Blue Ribbon Preview: Arkansas State
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Gus Malzahn set some lofty goals when taking over as Arkansas State's coach. On multiple occasions, he's commented that one of his goals is to make the Red Wolves' program the Boise State of the South.
"I'm a dreamer. And I want my players to dream," Malzahn said. "Jonesboro is one of those hidden gems, I believe. It's a great location.
"And Boise State, if you rewind to eight years ago, we feel we're in just as good position as they were eight years ago. We're going to build new facilities. It's going to be a new day here at Arkansas State. We really believe we're going to get it done."
If Malzahn intended to whip the Red Wolves' fan base into a frenzy with those remarks, he accomplished his mission. A record crowd of more than 6,000 turned out for the Arkansas State spring game.
Malzahn showed similar ambition after spring practice concluded. First, he and his staff visited all 215 high schools in Arkansas in a five-day span in late April. Then, Malzahn personally canvassed the state to give 15 stump speeches in 14 different locales -- covering more than 1,100 miles in the process.
As a result, the expectations and enthusiasm around the Arkansas State program are at all-time highs -- even though Malzahn is the Red Wolves' third coach in as many years. He stepped in to replace Hugh Freeze, who led ASU to a program-best 10 wins and an undefeated run through the Sun Belt Conference in his solitary season in charge before leaving to replace Houston Nutt at Ole Miss.
Malzahn definitely took the road less traveled to become one of 124 head coaches in the FBS. After spending 14 years as a head coach at Springdale High School in Arkansas, Malzahn made the jump to college's premier level as offensive coordinator for the University of Arkansas. Stints as the offensive coordinator at Tulsa and Auburn followed, and Malzahn called the shots during the Tigers' run to the BCS championship in 2010. Vanderbilt and Maryland both reportedly pursued Malzahn for their vacant head coaching positions, but he elected to remain on the staff at Auburn. Now, Malzahn returns to his native state for his first tour of duty as an FBS coach -- and as the highest-paid coach in the Sun Belt with a total annual compensation topping $800,000.
Arkansas State will run Malzahn's up-tempo, no-huddle offense -- the same scheme that dates back to his days at Springdale High. Play-calling will be a joint effort between Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, a former pupil of Malzahn at both Springdale and Arkansas. Lashlee also worked under Malzahn at Auburn as his quality control assistant.
"Even when we were at Auburn, he was my right hand man. And I really relied on him a lot. We're used to working together," Malzahn said.
Both Malzahn and Freeze built their reputations as coaches with high-powered offenses, but Arkansas State won the Sun Belt last year thanks to a stingy defense. The losses on that side of the ball are profound. Arkansas State must replace 16 lettermen, including seven starters and four first-team all-conference selections.
"We lost just about everybody. We're really starting over," Malzahn said of the defense. "You should see that group improve as the year goes on."
Defensive coordinator John Thompson actually was the second choice for that duty. Keith Patterson, the original hire, left after about a month to join the West Virginia staff.
Head Coach:Gus Malzahn (Henderson State '90)
Record at School: First year
Career Record: First year
Assistants• Rhett Lashlee (Arkansas '06) OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR/QUARTERBACKS
• John Thompson (Central Arkansas '78) DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR
• Eliah Drinkwitz (Arkansas Tech '04) RUNNING BACKS/SPECIAL TEAMS COORDINATOR
• J.B. Grimes (Henderson State '77) OFFENSIVE LINE
• David Gunn (Arkansas '87) CORNERBACKS
• Brandon Hall (Oklahoma '00) LINEBACKERS
• Kenny Ingram (Arkansas State '99) DEFENSIVE LINE
• Dean Jackson (Wichita State '81) TIGHT ENDS
• Casey Woods (Tennessee '06) WIDE RECEIVERS/RECRUITING COORDINATOR
This spring, Malzahn and his staff tried their best to wipe the slate clean and evaluate every player on the team. Malzahn even tried to avoid watching game footage from last season.
Heading into fall camp, the competition for playing time remains open at every position -- except quarterback. Senior Ryan Aplin, the 2011 Sun Belt Player of the Year, remains the Red Wolves' starter. In two-plus seasons in that role, Aplin (6-1, 205) already has rewritten the school record book, setting 16 single-season or career benchmarks.
