The Arkansas State Red Wolves enter the season with a new head coach for the first time since 2014, when Blake Anderson took over for Bryan Harsin. Butch Jones, former head coach at Tennessee and special consultant for the Alabama Crimson Tide, brings a new attitude to the locker room. Faith, Family & Fun is out; Discipline, Accountability and The Reduction of Body Fat is in. The new attitude was reflected in a no-nonsense Spring Game, and was underscored at Sun Belt Media Day.
The halcyon slip-n-slide and pool party days are over in Butchboro. It’s time to incorporate Centennial Bank Stadium, because these Red Wolves are all business.
“Coming off the season we had last year, it made everybody a lot more willing to accept some change and dive into the whole mindset that coach Jones has brought to this team, the persona that we’re trying to replicate,” said defensive end TW Ayers at Sun Belt Media Day. “People know the results we want and what it’s going to take to get that result, so we’re willing to do whatever it takes.”
That mindset spares no feelings. The season started with two quarterbacks on the roster, with incoming sophomore Layne Hatcher the presumed starter. Jones’ response was to add four new bodies to the mix, including Florida State transfer Justin Blackmon. Jones, who worked with Hatcher while both were at Alabama, is looking for a specific set of skills from his offensive leader, and he’s willing to evaluate all challengers to find them.
This season will be different. Familiar faces are gone. Many new faces have replaced them. The culture is new. The coaching staff is new. The
athletic director Vice Chancellor for Intercollegiate Athletics is new. But the program is seeking an old result – a return to Sun Belt dominance. It begins September 4.
This Schedule is Pain
|September 4||Central Arkansas||Dangerous FCS opponent with hunger & skills|
|September 11||Memphis||Tough AAC oppenent and hated OOC rival|
|September 18||@Washington||First time meeting; Huskies have PAC12 chops|
|September 25||@Tulsa||They’ll want revenge|
|October 2||@Georgia Southern||They’re rebuilding, but that Triple Option is a headache|
|October 7 (Thurs)||Coastal Carolina||Five days after the Eagles, we get the Chants. Great.|
|October 21 (Thurs)||Louisiana||We get 14 days to prep for the Cajuns|
|October 30||@South Alabama||Checking in on the Kane Womack Era in Mobile|
|November 6||Appalchian State||Chants, Cajuns and Mountaineers all at home|
|November 13||@ULM||Maybe a trap game? Maybe not!|
|November 20||@Georgia State||This may be an important game in November|
|November 27||Texas State||Clinching the title in the Bobcats’ face? Yes please|
This schedule is either great or an aberration, depending on what mood you’re in. Personally, I find it quite stimulating. We get three quality conference opponents at home – the Chanticleers, the Cajuns and the Mountaineers – in addition to facing two bitter OOC rivals, UCA and Memphis. As a sweet bonus, the Red Wolves close the season at The Cent against Texas State, who is due a brutal beating by our hairy paws.
On the terrifying side of the coin, The Red Wolves receive the Chants and the Cajuns with only five days of space between them. Both are nationally televised Thursday matches, which means everyone will have to buy two cummerbunds. Furthermore, any trip to the West Coast is a spirit-sapping haul, especially after trading haymakers with the Memphis Tigers. In the meantime, Tulsa concluded the 2020 season ranked 24th by the College Football Playoffs Committee, and there’s little reason to believe they’ve taken a step back. This schedule does Butch Jones and his staff no favors.
The game I’m looking at hardest? The first. Central Arkansas opens their first season in the ASUN against an opponent for which they have no fear. Athlon Sports sees the Bears as the 13th best FCS program headed into the season. This is no body-bag game for the Red Wolves. It is, however, the perfect litmus test for how the season will shake out.
Freshman to Watch: Cam Jeffery, Safety
Cam Jeffery was the highest rated recruit for the 2021 class, receiving offers from Mississippi State, Georgia Tech, Tennessee and Auburn. The 5’11 athlete from Tuscaloosa, Alabama is a welcome addition to a backfield that had a frustratingly difficult season in pass coverage. Last season, the only program that allowed more yards through the air than Arkansas State was LSU.
