Halftime: Evaluating Arkansas State after 6 games

Red Wolves are better in 2022, but belief has not yet returned to Jonesboro

Brad Bobo has the most difficult challenge in all of college football. As the newly named Associate Athletics Director for Marketing and Fan Engagement, he has tasked himself with a challenge that rivals those of mighty Hercules: to get Red Wolves fans united by a signature sing-along-song.

When “Ring of Fire,” the Johnny Cash staple, thundered onto the Centennial Bank Stadium sound system in the third quarter, the Red Wolves were down to the Dukes of James Madison and clearly having trouble moving the ball. The crowd wasn’t in the mood for songs – not with the offense putting up so many three and outs; not when the defense was getting mowed over by the Dukes running backs and tight ends.

The microphone went to the student section – a barren wasteland that had only grown dryer as the game progressed. A couple of slightly embarrassed students tried to lend some fire to the sing-a-long, but the effort was futile. The fans simply didn’t feel the jovial moxie to sing. The lyrics remained mostly mumbled – like the last hymnal in a church service that had gone fifteen minutes too long.

The Red Wolves are a better team in 2022. But the improvement has yet to restore joy in the hearts of Red Wolves fans, who are far more compelled to grouse sourly than to sing.

Let’s Recap Those Six Games

Is the Red Wolves Offense Being Too Careful?

With the Red Wolves knocking on the Dukes door on a 3rd and five, James Blackman did something that no Red Wolves quarterback had ever done – hurled a football into the waterfall.

Blackman, who absorbed six sacks in the 20-42 defeat to James Madison, spent much of the evening scrambling for his life, and who can blame him for putting a little extra adrenaline into a throw-away. It was the right call.

The Red Wolves have been particularly careful with the ball, having committed exactly three turnovers in six games. But one wonders if all this caution is to the detriment of running a dangerous offense?

It is clearly evident that Butch Jones wants Arkansas State to have a power run game. Brian Snead and Johnnie Lang certainly fit the bill for the skill position, delivering power and toughness unseen in Jonesboro as of late. However, where the offensive line lacks in depth, it isn’t helped by a straightforward style of play calling that doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Red Wolves average about 1 yard per carry on first down – which hasn’t stopped the offensive coaching staff from dialing up the up-the-middle plays on first down. While such a strategy does mitigate the risk, it does little thwart any defense with an even less than average defensive line.

The Difference Between 2021 and 2022? We Have a Chance

Remember last year? The 99 yard touchdowns from opponents? All those games made out-of-reach by halftime? The spirit-crushing interceptions? Allowing more than 50-points four times? The Ohio State road game notwithstanding, the Red Wolves may not be winning enough games, but they’re keeping things interesting up to the fourth quarter (when things have generally fallen apart for Arkansas State).

That’s not good enough, of course. You ain’t getting anybody to sing “Ring of Fire” for just three quarters of reasonable football. But it might be enough to get you humming in the shower.

After the unfortunate loss to JMU, A-State now ranks 92nd for total defense, which good but better than next to worst, which was where the Red Wolves ranked last season. Offensively, well, we talked about the over-abundance of caution. But you must admit, it’s rather nice not seeing progress upended by a dumb false start or a personal foul. The discipline is refreshing.

Fact remains, the Red Wolves rush attack ranks 100th in the nation and the passing offense is ranked 58th which is apparently a recipe for three-and-outs – a toxic condition for a defense that should be used sparingly.

Injuries Continue to Be The Red Wolves’ Bane

It would be nice to have enough depth to absorb a couple injuries to the offensive line, but alas we don’t. The season-ending injury to Robert Holmes has put the offensive line into disarray, with freshman Noah Smith being pressed into service. Meanwhile, (OL) Jordan Rhodes has also taken lumps, and the team has already seen dings to (RB) Johnnie Lang, (DE) Kivon Bennett, (WR) Champ Flemmings and (WR) Te’Vailance Hunt.

“We’re beat up,” admitted Butch Jones.

But every football team is beat-up. “Next man up” is the common mantra in the sporting community, right? However, Arkansas State is among the youngest teams in college football.

This means that the Red Wolves are heavily reliant on a handful of guys with the necessary experience to play winning football. Remember the depth at offensive line? Of the 38 freshman on the roster, seven are offensive linemen – nearly 40% of the offensive line room. One day, Arkansas State will have a beefy room of experienced offensive linemen. Just not today.

What’s Going Wrong & What’s Going Right?

James Blackman’s 68.5% completion percentage is fourth best in the Sun Belt, as is his 163.3 QB rating. Johnnie Lang is the nation’s leader for kick return yardage, and Seydou Traore leads all Sun Belt tight ends in receiving yards.

Perhaps the biggest asset gained in 2022 is freshman kicked Dominic Zvada, who joined Arkansas State as a Kohl five-star rated as the #45 kicker in the nation. The Z-Man has been nothing but aces from short, mid and long.

What’s wrong? Blackman has been a solid QB, but he has yet to truly take over a game and close out an opponent. Since the hobbling of Flemmings, the pass game has missed a true game-changing presence. Snead and Lang are tough running backs, but their talent cannot overcome the injuries on the offensive line – a line that has given up more sacks than anyone in the Sun Belt except Troy.

Defense is no longer the stuff of nightmares, but it’s not doing enough to pressure quarterbacks (9th in the SBC for sacks). Eddie Smith has delivered a fine degree of professionalism in the backfield – and how often have we seen him hustle from the other side of the field to make a TD saving tackle? But the defense is still surrendering too many “explosive plays.”

After the game against JMU, Coach Jones described The Dukes as a “complete team.” At this time, the Red Wolves are not a complete team – it’s a program making due until all the ingredients mature into a tasty cake.

When the cake is ready to eat, the fans will be ready to sing.