Last season, Aplin threw for 3,588 yards and 19 touchdowns. He also led the Red Wolves in rushing, tallying 588 yards and an additional 10 scores. His 321.2 total yards per game led the conference and ranked 10th in the FBS.
"He really reminds me a lot of a former quarterback I had at Tulsa named Paul Smith," Malzahn said. "I inherited Paul as a senior and he'd been successful before. They both have the ability to make plays when things break down. And they're kind of unorthodox a little bit. They can make all the throws. They're kind of like a coach on the field. Both those guys have that quality."
Freeze ran a similar fast-paced, no-huddle offense, so it's no great surprise that Aplin adapted quickly to Malzahn's scheme. He threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns in the spring game.
Junior Phillip Butterfield (6-2, 215), who missed all of last season with a knee injury, and redshirt freshman Zach Davis (6-2, 195) came out of spring vying for the backup job. That competition will expand into a four-man race when freshmen Fredi Knighten (5-11, 182) and Dezmond Stegall (6-1, 208) arrive.
In the last five seasons at Tulsa and Auburn, a Malzahn-coached offense has never ranked worse than 41st nationally in rushing yards per game. Twice, at Tulsa in 2008 and Auburn in 2010, Malzahn's attack was the fifth-most potent ground game in the country.
"Spread teams, sometimes to me that term means more pass to open up the run," Malzahn said. "We're completely different. We're going to run the football. We're going to be successful running the football, specifically downhill."
That should come as good news to the Red Wolves' running backs, who saw pretty slim pickings in two years in Freeze's offense. Individually, ASU running backs accounted for only two 100-yard rushing efforts the last two seasons. The only player to crack the century mark in 2011, sophomore Frankie Jackson (5-9, 185), is earmarked to be the team's primary ball carrier. As a redshirt freshman, Jackson gained 101 yards in his second collegiate game against Memphis but otherwise accounted for just 254 yards on 78 carries.
"Frankie's got some big-play ability," Malzahn said. "He just needs experience and just needs to learn the offense and the blocking up front and everything that goes with that."
For his career, junior Sirgregory Thornton (5-11, 190) averages a robust 6.6 yards per carry. But injuries limited Thornton to five games played and 19 total touches last season. If he can stay healthy, he should remain a key part of the ground offense.
The most ballyhooed member of the backfield arrived in January. Junior Michael Dyer (5-9, 210) followed Malzahn from Auburn to Arkansas State. He ran for 2,335 yards and 15 touchdowns in two years with the Tigers, topping 1,000 yards in each season and amassing 100 yards or more 10 times. Dyer, dismissed from Auburn's program in December, filed a hardship waiver with the NCAA to play the 2012 season. If the NCAA approves it, Dyer instantly becomes the most talented running back in the Sun Belt.
Four of Arkansas State's five leading receivers from 2011 return, but the Red Wolves will miss Dwayne Frampton. Not only was he Aplin's favorite target the last two seasons, he was one of the most consistent wideouts in the country, posting four double-digit reception games and hauling in 79 percent of the passes thrown his way.
Frampton's exit probably yields increased opportunities for seniors Josh Jarboe and Taylor Stockemer. ASU's two leading returning receivers combined for 1,486 yards and nine touchdowns on 102 catches. Stockemer (6-4, 210) capped the 2011 season with an 11-catch, 185-yard outing in the GODADDY.com Bowl. That effort carried over to the spring, where he looked sharp. Jarboe (6-3, 215), who originally signed with Oklahoma then spent time at Troy before landing at ASU, needs to catch up in fall camp after missing time during the spring with an injury.
Senior Allen Muse (6-4, 215) also sat out spring practice, recovering from separate operations to repair a sports hernia and injuries to his abdomen and groin -- ailments he played with throughout last season. Those mark just the latest health-related setbacks for Muse, who missed all of 2008 after major heart surgery. In spite of those obstacles, he enters his final year on the cusp of cracking the program's top 10 in career catches and receiving touchdowns.
Sophomore Earl Lucas (5-9, 157) ranked fourth on the team in catches and yards receiving last season. He heads a group looking for more opportunities that includes three juniors -- Carlos McCants (5-11, 185), R.J. Fleming (5-10, 170) and Julian Jones (6-0, 190) -- and redshirt freshman J.D. McKissic (5-10, 185).
