The Red Wolves defense was among the worst in the nation last season.
Last season, the Red Wolves allowed four TDs of 60-plus yards – in one game. To Coastal Carolina. The first miserable score was a 99-yard pass TD to 6’4, 240-pound tight end Isaiah Likely. He ran like wind past the Red Wolves secondary. Ninety-nine gorgeous yards.
The very next week, the Red Wolves had the Cajuns pinned on their own 1 yard line. Louisiana running back Montrell Johnson flashed a few jukes and delivered a 99 yard TD. The last score of the game (which the Red Wolves lost by one), came on a 74 yard-TD run by the Cajun’s Chris Smith.
The same defense surrendered 503 yards of rushing to Georgia Southern. It gave up 52 points to a struggling Washington Huskies offense. It allowed four touchdown passes from Jake Bentley of South Alabama. Only when the schedule gave us a season finish of ULM, Georgia State and Texas State did the Red Wolves defense finally look like a unit capable of, well, playing defense.
For those who bore witness, the experience was abject horror. Excellent punts from Ryan Hansen were wasted with alarming regularity. No field position was safe! The joke among fans was that whoever played the Red Wolves that week was destined for a Conference Offensive Player of the Week award.
But as we mentioned earlier, season’s end delivered a ray of hope. The defense surrendered only 330 yards to Texas State. It limited Georgia State’s Darren Grainger to 150 yards and no passing TDs. The secondary collected a pair of picks in a win against ULM. The Red Wolves lost two of the season’s last three, but largely thanks to a sudden fall-off on the offensive side of the ball.
Will the Red Wolves build on those modest gains in 2022? The defense finished next to last statistically in 2021, so there is plenty of room to rise. Much of what was missing last season was a relentless pass rush and experience at secondary. Experience may still be a problem, but coach Jones has dedicated much of his recruiting focus on getting defense up to speed and up to size.
So, who will be delivering the hits in 2022?
Special thank you, Kara Richey, for the deets on last year’s debacle.
#8, Eddie Smith, S, rJr
Since arriving to Jonesboro from Alabama, Smith has emerged as a leadership presence in the locker room. Though Smith was ranked as the No. 27 cornerback by 247Sports and the No. 11 player in the state of Louisiana, he didn’t see a wealth of playing time with the Crimson Tide, who is known to have some fair depth. Early consensus on Smith is he will start, and he will be key to limiting those big plays that have haunted A-State.
#45 TW Ayers, DE, rJr
Last season, Ayers joined Butch Jones at Sun Belt Media Day and seemed primed for a golden season. However, the 6’1″, 250-pound defensive end didn’t see much PT, compiling only 13 tackles. However, Ayers did see more action towards the end of the season, and his experience makes him among the team’s more seasoned players on the defensive line.
#0 John Mincey, DL, Senior
The 6’4″, 290-pound interior defensive lineman spent three seasons with Tennessee before joining the Red Wolves last year, tallying total of 21 tackles, including 14 solo and 5.0 TFL. Not bad, but more is expected from Mince in 2022, who is expected to start at tackle.
#1 Samy Johnson, CB, Junior
Is this a “make-it-or-break-it” season from the running back turned corner? Samy led the Red Wolves and ranked fourth in the Sun Belt Conference last seasons with three interceptions. He also sustained a lot of injuries and saw his PT split. This year, he’ll compete for time with Leon Jones, Denzel Blackman and Kenneth Harris. If he’s healthy, Johnson will rise to the top.
#17 Blayne Toll, DE, Sophomore
If feels like Toll was on the Red Wolves radar forever, but it took stops at Fayetteville and Colorado before finally arriving to Jonesboro in the off season. Coming out of Hazen High School, Toll was a four-star prospect by ESPN and three-star by Rivals, 247Sports and the 247Sports Composite. The Red Wolves had trouble menacing the QB in 2021. A combination of Toll and Thurman Geathers should improve Arkansas State’s production at the edge.
#8 Kivon Bennett, LB, rSenior
Bennett transferred from Tennessee last season and immediately became the best defensive talent on the Red Wolves, compiling eight sacks at defensive end while leading the team with 16.5 TFL. Butch Jones has moved Bennett from the edge to linebacker, where the senior believes he’ll find more opportunity to make plays alongside Houston newcomer Jordan Carmouche.
#6 Ahmad Robinson, CB, Freshman
A consensus 3-star prospect by 247Sports.com, Rivals.com and ESPN.com, Robinson is my dark horse on defense. At 5’11”, 180-pounds, Robinson has size to engage Sun Belt wideouts, and the uncertainty at cornerback may provide opportunities for the freshman to avoid the red shirt.