The former Oklahoma Sooners prospect has flourished at Arkansas State
College years pass in the blink of an eye — at least, that's the commonly held belief. Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen doesn't see it that way.
"People always say it flies by. I think I’ve been in college forever," Hansen said with a laugh. "I feel like I’ve been around for a long time."
Hansen's college tenure dates back to January 2014 when he arrived at Oklahoma out of Santa Fe High School in nearby Edmond. Autumn 2018 marks his 10th semester on a campus, but Hansen isn't on the Van Wilder path. Rather, the year-and-a-half Hansen spent in Norman began a journey in which the quarterback faded into obscurity; "spiritually... matured" in his own words; and is now an NFL draft prospect with a conference championship and after Week 1, a new program passing record.
Hansen's six touchdown passes against FCS opponent Southeast Missouri set a single-game high at Arkansas State — quite the accomplishment regardless, but especially given the program has been home to offensive gurus Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and current head coach Blake Anderson, as well as standout quarterbacks Ryan Aplin and Fredi Knighten.
This week, Hansen and the Red Wolves travel to Tuscaloosa to face top-ranked Alabama. The quarterback who finished 2017 ranked ninth in the nation in passing yards, and fourth in the nation for both passing yards per game and touchdowns, steps into one of college football's brightest spotlights.
A 4-star prospect out of high school, choosing Oklahoma from a list of suitors that included Auburn, Arkansas and Arizona State, Hansen's college experience might seem long to him because of the circuitous route taking to this point.
"In high school, highly ranked coming out, everyone knows who you are," Hansen said. "At OU, if you’re not the guy, nobody knows who you are."
In his first season at Oklahoma, Hansen was not the guy being told "Call me" by Katy Perry on College Gameday — that was veteran starter Trevor Knight. He was not the guy who walked-on from Texas Tech and later gained a reputation for his flamboyant style en route to the Heisman Trophy — that was Baker Mayfield.
Hansen made the decision following spring practices in 2015 to transfer, opting for Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas. He flourished in his one season there, but was well out of the college football limelight.
"Stepping away from [Oklahoma] and then going to junior college — there’s not a lot of eyes on junior college," he said.
Indeed, the average FBS fans' exposure to junior college football is probably limited to the hit Netflix docuseries, Last Chance U — on which, coincidentally, Hansen could have been a Season 1 star with a different set of circumstances.
"I actually flew out to East Mississippi [Community College] and visited. One of their selling points was that they were going to have a documentary on TV," Hansen said, adding with a chuckle: "They were like, ‘You can come out here and you’ll have a lot of publicity from the show.’ And at that time, nobody knew about it, so I’m kinda like, ‘Yeah, sure. Whatever.’"
A starring role on Last Chance U may not have been in the cards, but Hansen's done just fine becoming a star at Arkansas State — if somewhat unpredictable.
"Going through all that, then trying to build a name again at Arkansas State has been kind of a crazy ride," Hansen said.
In the craziness, Hansen's found consistency. Anderson is now in his fifth season at Red Wolves head coach, bringing a stability to the program after the tumult of four different head coaching regimes through the 2010-13 seasons.
His first season in Jonesboro coincided with Hansen's redshirt campaign at Oklahoma, though the coach has a different assessment of the past four years than his quarterback, saying it's "flown by."
Hansen's been the leader of the Arkansas State offense now for the majority of Anderson's tenure. Their success moving forward can be viewed as a manifestation of the time dedicated to their relationship.
"We work well together," Anderson said. "He's very coachable and he's got a lot of pride in doing a good job... Got a really good head on his shoulders. He's very calm, and I think that's a quality that gets overlooked."
While Hansen's poise may be overlooked, the results cannot be. After he replaced Pitt transfer Chad Voytik early in the 2016 season, the RedWolves won a share of the Sun Belt Conference championship; Hansen passed for more than 2,700 yards.
Arkansas State again played for a portion of the SBC title a season ago, losing a heartbreaker to Troy in the final week of the regular season with Hansen throwing for 437 yards (one week after totaling 520 against ULM). Despite falling short of a repeat conference championship, Hansen's 37 TD passes, seven rushing scores and 4,390 yards of total offense have him positioned as a rising NFL draft sleeper to watch this season.
He and his Red Wolves teammates get an opportunity to face an opponent with more NFL draft-caliber talent in all three phases than perhaps any program in college football.
"We're going to play a team that, on paper, you're not supposed to beat. The spread is what it is [36.5 points] because experts believe you don't belong in the game," Anderson said. "But you've only got to play with them that one Saturday; you don't gotta beat them the other 364 days in the year."
Arkansas State's Sun Belt Conference counterpart Appalachian State went to overtime with top 10-ranked Penn State last week, 11 years to the day of the Mountaineers scoring a historic upset over Michigan. The last regular-season, non-conference loss Alabama sustained came against Sun Belt member ULM in November 2007.
For a guy who's been around as long as Hansen has — or least, feels like he's been around for long — he realizes that has no impact on Arkansas State's pursuit of something historic.
"That's great for the conference," Hansen said. "As far as individual motivational, we're two different teams. It's us vs. Alabama and how we match up, and we understand that."
Alabama is just one more opponent for a team with other goals, and another day in the long, winding, and ultimately successful college road of Justice Hansen.
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Getting Back in the Game
A unique subplot to Saturday's Week 2 matchup of Sun Belt member Coastal Carolina and Conference USA's UAB is that both teams' head coaches went recent seasons without working a game, yet never left their respective programs.
In the case of UAB's Bill Clark, the two-year hiatus UAB endured after the Blazers' football program was briefly shut down following the 2014 season produced one of the most remarkable stories in recent college football history. Clark remained committed to UAB despite having no games lined up for 2015 and '16, in that time preparing for a '17 relaunch.
The Blazers roared back with an eight-win campaign and reached just the second bowl game in program history.
Last year, Coastal Carolina coach Joe Moglia was sidelined when he made the "20-year decision" to step away after having a precancerous nodule surgically removed from his trachea. The Chanticleers' Week 1 matchup with South Carolina was Moglia's return to the sidelines, and there was no sense of rust.
"I've been back going at this full-time since January. Remember, I had a 20-something-year hiatus between my first time around as a coach, and coming back the second time," Moglia said.
Moglia was defensive coordinator at Dartmouth in 1983 before embarking on a successful business career with Merrill Lynch and TD Ameritrade. He got back into coaching in 2009.
"In the beginning, when I was at Nebraska, I may have been on the rusty side, but that's not the case now," he added.
Kings of Chaos
Miami's Turnover Chain became the talk of college football a season ago, with a variety of programs introducing their own sideline swag to reward players for big-time plays. Tulane introduced Mardi Gras-inspired beads Week 1 against Wake Forest, but the most unique turnover honor has to be Boise State's throne.
A sideline reward fit for a king — which makes sense, given the Broncos' defense bears the nickname Kings of Chaos. And, heading into Week 2, one of Boise State's kings has the nation's greatest weekly honor. Cornerback Tyler Horton was named Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week after returning a pair of fumbles for touchdowns; that had only been accomplished in a single game four times ever previously.
(Top photo courtesy of Arkansas State Athletics)