Joining Jeffery in the A-State backfield are veterans Antonio Fletcher, Elery Alexander and Anthony Switzer.
Butch Jones decided the locker room needed an immediate makeover
One knock on Blake Anderson was that he failed to build depth outside of wide receiver. This weakness was glaringly evident on the defensive side of the ball, where staff was reduced to poaching the offensive for bodies (Samy Johnson, RB turned CB, is one example).
“We want to make sure we have competitive depth at every position,” said Jones at Sun Belt Media Day, and he wasn’t going to wait to build that depth through high school recruiting. Jones dug into his rolodex and Portal Poached more than 20 athletes, filling the QB room and spackling holes in the defense.
|Brady Martin||QB||Rhode Island|
|James Blackman||QB||Florida State|
|Allen Walters||QB||Mississippi State|
|Jack Hevesey||QB||Late Commit|
|Carson Taumoepeau||QB||Late Commit/PWO|
|Robert Holmes||OL||Austin Peay|
|Nick Lewis||Offensive Tackle||Kentucky|
|Mehki Butler||Offensive Guard||Iowa Western|
|Joseph Ozougwu||Linebacker||North Texas|
|John Mincey||Defensive End||Tennesee|
|Quay Mays||Defensive Lineman||West Virginia|
|Timothy Hardiman||Defensive End||Navy|
|Charles Willekes||Linebacker||Michigan State|
|Denzel Blackwell||Cornerback||Boston College|
|Alan Lamar||Running Back||Yale|
|Tevailance Hunt||Wide Receiver||TCU|
|Javan Hawes||Wide Receiver||Cincinnati|
|Khyheem Waleed||Wide Receiver||Boise State|
|Akeem Hayes||Wide Reciever||Kentucky|
|Adam Jones||Wide Receiver||Tennessee|
|Johnnie Lang||Running Back||Iowa State|
|Jack Combs||Wide Receiver||Iowa|
Not only did the Red Wolves reload at wide receiver, they found two-deep talent at offensive line, linebacker and defensive line. But what can we expect from this lot? Only UCA will tell, but even at, say, 50% attrition you’re looking at a dozen guys who can contribute in 2021. I like those odds.
Layne Hatcher verus Errrrbody
Before spring practice, Layne Hatcher had an open lane to the QB gig. His only competition was big-armed freshman Wyatt Begeal, a 3-star recruit by 247Sports and ESPN. But not only did Begeal acquit himself well during the Spring Game, Butch Jones upped the ante by adding four more bodies to the QB room – all of which not without skills.
|Layne Hatcher||Red Shirt Sophomore||⭐️⭐️⭐️|
|James Blackman||Red Shirt Junior||⭐️⭐️⭐️|
|Allen Walters||Red Shirt Sophomore||⭐️⭐️⭐️|
How will Hatcher respond? The familiar pundits of college football have already responded, ranging with PFF selecting Hatcher as college football’s 13th best QB and the knowledgable Phil Steele leaving Hatcher off his All Sun Belt Teams altogether Nobody seems to know where Hatcher fits.
However, Coach Jones does have a list of criteria that he’d like to see met in his starting QB:
“It comes down to is consistency and performance, the individual who can manage the game,” said Jones at Sun Belt Media Day. Of course, that’s boilerplate coach-speak, but you can crack the code to enough to understand that mistakes will not be tolerated behind center.
Are we under-appreciating Layne Hatcher? The man tossed 19 touchdowns last season against only a pair of picks, and put in a full season’s worth of numbers while splitting exactly half the reps with Logan Bonner. Furthermore, he has that gravity on the sideline – the kind teammates like to rally behind. If the intangibles isn’t enough, Hatcher is said to have put on some weight, possibly to become a bit more durable at the line of scrimmage.
There are rumblings among the fan base that Justin Blackmon, the transfer out of Florida State, has a pathway to the starting job. Let’s be honest: Blackmon isn’t in Jonesboro for the mosquitos. He’s got star power and potential. He has a legacy to repair. How Hatcher responds could very well determine the fate of the 2021 season.
QB Notwithstanding, Is The Offense Back?
