The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 93 Arkansas State.
Previewing Arkansas State’s Offense for 2014
Recruited to run Gus Malzahn’s fast-paced system two years ago, junior quarterback Fredi Knighten appears poised to take the reins as ASU installs Blake Anderson’s version of the hurry-up offense. Knighten spent most of 2013 on the sideline but took over near the end of the season when senior Adam Kennedy was injured. Knighten earned GoDaddy Bowl MVP honors after engineering a last-minute touchdown drive to beat Ball State. While not a classic pocket passer at 5'11", Knighten is capable of spreading the ball around and is always a big-play threat with his speed.
Michael Gordon emerged as one of the Sun Belt’s best running backs as a sophomore, rushing for 754 yards and 10 touchdowns, but backfield depth is a concern, and freshmen could be in the mix. Anderson’s first recruiting class included three running backs.
ASU features one of the league’s most versatile players in J.D. McKissic, who was on the All-Sun Belt team as a wide receiver, all-purpose player and kick return specialist last fall. McKissic has caught 185 passes in his first two seasons. Graduation hit the receiving corps hard, however, and redshirt freshmen Dijon Paschal, Brandon Cox and Carl Lee Jr. got plenty of work in the spring.
The Red Wolves have all-conference talent at tight end in 6'5", 264-pound Darion Griswold, who figures to thrive in Anderson’s system. All-Sun Belt center Bryce Giddens retired from football in July, but Colton Jackson returns at right tackle and Alan Wright has experience at right guard. The Red Wolves have to replace the left side of the line.
Previewing Arkansas State’s Defense for 2014
The Red Wolves will still line up in a 4-2-5 system under new coordinator Joe Cauthen. Their personnel won’t change in many places, either, with eight starters returning from last year’s unit that ranked third among Sun Belt teams in scoring defense (26.2 ppg).
The greatest concern is the interior line, where the Red Wolves can no longer rely on Ryan Carrethers to stop the run. Dexter Blackmon, who sat out the spring with a back injury, and Darrius Rosser were key members of last year’s rotation. Recruits are likely to fill in behind them. At end, the Red Wolves can count on junior Chris Stone, who led the team with 9.5 tackles for a loss last year.
All-Sun Belt linebacker Qushaun Lee, a two-time GoDaddy Bowl Defensive MVP, is a punishing hitter who led ASU with 134 tackles in 2013. Senior Kyle Coleman and sophomore Xavier Woodson lead what should be a solid supporting cast at linebacker.
The Red Wolves were burned for big pass plays early last season but improved as the year progressed. Second-team All-Sun Belt free safety Sterling Young has started 33 games. Chris Humes and Money Hunter split time at strong safety last year, while second-team All-SBC selection Rocky Hayes, Artez Brown and Andrew Tryon return at cornerback.
Previewing Arkansas State’s Specialists for 2014
ASU improved dramatically in the kicking game last year, but the Red Wolves have to replace All-Sun Belt placekicker Brian Davis. Luke Ferguson, one of two punters used last season, could handle all kicking duties. McKissic averaged 30 yards on kickoff returns in 2013, tops in the Sun Belt and fourth in FBS.
Coaching changes followed conference championships in each of the last three seasons at ASU. With a $3 million buyout in the first two years of his contract, Anderson figures to have a longer stay than immediate predecessors Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin. The former North Carolina offensive coordinator inherits more than expectations, too. The Red Wolves figure to experience some of the typical transition issues, and there are key players to replace on both sides of the ball, but they have enough talent to contend for another Sun Belt title and bowl bid.