Malzahn's offense considers the tight ends and H-backs an interchangeable group. Seniors Anthony Kincy (6-0, 232) and Andre Smith (6-1, 215) figure prominently in the plans there. Another intriguing option is redshirt freshman Darion Griswold (6-5, 240), a converted quarterback who also plays for the Red Wolves' basketball team.
This group represents the biggest uncertainty in the offensive unit. Arkansas State has to replace three starters, including two all-conference selections.
The good news is that the right side of the starting line returns intact. Junior Cliff Mitchell (6-5, 305) is back at guard with senior Zach McKnight (6-4, 300) again manning the right tackle spot.
Senior Eric Allen (6-1, 300) exited spring practice tabbed to replace longtime mainstay Tom Castilaw at center. Allen's made 21 career appearances, and he stepped in as the starter in 2009 when Castilaw suffered a season-ending injury, so there should be some decent continuity there.
The battle on the left side of the line appears to be wide open. Junior Aaron Williams (6-5, 324) topped the post-spring depth chart at left tackle but has never seen the field at ASU. Senior Kedric Murry (6-3, 265), meanwhile, is a converted tight end who has played in every game the last three seasons.
There's a good chance true freshman Michael Flint (6-3, 297) will claim immediate playing time in August. ESPN rated him as a four-star recruit, and the No. 16 guard prospect in the country.
Arkansas State's senior defensive players shouldered such a heavy share of the workload that simply evaluating the Red Wolves' returning defenders provided a major challenge.
"You couldn't put on the tape and see enough about these guys. They weren't on the tape," defensive coordinator John Thompson said.
As a result, ASU went with a very simple base defense to evaluate the collection of available talent for this season.
"We've got more information on who can do what and where we need to go from here, instead of just throwing a lot at them and going for retention," Thompson said. "We tried to cut them loose, cut it way down and let them play fast."
Just examining the stat sheet shows what the Red Wolves lost with regard to their pass rush. The team's top six sack artists, who got to the quarterback a combined 26.5 times, are gone.
Junior Ryan Carrethers (6-2, 310) is the most proven of the returning players up front. He started six of ASU's 13 games last season at nose tackle, logging 29 total stops.
"He can really be a force," Thompson said. "From day one to day 15, he was a guy that had a chance to dominate inside. People may have not noticed him a lot with all the stars that played around him."
Junior Amos Draper (6-3, 270) has been part of the rotation up front since he was a true freshman. He leads at nose tackle heading into preseason practice. Senior Ronnell Wright (6-3, 285) and sophomore Markel Owens (6-2, 280) round out the post-spring two-deep at the interior spots.
Two seniors, Tim Starson (6-5, 255) and Shervarius Jackson (6-2, 230), came out of the spring leading at the two end spots. Thompson thinks Jackson will evolve into a formidable pass rusher.
The depth at end will be augmented when three junior college signees -- Ishmail Hayes, Lawrence Cayou and John Gandy -- arrive. Hayes and Gandy played together at Blinn College in Texas. Hayes (6-6, 245) is the more highly rated as a prospect, but Gandy (6-0, 245) put up superior numbers and was an honorable-mention All-American. Cayou (6-4, 260) is a New Orleans native who signed with Texas Tech coming out of high school and spent two years at different junior colleges before picking ASU over Western Kentucky and Ole Miss.
Senior linebackers Nathan Herrold (6-3, 235) and Nick Nelms (5-11, 225) look to be the anchors of the 2012 defense. Herrold is ASU's most productive returning defender, with 66 tackles, including 3.5 stops for lost yardage and 1.5 sacks. He moved to middle linebacker in the spring, replacing NFL draft pick Demario Davis.
Nelms has been a fixture in the rotation since he was a true freshman but logged only the occasional start the last three years. He figures to be the man at the Stinger linebacker position now.
Watch out for junior college addition Eddie Porter (6-3, 235), a consensus three-star prospect and yet another signee from Blinn.
Now for the bad news. The group that the Red Wolves must replace includes a trio of defensive backs that picked off 12 interceptions.
Jones (6-1, 208) will be expected to lead the secondary in 2012. He's the top returning tackler at the back end, tallying 54 stops, with 6.5 for loss. Malzahn called Jones "a phenomenal athlete" but Thompson was a bit more sparing in his praise.
"Don was a good player but he was spotty last year," the coordinator said.
Young (6-2, 182) broke into the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman, but he missed most of spring practice because of injury.
