expected to receive the most totes this season, but Murray may be too good to keep cold on the bench for too long.
Cody Grace, Junior Punter
When you don’t have a reliable punter that can consistently pin your opponent behind the ten, you feel it. Cody “G’Day” Grace delivers booming kicks that land like cinder blocks on the ten yard line. Every. Single. Time.
Hunter Moreton, Sophomore Nose Tackle
The 6-1, 291 Moreton isn’t your prototype-sized nose guard, but the dude started seven games as a freshman last season and has indicated nothing but positive progress this fall. Moreton has the time to develop – the Red Wolves D-Line is stacked this year.
The Cent gets polished
Fans will arrive to the opening game of the season to a newly (again) refurbished Centennial Bank Stadium. The North End Zone Project will only be partially complete by September 1, but fans will still get to enjoy premium seating and those water features we’ve been bubbling about.
For AD Terry Mohajir, all the newly minted amenities and improvements around campus isn’t just for show – it’s a matter of survival. After all, how does one compete with large screen TVs and all-inclusive cable packages? Mohajir understands that quality is a bigger draw than quantity.
“I didn’t want to just build more seats because building more seats can be very difficult to fill. It’s the fan experience, the atmosphere, the energy, and the only way to see it is to come to the game.”
Of course, it’s easier to fill seats when your winning.
The Sun Belt will be supernova in 2018
Is the Sun Belt the most interesting conference in football? Well, there is a new championship game, plus a new divisional East/West format and a nifty new championship belt awarded to the champ-game MVP. That alone gives the Sun Belt more than the usual sizzle.
But the conference is still top heavy, with the Troika of Arkansas State, Appalachian State and Troy lording upon a heap of mystery teams. Sun Belt coaches have named the Red Wolves the preseason favorite to win the West and ultimately the conference title. So the question is, who’s most likely to upset this cheery scenario?
@ Georgia Southern, September 29
The Eagles return to being all-in on the triple option, but are they all-in on winning again? Georgia Southern is still young, but this year’s roster landed six players on the preseason All-Sun Belt squads. Last year, they had zero. The Eagles are the Red Wolves’ first conference test of the season, and facing a recharged Georgia Southern in Statesboro has “upset” written all over it.
Appalachian State, October 9
The very next week (plus 3 days), the Red Wolves host Sun Belt East favorite Appalachian State, and the Mountaineers have ground their teeth waiting to enact terrible revenge on Arkansas State since falling hard to the Red Wolves in Boone in 2015.
ULM, November 17
Last year’s matchup in Monroe was a wildly entertaining, 67-50 slugfest that produced 1,371 yards of offense that seemed unimpeded by any kind of defense whatsoever. Hansen and ULM quarterback Caleb Evans are back for the sequel, with Warhawks head coach Matt “Darth” Viator looking to strike back.
The Red Wolves aren’t likely to go 13-0. But the 2018 Red Wolves have the components to win double-digit games, and to do so with high entertainment value. The home schedule is loaded with intriguing conference opponents, the new Championship format turns up the heat, and Blake Anderson seems focused and determined not to fall short.
Record: 10-3, Sun Belt Champions
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.