It’s over. With a single tweet, former Red Wolves starting-dual starting-backup quarterback Layne Hatcher is moving on from Arkansas State.
His tweet sums up his resume well: Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, compiler of gaudy stats, and celebrated victor over Kansas State. What amazes me is not the bullet points, but how those points were acquired.
Hatcher arrived to Arkansas State after spending a year at Alabama, absorbing Big Saban Energy while sitting in the glow of 5-star recruits. His freshman year at A-State, starting QB Logan Bonner became injured and Hatcher found himself behind center. In his first start, Hatcher led the Red Wolves to a massive 50-43 victory over Troy, tossing 4 touchdowns on 440 yards (and a pair of rookie picks). He would complete the season with 2,950 yards and 27 touchdowns. The Sun Belt dubbed Hatcher “Freshman of the Year, and it appeared that the Red Wolves had found their offensive leader.
But then something curious happened. Logan Bonner, who was having a legendary season himself, returned healthy and ready. Then head coach Blake Anderson was left with a dilemma: either start the Freshman Player of the Year or roll with the player Anderson had faith in from the beginning.
Anderson punted. The weird COVID-19 season saw the Red Wolves utilize and dual-QB system that was almost comically in its equality. Bonner and Hatcher alternated on every possession, and both would deliver nearly identical statistics. But the signal seemed to be is that neither QB was trusted to lead. Neither QB had a chance to win the role. If there wasn’t division in the locker-room , their was certainly division within the fan base. Just pick one.
Anderson left for Utah State after the COVID season and took Bonner with him. Case closed. Hatcher, who even with half-a-season worth of starts, put up 2058 yards and 19 TDs against only two interceptions. Finally, the huddle was his.
Then something curious happened again. Butch Jones replaced Anderson, and there was something about the roster that he just didn’t like. Immediately, he and his staff raided the transfer portal for bigger and faster bodies. Among those bodies, Jones added a number of quarterbacks, including Florida State transfer James Blackman. Suddenly, Hatcher’s role was just as foggy as ever.
As the season approached, the Sun Belt released its preseason First and Second All-Conference Teams. Not a single Red Wolf appeared, including Hatcher. In fact, many pundits left Hatcher off all-conference teams, prompting me to write a column in his defense. “What, exactly, is the knock on Layne Hatcher?” I asked. But when the season opened, Blackman was the starter, and Hatcher was the backup.
What was the knock on Hatcher? In the season opener, Blackman was benched for Hatcher during the second half. Hatcher responded by completing 12 of 12 passes and defeating UCA with four touchdowns. That should have cemented Hatcher’s place as starter. But then the exact opposite happened against Memphis, with Hatcher benched in the second half for Blackman (who nearly out-slugged the Tigers for the win).
The back-and-forth would continue between the two QBs until an injury to Blackman placed the huddle permanently in Hatcher’s hands. At last, consistency had returned behind center.
Except Hatcher never did re-acquire the magic of 2019. In one four game stretch, Hatcher threw an incredible ten interceptions. As starter, he was held to three games under 200 yards. After the loss to Louisiana, he would never throw for more than two touchdowns per game, disastrous for an offensive without an effective run game.
Placing a 2-10 season at Hatcher’s feet is ridiculous – he gave everything he had to his team. But you could sense that the direction the team was taking was one Hatcher wasn’t ready to follow. Hatcher is a leader who throws with unwavering faith in his wide receivers. Jones let it be known early that the QB he was looking for was one who managed the game with tremendous care. Hatcher will gamble. That’s his strength. He takes his shots, and when the shots fail, he shoots again. I suspect Jones took a dim view of this approach.
Blake Ball is transitioning out, and Butchboro is transitioning in. Hatcher didn’t see a place for himself in Butchboro. But where he goes, he will succeed.
PHOTO CREDIT: It’s mine