The Red Wolves Real Big 2022 Football Preview

After a disastrous 2021 season, Butch Jones and Arkansas State seek redemption

Close your eyes and journey with me to the Land of Memory. It is August, 2021. Red Wolves football is preparing for its first year under Butch Jones, fresh from a special advisor’s stint at Alabama. Uncertainty becomes our oxygen. Nobody knows who will start at quarterback: the incumbent Layne Hatcher or the Florida State transfer James Blackman. The offensive line continues to be a question mark, as well as the RB position, now coached by A-State legend Ryan Aplin. Meanwhile, the defense was dealt a blow with the departure of William Bradley-King, who bounced to Baylor, and Justin Rice, who followed Coach Blake Anderson to Utah State.

Still, there is optimism, despite so few players chosen among the preseason Sun Belt All-Conference Teams. Jones had brought in a number of big transfers, including North Texas linebacker Joe Ozougwu and Tennessee tight end Kivon Bennett. Plus, emerging superstar Corey Rucker is back to lead the wide receivers. A new mentality permeated throughout preseason practice. Words like “accountability” and “toughness” often bubbled to the surface. Would this team surprise the critics?

Well, yeah, sort of! After collecting a business victory at home against UCA, the Red Wolves would win only one more game on the year – to perennial conference punching bag ULM. Nearly every facet of the game betrayed weakness: the offensive line offered no protection and created few running lanes, the defense gave up comically big plays, and neither Blackman or Hatcher could ever develop a consistent rapport with their receivers. When the offense worked, the defense floundered. When the defense finally showed signs of stiffening, the offense deflated. The 2021 season was The Perfect Fart of stench underscored by interceptions, missed tackles and blown assignments.

Wake up! We’re back in 2022. Ryan Aplin is gone. Layne Hatcher is gone. Corey Rucker is gone. Also gone, a great deal of body fat, at least according to Butch Jones, who continues to shake the Portal for more speed and size. During the off season, he and his staff delivered the Sun Belt’s highest rated recruiting class. Today, he continues to put an emphasis on developing a winning mentality.

“We call it PME,” said Jones, “Physically. Mentality. Emotionally. That’s our focus as a team.”

Does this sound like more of the coach-speak for which Jones is famous? Absolutely. Jones isn’t Shakespeare. Except Butch Jones actually uses these mantras as a kind audio north star that guides team development. Last season, Butch Jones was coaching a Blake Anderson team. This year, Jones is coaching a program that more resembles his clenched-jaw image.

He talks about toughness, and he talks about it relentlessly. He didn’t like how the team seemed to wilt emotionally when the opposition scored. He certainly didn’t like what he saw in the trenches, where the team was consistently out-muscled. He was not impressed with how the players approached their conditioning. Time spend at Tennessee and Alabama showed him what elite football players look like. He wasn’t seeing it in Jonesboro.

Today, he’s quick to praise the physical transformation of his players. “(kick returner/rb) Johnnie Lange longs like a totally different player,” said Jones at Sun Belt Media Days. He added that quarterback James Blackman had put on 15 pound of much needed meat. Jones isn’t the first coach to talk up the physicality of his players, but for Jones it was a priority.

Another difference between this season and last? In 2021, the Red Wolves were projected to finish second in the SBC West. This season, expectations have the team finishing 6th. Is that a fair prediction? I guess that’s what we’re here to discuss.

Five Big Premature Departures

  • Layne Hatcher, QB: portaled to Texas State
  • Corey Rucker, WR: portaled to South Carolina
  • Andre Harris, OL: portaled to Duke
  • Lincoln Pare, RB: portaled to Texas State
  • Terry Hampton, DL: portaled to Arkansas

You can also add Blake Grupe to the list, who transferred his reliable leg to Notre Dame. Listen, nobody likes it when players leave, especially when they bail for an in-conference, in-division program. However, addition-by-subtraction is a very real thing. Let’s move on.

