Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzhan and Blake Anderson have a bit of Barnum inside them – a penchant for showmanship. The dramatic flair skipped a generation with the humorless Bryan Harsin, though lord knows he tried. Because we’ve had ringleader coaches over the years, the Spring Game has become a kind of annual spectacle – less of a practice and more of a WWE event starring player-athletes.
The Butch Jones Era has vacuumed the glitter from the turf and has devoted its energy to reckoning bottomline. It’s not that Butch Jones is without panache. He cuts an authoritative figure in his all-black attire, and he definitely understands the value of a well produced video. But gone are the ice cream tucks, the slip-and-slides, and the silly mid-quarter contests that marked the Anderson Age. There are no calls for 10,000 fans as was suggested by Gus Malzahn, nor has anybody crafted a catchy phrase like “Feel the Freeze” for Butch Jones.
Aside from some community volunteer work, it’s all football for Arkansas State football, underscored by one of the quietest preambles to a Spring Game in recent memory. That’s fine. The team won two games last year, so all moxie must be cooked from scratch. With the quiet spring comes mystery. The team is different this year. Familiar faces are gone, and one of the best (if not the best) recruiting class have assumed their lockers. The coaching staff has shuffled. Heck, even the conference is different, with Marshall, Southern Miss, Old Dominion and James Madison joining ranks.
So what should we look for when the Red Wolves take the turf on Saturday?
What’s Going on at Quarterback?
Last season, Jones went crazy attempting to find competition for the presumed incumbent starter Layne Hatcher, grabbing nearly half-a-dozen guys off the waiver wire to fill out the quarterback room. Hatcher, who became uncharacteristically pick-happy as the season progressed, never clicked with Jones, and Hatcher wound up transferring to Texas State.
This season, what appeared to have been a competition with James Blackman, true freshman Jaxon Dailey and sophomore Wyatt Begeal is shaping to be Blackman’s huddle, the promising Daily at backup and Begeal…at wide receiver? Clearly, Jones wants to do something with Begeal’s impressive speed, so long as it doesn’t include being quarterback. Meanwhile, Blackman is reportedly healthy, taking first-team snaps, and even looks like he might have put on a little muscle.
Of course, as soon as I post this review, Butch Jones calls a flea-flicker: AJ Mayer, formerly of the University of Miami Parenthesis Ohio, is a three-star guy who hasn’t seen a whole lot of college action but does provide a nice experience bumper between Blackman and Dailey.
Was Last Year’s Incrementally Improving Defense a Mirage?
Last season’s defense was astoundingly awful, but it was clear to see it improve by season’s inglorious end. Was that improvement permanent? Much of Jones’ portal poaching was focused on defense, bringing aboard King Mwikuta (LB) from Alabama, Blayne Toll (DL) and Terion Sugick (DL) from Colorado and Vanderbilt, and Jordan Carmouche (LB) from Houston. Both Toll and Mwikuta can be game changers, which is good, because the Portal also taketh away – veterans Terry Hampton and Vidal Scott both left the team in April.
The unofficial word from camp has been promising. Vets like Kivon Bennett and Thurman Geathers And there are other guys to take note during the Spring Game, like Eddie Smith (S) who transferred in from Illinois, and Justin Parks (S) the three-star prospect who had a late start to the year last season due to injury.
Who else? How about Denzel Blackwell (CB), the transfer from Boston College who has gained Jones’ attention this Spring, or Samy Johnson (CB) who endured a number of injuries in 2021? Let’s see if Dane Motley (LB) is ready to build on last year’s development, and if Cam Jeffery (LB) can meet expectations as Arkansas State’s highest rated recruit in 2021.
Can We Have a Run Game That Doesn’t Suck?
For the last few seasons, A-State quarterbacks have put up gaudy passing stats in part due to the offense’s terrible run game. This season, we’ll see a couple of alterations from last year. For example, Andy Kwon has assumed command of the offense line, swapping with Matt Limegrover, who takes on Tight Ends and Run Game duties.
The offensive line, said to be the most improved unit of the bunch led by redshirt sophomore Ethan Miner, is still something of a question mark. The unit’s biggest unit, Andre Harris, transferred to Duke. Thus far, the transfer portal has yet to produce a big body. But Jones likes what he sees from Miner, Makilan Thomas, and Mekhi Butler. Combined with returners like Robert Holmes and Christian Hoz, perhaps there is talent and leadership to open a few lanes.
Even if the lanes get open, who has the speed and instinct to exploit the holes. A few names have bubbled to the top, starting with a familiar one: Marcel Murray, who toyed with Portaling before recommitting himself for another season in Jonesboro. We’ve heard this story for a couple seasons now – that Murray is healthy, revitalized and back to his freshman form. That narrative is being repeated this season, so we’ll just have to believe it when we see it.
In the meantime, Jones and OC Keith Heckendorf have plenty of materials to work with, including Johnnie Lang and Lincoln “Pizza Inn” Pare. One name that’s standing out in April is Michael Sharp II, a three-star freshman whose performance this Spring should earn some reps on Saturday.
A Ruckerless Boat
The Red Wolves receiving squad lost All-American wide receiver Corey Rucker to the Portal and South Carolina this off season, leaving a vacuum for a number of guys to fill. Reagan Ealy, the plucky walk-on, is enjoying Jones’ praise, and Jeff Foreman appears ready to rebound after an inconsistent 2021 season. At-times-brilliant Te’Vailance Hunt returns for one more season, and redshirt Omari Walker has an opportunity to put his blazing track speed to use.
Five Guys to Look For
- Dominic Zvada (K): Rated a five-star kicker by Kohl’s, Zvada could be quite a weapon for Heckendorf
- Thurman Geathers (DE): A contributor from 2021 looks to become a major force in 2022
- Miller McCrumby (TE): The Red Wolves haven’t had a dominating tight end since Darion Griswold, and McCrumby has caught Jones’ eye
- Jaxon Dailey (QB): While Justin Blackman is securing the starting job behind center, Daily is said to be the clear #2
- Blayne Toll (DE): The former Arkansas and Colorado talent has taken an indirect path to where he belongs: Butchboro
I love the Spring Game. You get to see who’s on crutches and who’s getting some “show me what you got” reps. I like how Butch Jones walks around the field with his head down and his arms crossed, channeling Richard Nixon. I like that Food Services always underestimates how many concession stands to open. I like seeing recruits getting the VIP treatment. I like it when the waterfalls are on – I liked it when the waterfall mist soaked poor Blake Grupe to the bone last year.
This should be a fine Spring Game.
On Wednesday, The A-State Athletic Department released details about the Spring Game this Saturday:
- Former defensive end and All-Sun Belt Conference selection Joe Ozougwu will be recognized as Arkansas State’s 2021 Larry Lacewell MVP
- The Red Wolves will also present multiple team awards to players who have excelled during their spring camp.
- A DJ will be on site as part of the day’s entertainment
- Following the game, fans will be invited onto the field to visit with the coaching staff and student-athletes while getting autographs and taking photos
- A balloon artist will also be performing (!)
PHOTO CREDIT: It me