From the Bird’s Nest: Arkansas State: Not to be Overlooked
ARKANSAS STATE RED WOLVES
Location: Jonesboro, AR
Stadium: ASU Stadium (30,406)
Coach: Hugh Freeze
Record: 0-0 (First season)
Last game vs. Louisiana: 2010. Louisiana 34, ASU 31
After a second straight 4-8 season, it was no surprise that Arkansas State fired head coach Steve Roberts.
It was a bit of a surprise that they promoted from within.
Normally, when a coach is fired, a school doesn’t promote a coordinator who, in return, keeps the entire offensive staff on board.
But that’s what has happened at Arkansas State, as Hugh Freeze takes over after leading ASU to a solid offensive season a year ago.
Freeze has made the jump to head coach at the FBS level pretty quickly. In 2004, he was a high school football coach. You may remember him as Michael Oher’s coach. (The Ravens offensive lineman was featured in the book and movie “The Blind Side.”)
Freeze has moved up in his career at a fast pace, and fast is the way he likes to play. Arkansas State employs a quick-no-huddle offense. And, it was an offense that has some good results a year ago. The Red Wolves were held under 24 points only once last year and scored over 30 five times, including hanging 51 on Middle Tennessee.
It all starts with quarterback Ryan Aplin. Last year he set six team records, including passing yards (2,939), completions (252) and touchdowns (21). Aplin is also athletic enough to run with the football and avoid pressure. He’s a good one, indeed.
But there’s a concern at the position. Phillip Butterfield, who was good enough to get playing time along with Aplin this season, is out for the year after a knee injury in fall practice. And there’s absolutely no experience behind him. In fact, there’s not a scholarship player at quarterback. ASU does have players at other positions that will work out at quarterback, but keeping Aplin healthy will be absolutely critical.
ASU returns three of their top four receivers as well. Dwayne Frampton caught 69 passes last year and is as sure-handed as anyone in the league. Allen Muse comes off a sophomore season where he caught 42 balls and had over 600 yards receiving. Taylor Stockemer might be the best deep threat for ASU. He had a long touchdown reception against Louisiana last year. Kedric Murray, who started six games for the Red Wolves last year, returns at tight end.
Arkansas State didn’t get as much accomplished on the ground as Freeze would like. The top three ball carriers, however, all return. Derek Lawson, Jermaine Robertson and Sirgregory Thornton combined for over 1,100 yards last season. Freeze wants to see more production out of them.
The offensive question is on the line. Arkansas State lost eight senior linemen from last years’ squad and return only three players with any experience. But one of them, senior center Tom Castilaw, got a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA and will anchor the line. Five junior college signees will have to help the situation right away for ASU to have success.
The ASU defense was the Red Wolves’ downfall a year ago. They allowed 30 or more points seven times last year. Seven starters return for ASU, Dorvus Woods can play either end or tackle. He was a second-team all-SBC a year ago. Arkansas State will have some quality depth returning and under new defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, will play both a four and three man front this season.
At linebacker, senior Demario Davis has already proven himself. He was a first-team all-conference player after logging 63 tackles last season. Junior Nathan Herrold is coming off an off-season knee injury but started nine games last year. Watch redshirt freshman Qushaun Lee. He’ll play a lot this season and could be a very good player before he’s finished.
In the backfield, Darron Edwards and Kelcie McCray started every game last year. Arkansas State has good depth and experience in the defensive backfield and they should be better at that spot than they were a year ago. Given the spread offenses that teams around the Sun Belt use, the depth will play an important role.
Arkansas State returns two placekickers from a year ago, but there’s a four-way battle to lock down that spot. Punter Neely Sullivant is also back after averaging 40 yards per kick last season.
Arkansas State plays all four of their non-conference games to start the season. The opener at Illinois could be interesting. Arkansas State also has two non-conference games that will draw big crowds in Central Arkansas and Memphis. There’s also a trip to Virginia Tech on the schedule.
In conference play, ASU has to open with two in a row on the road against ULM and WKU. THey get both Troy and FIU in Jonesboro and will also host Louisiana and North Texas.
OUTLOOK: Under Steve Roberts, Arkansas State was tough as nails at home and doormats on the road. It will be interesting to see how ASU plays away from home under Freeze. The defense should be better. How much better will determine how well Arkansas State fares in 2011.
Offensively, this team should be as good as any in the league.
Unless Aplin goes down.
If that happens, they’re toast.