Arkansas State claimed a share of the Sun Belt championship last season and finished off an 8-5 season with a win in the Cure Bowl over UCF. The Red Wolves have developed into one of the Sun Belt’s top teams under head coach Blake Anderson, who is hoping for a little more support from his offense this fall. Quarterback stability, a deep backfield and tall targets should help, but the offensive line will be made up of a mix of newcomers and reserves from 2016. The defense did its part last season and returns the conference’s best player, but otherwise returns just three other starters. Arkansas State opens with back-to-back games against Nebraska and Miami, so it may take some time for this team to find its rhythm. Once it does, expect Anderson and the Red Wolves to be near the top of the Sun Belts standings yet again.
Previewing Arkansas State Football’s Offense for 2017
Head coach Blake Anderson decided to coach quarterbacks and assume play-calling duties after an erratic 2016 season in which ASU’s scoring average fell by 12.7 points per game. Unable to establish a rhythm in several games, the Red Wolves leaned heavily on their defense and special teams in an 8–5 season.
The Red Wolves hope to return to the fast pace Anderson prefers with former Oklahoma recruit Justice Hansen entering his second season as the starting quarterback. He was a bit inconsistent, but Hansen passed for 2,719 yards and 19 touchdowns while making key plays in ASU’s drive to a Sun Belt co-championship.
Shifty Warren Wand, a 5'5" junior who rushed for 879 yards, and Johnston White, an effective complement between the tackles, form a solid running back tandem. Senior Armond Weh-Weh could give ASU a bigger backfield option if he returns from knee surgery.
While the status of senior receiver Cameron Echols-Luper is unclear after his spring suspension for off-field issues, the Red Wolves have plenty of receiving targets. Blake Mack can stretch the field at tight end. Seniors Chris Murray and Christian Booker provide speed, and ASU has size in 6'6" Justin McInnis, 6'5" Arkansas transfer Kendrick Edwards, 6'3" Omar Bayless and 6'1" Dijon Paschal.
ASU lost all five offensive line starters. The Red Wolves are rebuilding mostly with transfers, among them Jaypee Philbert (formerly of Iowa State) and Lanard Bonner. The newcomers may give ASU a more physical front, but molding a cohesive unit figures to take time.
Previewing Arkansas State Football’s Defense for 2017
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The Red Wolves suffered personnel losses at every level after holding Sun Belt opponents to 15.3 points per game in 2016, but they expect another strong unit, especially in the front seven.
Senior end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, the league’s most feared pass rusher, is back after earning Sun Belt Player of the Year honors with 13.5 sacks last season. Senior tackle Dee Liner, a part-time starter last year after transferring from Alabama, will anchor the interior. The Red Wolves should have sufficient depth across the front, particularly at end.
Senior linebacker Kyle Wilson carved out a role after transferring from junior college, recording 15.5 tackles for a loss, and is expected to lead the unit. Junior Justin Clifton could start at nickel, where he spent 2016, or another safety position. Senior Blaise Taylor is steady at cornerback, but the Red Wolves are counting on junior college transfers at safety. Jefferie Gibson and Darreon Jackson, who began their careers at Clemson and Boise State, respectively, are among the newcomers.
Previewing Arkansas State Football’s Specialists for 2017
The Red Wolves did not kick the ball especially well in 2016, but Anderson’s teams have shown a knack for finding advantages on special teams under coordinator Luke Paschall. ASU blocked five kicks last season (giving the Red Wolves 11 in Anderson’s three-year tenure) and scored three touchdowns on special teams, one on a blocked punt against UCF in the Cure Bowl. Taylor, ASU’s career leader in punt return yardage with 781, has three career punt returns for TDs.
Anderson has kept ASU at or near the top of the Sun Belt while dealing with transition issues stemming from coaching turnover before his arrival. After stumbling to an 0–4 start to the 2016 season, the Red Wolves won eight of their last nine while earning at least a share of the Sun Belt title for the fifth time in six seasons. Another slow start seems likely against a schedule that begins with Nebraska and Miami (Fla.), but ASU is capable of contending in the Sun Belt again and making a seventh straight bowl trip if the offensive line solidifies and adequate replacements are found at safety.
National Ranking: 86
Sun Belt Prediction: 3
(Justice Hansen photo courtesy of Arkansas State Athletics)