Five Big Portal Additions

  • Eddie Smith, S, Illinois
  • Blayne Toll, DE, Colorado
  • Champ Flemings, WR, Oregon State
  • Jordan Carmouche, LB, Houston
  • Ja’Quez Cross, RB, Purdue

Remember King Mwikuta? Well, unremember him. He gone. Meanwhile, every single man on this list is expected to either start or significantly contribute to the Red Wolves in 2022. Also look for offensive lineman Jordan Rhodes (Ole Miss) and defensive lineman Terion Sugick (Vanderbilt) to raise some eyebrows.

What Do We Need More Desperately: A Defense That Doesn’t Surrender Horrendously Huge Plays Or a Run Game That Actually Produces Positive Yards?

This is a rhetorical question because I already know the answer is “both.” I won’t dig deeply into it (I haven’t enough ibuprofen ) but last season, the Red Wolves gave up 40,000 more big plays than delivered runs over 3 yards. (Don’t check the math on this, just trust me).

Last season, the team’s most effective runner was Lincoln “Pizza Inn” Pare, who led the team with 448 rushing yards even though he didn’t see much playing time. Getting the majority of totes was a combo of Johnnie Lang (Iowa State) and Alan Lamar (Yale). Combined, the trio managed exactly two rushing TDs. Stalwart veteran Marcel Murray didn’t even factor.

Today, there’s a new vibe in the running back room. Pare and Lang are gone. Marcel Murray and Johnnie Lang remain, but Lang is thought to be more a kick return specialist. Murray is said to be healthy and mentioned by Jones with warmth. But the name that routinely rises to the top is Brian Snead, a 6’1″ 212-pound rumbler by way of Ohio State and Austin Peay. Also rating mentions, Ja’Quez Cross from Purdue – lighter at 5″11′ 185-pounds. Along with incoming freshman Mike Sharp II, this may be the deepest squad of backs the Red Wolves have had for several seasons.

Of course, nobody is going to break a big run if the offensive line continues to struggle. Former TE coach Andy Kown flips to Offensive Line Coach with a special mandate to keep Blackman out of the hospital. Fingers are crossed that 6’5″ 330-pound Ole Miss transfer Jordan Rhodes is the solution, reportedly being fitted at starting left tackle. Meanwhile, much will be placed on the wide shoulders of Mekhi Butler, Ethan Miner, Makilan Thomas and Robert Holmes – all big hosses who need to stay healthy.

Yeah, but what about the def

I’m getting to that. Last year, Rob Harley took over the defense and it seemed to confuse a lot of guys on the field. However, Harley had a lot of deficits to overcome. Blake Anderson’s last year in Jonesboro saw a defense that overloaded the secondary with so many players, nobody seemed to understand their role, or be given responsibility. Harley returned to a four-man rush, but the team struggled to break the line of scrimmage, ranking a ho-hum 64th for team TFL and a dismal 78th for sacks.

Providing much of that limited amount of menace was Kivon Bennett, who supplied 8 sacks at defensive end. During the off season, Jones and Harley decided to move Bennett to linebacker, joining Houston transfer Jordan Carmouche. Why? Jones has stated that the team missed way too many tackles at linebacker last season. I’m not an evaluator of talent, but I do believe that Bennett can be force anywhere you put him on the field. Still, can you just take a defensive end and plug him at linebacker? We’re about to see.

They guy who may be making the biggest impact is Illinois transfer Eddie Smith, an accomplished safety who can lead by example. Smith has enjoyed much of the staff’s most glowing praise, as his sophomore counterpart, sophomore Justin Parks. Listening to Jones talk about these two makes you believe that some of those big scores from last season are put down before the end zone is crossed.

Can we get a full Season of Samy?

Do we want to talk cornerbacks? Oh, why not? The most recognizable name on this squad is Samy Johnson, who has flashed brilliance in his two seasons at CB, but perhaps this is the season Johnson achieves greatness. Meanwhile, returning to the field is Leon Jones and Denzel Blackwell, the transfer from Boston College. Both looked stronger as the season progressed last season. Let’s roll that strength into 2022, eh?

So if Bennett isn’t playing defensive end….

Bennett, who’s father Cornelius enjoyed a nice NFL career at linebacker, will likely add some bone-crunching physicality to the position. His move also allows guys like Thurman Geathers, the 2021 transfer from Louisville who collected his first two career sacks last season. Hopefully, the 6’2″ 217-pound rSr is hungry for more. His battery mate, Colorado transfer Blayne Toll, is said to be fitting in well.