Did it ever really leave? Arkansas State ranked 14th last season in Total Offense, thanks in large part to the Law Firm of Hatcher & Bonner and Jonathan Adams Jr. However, the run game was poop – 103rd nationally. There are plenty of fingers to point: the offensive line struggled to open holes, and the RBs were constantly dinged, and I’ll just blame all failures on the two-QB system. What’s different this year?
How about what’s not different? Kieth Heckendorff returns as Offensive Coordinator after Butch Jones dabbled with replacements, including Major Applewhite, who decided to join Kane Womack in Mobile and A.J. Milwee who took a gig at Texas. Can we credit Heck for the Total Offense ranking and the miserable run ranking? Yes.
So Butch provided Heck with new tools. Matt Limegrover (recently of Penn State) takes over at offensive line coach while Arkansas State legend Ryan Aplin coaches the running backs. Limegrover has a pile of Big 10 experience, and it’s not like he doesn’t have plenty of beef to work with. Veterans like Andre Harris, Christian Hoz, Jacob Still and Ivory Scott return, along with (literally) big transfers like Nick Lewis out of Kentucky and Mehki Butler from Iowa Western.
As much chrome as we can put on the grill, do we have the wheels to give the Red Wolves the running game it’s sorely missed in recent seasons? Well, junior RB Marcel Murray looks to be healthy, as does last year’s super freshman Lincoln Pare. Naturally, Butch Jones wasn’t satisfied with the depth at RB, so he brought in Johnnie Lang from Iowa State and Alan Lamar from Yale.
Here’s a guy to look out for: Isaiah Azubuike. The 3-star prospect is entering his sophomore year and only had 18 rushing attempts for 57 yards and a touchdown last season. Is he ready to take on a bigger role?
It’s Strength Coach Season
At Sun Belt Media Day, it became evident that Coach Jones wasn’t overly impressed with the team’s toughness or physicality. He seemed especially concerned about that toughness up front, maintaining that the Red Wolves could not be successful again until it regained domination inside the trenches.
Jones seems to have addressed this concern. During his press conference, Jones seemed especially complimentary of new Assistant Athletics Director for Athletics Performance Jeff Jones, who was with the Auburn when the Tigers won an SEC title 2013.
The team appears to have bought-in on Jones, and the effects are showing:
That’s sophomore CB Leon Jones performing a 45-inch vertical, which I’m told is pretty good. Listen, everybody loves their strength coach. Sports Twitter is full of weight room feats of strength. But just look at this video: it looks like a super soldier training bunker in there.
Is the Defense ready to stop sucking rocks?
Recent seasons have seen the Red Wolves defense go from Bend Don’t Break to Just Break. To compensate for inexperience, Anderson’s defense became a three-man front and everybody else aimlessly patrolling the backfield. Watching opposing receivers grab long TD bombs became a weekly nightmare for fans.
In 2020, the Red Wolves defense ranked 115th in the nation, which wasn’t bad considering that the unit was without a real pass rush. The Red Wolves could not keep opponents out of the end zone, giving up a jaw dropping 37-points per contest. If Butch Jones ranked the priorities of the team, defense must have been atop the totem pole.
The first order of business was to hire Rob Harley as DC, who recently served as linebackers coach at Pitt. The second order of business was to use the transfer wire to fill holes, for which there were many. One of the bright spots for last year’s defense was linebacker Justin Rice. But he bailed with Anderson to Utah State. Jones responded by picking up Kivon Bennett from Tennessee and Thurman Geathers from Louisville. Next, he provided a pass rush by landing Tennessee’s John Mincey, joining TW Ayers, the seldom used Sosaia Tuitavake, and North Texas newcomer Joseph Ozougwu on the edge.
But the real work is with the secondary. Veterans like Samy Johnson, Antonio Fletcher and Anthony Switzer return to defend the pass, and they’ll be joined by Denzel Blackwell (Boston College). The key to this unit may be a fully healthy Samy Johnson. The sophomore had moments of brilliance in 2020, and converted RB could become the next defensive start in Jonesboro.
Newcomer to Watch: Te’Vailance Hunt, Safety
The A-State receiving squad is the deepest and most compelling corps in the Red Wolves locker room, led by young veterans like Jeff Foreman and Corey Rucker. During the Spring Game, Rucker was definitely a hot target. But it was obvious that the coaching staff was eager to get Te’Vailance Hunt the ball, too.