"We just had him back there for a day or two and he showed good leadership skills," Thompson said. "I think he can unify us a little bit back there."
Senior Chaz Scales (5-9, 170) ASU's most experienced cornerback, should be a major factor. Scales has missed just one game the last three years and led the 2011 team with 12 passes defended. He's the veteran in an intriguing group at corner that includes sophomore Andrew Tryon (5-10, 185) and redshirt freshman Terrious Triplett (6-1, 185).
Tryon played in every game as a redshirt freshman, while Triplett showed flashes of promise in the spring after spending 2011 on the scout team. Sophomore Artez Brown (6-0, 170) also is vying for time at corner.
Arkansas State wields a three-safety scheme, and if the season began today, the starting trio would consist of Jones, Young and sophomore Kyle Coleman (6-1, 215). Thompson thinks Coleman, who will man the rover spot, has a bright future.
Keep an eye on two three-star freshmen: Chris Humes (5-11, 190) and Derek Keaton (5-11, 170). Humes is a well-regarded cornerback prospect who had offers from three SEC schools, among other suitors. Keaton spent most of his time in high school playing offense but projects well as a defensive back at the collegiate level. ASU also signed Tres Houston (6-2, 183), a sophomore transfer from Northeast Mississippi Community College who played receiver there but is going to switch to defense.
The Red Wolves were respectable on special teams en route to the Sun Belt title, ranking in the top half of the league in kickoff coverage, kickoff returns and punt returns. There will be a new cast of characters taking over on return duty, however.
Frampton was ASU's main punt returner, while departed senior Rod Hall was the chief kickoff return man for multiple seasons. The competition for those jobs will carry over to preseason camp.
Junior Brian Davis (5-11, 160) put up respectable numbers last season, going 18 of 23 on field-goal attempts and making 44-of-47 PATs. The missed extra points are somewhat of a concern, but the new coaching staff showed faith in Davis by keeping him on scholarship.
Bobby Zalud, however, left the team after he was taken off scholarship this spring to free up that spot for players at other positions. Zalud was ASU's long-distance kicker in 2011, attempting 11 of the 13 field goals from 40-plus yards. That duty will now either fall to Davis or junior walk-on Matthew Baltensperger (5-10, 185).
Arkansas State got a break when the NCAA granted senior Ryan Wilbourn (5-10, 157) a sixth season of eligibility. Wilbourn shared punter duty with Neely Sullivent in 2011, though Sullivent kicked for a higher average and had more of his punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
Among Sun Belt teams, only FIU could rival the collection of talent assembled by Malzahn in less than two months between his hiring and national signing day. The collection of talent includes two players who garnered All-American status -- Gandy at the junior college level and Knighten, who made the Parade All-America team. Six of the 22 incoming freshmen were rated as three-star prospects or higher by ESPN. The newcomers hail from eight states, but 11 of the 27 new arrivals are in-state prospects. Malzahn expects that percentage to increase with time.
"There's been a lot of these Arkansas kids that would go to Oklahoma State, go to Tulsa, go to Ole Miss, Louisiana Tech, Missouri, those type schools. Our whole goal here is to keep in-state guys in state," Malzahn said.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Last season's success and the hiring of Malzahn have raised expectations at Arkansas State almost overnight. The university has made a heretofore unprecedented financial commitment to football by shelling out for Malzahn, and facility upgrades are imminent. A winning record is considered the baseline goal -- which speaks volumes considering that the 10-3 mark in 2011 marked the first time the Red Wolves logged more than six victories in a season since 1987.
Expecting ASU to match last year's double-digit win total might be too much to ask, especially with the plethora of new starters on defense and inexperience at key spots along the offensive line. Throw in a challenging schedule that includes road games at Arkansas, Nebraska and league favorite FIU, and the degree of difficulty increases. The good news is that, even if 2012 is a step back record-wise, Arkansas State is well-positioned to remain relevant over the long haul.
"I think the timing is perfect with coach Malzahn's name and what he's done over the last few years," Thompson said. "We're getting more attention, we're getting more respect when we go into schools. This whole thing is about recognition and acceptance and I think we're getting that from high school coaches first and the players. You know what that can lead to. That's how you win."
The biggest potential spoiler to ASU's grand plan might be the biggest university in the Natural State. Who's to say Arkansas doesn't try to lure Malzahn as a full-time replacement for the fired Bobby Petrino?
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