Behind Geathers and Toll is a whoooooole bunch of…potential!

It’s Time for a Big James Blackman Season

Lol, what a dumb subhead. Of course it’s time for a “big” James Blackman season. What good is a fun-sized season or a smedium season? We need all the big we can behind center, and Blackman is the man. At 6’5″, Blackman is certainly one of the taller QBs we’ve seen in Jonesboro, and he certainly can use the extra pounds gained in training camp to endure the pass rush he will most certainly see all season long.

Blackman nursed his share of boo-boos in 2021

Blackman had his moments last season, like when he threw for 306 yards and a career-high four touchdowns against Memphis – all in the second half. However, he bounced in and out of the huddled all season before missing the last six games in 2021 due to injury. Butch Jones has been very complimentary of Blackman’s “CEO” approach to the offense. And Blackman has said that, entering his second season, he’s no longer devoting so much energy learning the playbook, instead spending that time tuning his relationship with the skill players. That sounds pretty good.

Meanwhile, many will be watching (and pining for) true freshman Jaxon Dailey, a highly touted talent. However, the official backup may very well be junior signal caller AJ Mayer, the 6’3″ transfer from Miami (Not the Florida Miami). Mayer has starting experience and should be a solid buffer between Blackman and Dailey.

What Say the Board of Dark Emotions?

Darkness, my old friend

Let’s Look At That Schedule

Last year’s schedule was a meaty platter of intriguing home matchups – that we physically weren’t prepared for. Oh well! This season offers us a conference respite – no Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina or Georgia State. It’s not a schedule that’s going to win a national championship, but it’s awfully agreeable to getting A-State back into bowl contention.

Normally, I talk pretty big about out Power 5 opponents, but this is not a great year for the Red Wolves to visit Ohio State in Columbus. However, Memphis is a program in decline, and we get South Bama and Troy at The Cent. I’m not wild about a long road trip to the mysterious Old Dominion, and visiting Louisiana in Lafayette will be difficult even if the Cajuns struggle like I predict. Will we really go 9-3? Seems awfully Scarlet Tinted, but it seems possible.

OpponentW/LPenetrating Analysis
Sept 3GramblingWEven against this FCS opponent, questions should be answered
Sept 10Ohio St.LNot ideal to face a Top 5 program at this stage
Sept 17MemphisWUnless we sustain major injuries in Columbus, this looks like a surprise win
Sept 24Old DominionWWelcome to the Belt. Long road trip casts doubt on this pick.
Oct 1ULMWThe Warhawks haven’t beaten the Red Wolves in over a decade
Oct 8JMUWNot underestimating the Dukes, but they gotta prove size and depth
Oct 15Southern MissWThe Mustard Buzzards are still rising from the ashes of a terrible season
Oct 22LousianaWCajuns have lost way too much not to be rebuilding
Oct 29South AlabamaLSomething about the Jags that continues to thwart the Red Wolves
Nov 12UMASSWUMASS is an amusing basketball school
Nov 19Texas StateWA great deal could be on the line here by the time we see this game
Nov 26TroyLFeels like a comeback year for the Trojans
I feel like I’m waaaaaaay too optimistic

The Big Finale

Last season took a big toll on Arkansas State fans, who had become accustomed to winning. It’s not easy watching programs like Louisiana, Coastal and Appalachian State receive the spotlight while the Red Wolves are relegated to the practice squad. It’s humbling and infuriating. Somehow, we’ve enjoyed nearly a decade of conference championships, bowl trips and accolades, wand yet it still feels like we missed a wide-open window.

The team feels like the start to a classic comeback story. Everybody has something to redeem. I promise we will see competent football. I feel certain that our defense will claw its way from the third page of the NCAA Statistics site. I would not surprised if we hear ESPN announcers say “Butch Jones” and “incredible turnaround” in the same breath.

Nine wins is an awful lot to ask for a program that most recently delivered only two. It’s not fair to Butch Jones, it’s not fair to the team, and it’s not fair to the fans. BetOnline has the over/under for Arkansas State at 4.5 victories. I’d take the over.

PHOTO CREDITS: A little bit of me, and little bit of Sun Belt