There is an excellent chance that the 2021 Red Wolves finish the season 1-11. Arkansas State will likely conclude the season with, statistically, the worst defense in FBS. The passing offense – which began the season among the most potent in college football – is on course to be one of the program’s most dismal in recent memory, with at least three QBs given a shot at revitalizing its greatness. We may not see a Red Wolves running back crack 60 yards this season. For the remainder of the season, we’ll be grateful to see the team take a lead in a game – even a brief lead! On the surface (and perhaps even deeper), this has been an abysmal season of football.
And the team is doing it right.
I’ve seen many Red Wolves opponents up close – and the difference of speed, strength and size is starting. Cam Peoples, the powerful running back for the Appalachian State Mountaineers, looked bigger than any defender on the Red Wolves. The same could be said of Coastal Carolina tight end Isaiah Likely. Opposing defensive lines dwarf our heroically small offensive line – a line that has been replenished by junior college transfers for several seasons now.
Big and Fast is difficult (if not impossible) to out-coach. As the rest of the Sun Belt evolved, the Red Wolves remained perpetually stuck in 2015, attempting to fill gaps in size by raiding junior college rosters while constantly recruiting “diamonds in the rough” talent. For years, the Red Wolves have been shut out of the NFL Draft despite producing accomplished Sun Belt players. The reason is obvious – the program was building for the Sun Belt, and not for the future.
The future is big, strong and fast. The majority of Sun Belt programs understand this, and the elite patiently built the rosters accordingly. For years, Red Wolves bit on too many malcontent talents transferring from big-brand universities – which impresses guys like me looking for a story, but ultimately brings too little to the huddle. The program needs home-grown players who have bought in on the mission.
Butch Jones is working to that end. He sees Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State and knows that they cannot be beat by mercenaries and rough-hewn talent. Yes, he brought in a large number of transfer talent this season – many of which have proven to be essential contributors. But look at his recruiting. Of Jones’ 14 committed recruits, five are offensive lineman. Four are defensive specialists. Non are listed ambiguously as “athletes.” Overall, the team ranks 4th in recruiting but first in average rating. The dye is cast.
But let’s also look at Jones himself. While other coaches have banned media, tossed players under the bus, and exploded in various ways, Jones has acquitted himself calmly and consistently, patiently pointing out areas where the team needs improvement while positioning the focus on his own decisions. Jones brought with him a reputation – relentlessly pushed by the Tennessee media – as a bristly and unapproachable coach. Nothing has been farther from that narrative.
Through all of this, the roster has soldiered forward, game after game, with pressure mounting from staff, the boosters, the media, and the fans. We’ve seen some incredibly tough displays on the gridiron this season, from Samy Johnson returning to the field after hospitalization n, from Jack Combs getting back into the huddle a play later after being targeted during the Mountaineers game. On Saturday, I witnessed James Blackman delivering relentless encouragement to Layne Hatcher. I saw freshman Reagan Ealy stand atop a table and passionately beseech the sullen crowd for more support. I saw the third-string QB sacrifice his body in the waning seconds of a hopelessly lost game, pounding out unnecessary yards.
Wait for it. Wait for it. The team is being built right.
Photo Credit: MINE!