A composite four-star receiver when he signed with TCU, Hunt arrives to Jonesboro with two years of eligibility remaining. He grabbed 20 passes as a freshman, but the Horned Frogs struggled in 2020, leaving Hunt with only two catches.
If the Spring Game is any indication, Hunt will see more action in Heckendorf’s offense. He plays bigger than his 6’1″, 200-lb frame, and hopefully he’ll return making incredible plays like he did against Baylor.
Four Gotta Win Games to Launch the “Butchboro Era”
Defeating Coastal Carolina would be sweet. Downing Washington, just as awesome. But those aren’t among the four games Butch Jones has gotta win to cement his golden legacy in Jonesboro. I’ve selected the four games that are not only essential to win, but also devastating to lose.
Central Arkansas, September 4
The Bears are FCS had don’t even factor in the bowl game record, but damn, to lose to the Purple Cubs would be a catastrophic beginning in Butchboro. Of the four coaches who preceded Jones, only Blake Anderson lost lost to UCA – and to many fans in Jonesboro, his reputation never really recovered.
Memphis, September 11
In 2013, a young Bryan Harsin underestimated two things – the gridiron abilities of the Memphis Tigers and A-State’s hatred for the Memphis Tigers, who drummed the Red Wolves 31-7. In 2020, Anderson would also lose to Memphis, but that Tiger team would finish the season 8-3. The team that trashed Harsin’s Red Wolves only won two more games that season. The loss to Memphis eroded the fan’s faith in Harsin, a few eyebrows were raised when he left for Boise State at season’s end.
Louisiana, October 23
Hugh Freeze defeated Louisiana. Gus Malzahn demolished the Cajuns. Harsin failed miserably against against ULL. Anderson went 2-5 against the Cajuns. Be more like Gus and Hugh, Coach Jones.
Appalachian State, November 6
You may have noted a common thread among these four games – all will be played at Centennial Bank Stadium. This doesn’t seem to bug the Mountaineers, who have dominated the Red Wolves in Jonesboro since the moment they realized Harsin wasn’t fielding a run defense in 2013. The Red Wolves and Mountaineers aren’t classic rivals, but the Sun Belt Sheriff’s Badge still resides in Boone, as the Mountaineers have regularly produced excellent teams season after season. To shift the paradigm back to Jonesboro, Coach Jones needs this win.
[Extreme Rambo Voice] “Do We Get to Win This Time?”
For the first time in recent memory, the Red Wolves failed to see a player listed in the preseason All Sun Belt First or Second Team. That’s absolutely insane. And understandable. It’s difficult to predict just how good the 2021 Red Wolves can be. These Red Wolves have question marks, are unproven, and are certainly beneath the radar.
But they’re not too far beneath the radar. Despite not placing a single player on Sun Belt All Conference, the coaches predicted a second place finish in the West for Arkansas State. The talent be be unproven, but the potential is considerable.
Placing too much stock in transfer talent is a mistake. This year is no the first season that the Red Wolves have seen high-profile talent arrive to Jonesboro. Some have provided good returns. More have not.
The tantalizing mystery behind this team isn’t limited to transfers. Are new defensive coordinator Rob Harley and offensive line coach Matt Limegrover capable of turning around their respective units? Is incoming QB Layne Hatcher The Guy, or are we looking at another frustrating quarterback controversy? Are veterans like Antonio Fletcher an Marcel Murray ready to put the team on their backs? Is the chip on Butch Jones’ shoulder big enough to pry Coastal, Appalachian State and Louisiana out of the Sun Belt spotlight? Is the wide receiver squad really as good as it looks on paper?
Man, that feels like a lot of questions to answer. I asked Coach Jones what it would take for the Red Wolves to regain the Sun Belt Sheriff’s badge, and he said the team had to get tougher in the trenches. He’s right. Anderson wanted to win games through speed and misdirection. The Cajuns, Chants and Mountaineers invested in beef. The beef won, and now it’s up to Jones to play catch-up.
I think he can do it.
PHOTO CREDITS: They mine, baby