What the Red Wolves Must Do to Compete in the New Sun Belt

“We’re gonna sign a whole bunch of players,” said Butch Jones after an all-too-familiar fourth quarter collapse against Troy

The day after Red Wolves fans witnessed a 48-19 loss to its ancient foe Troy Trojans, the Arkansas State men’s basketball team delivered a 25 point victory over Bethel, which was positioned by Bethel as “Bethel Loses Exhibition at Arkansas State.” Bethel is an NAIA school – the win or loss doesn’t even count. What did count was the Red Wolves 67-59 home loss to Prairie View on Friday night. That defeat brought me low – even lower than the football loss to Troy. Red Wolves fans should have some guarantees in life, like getting a W over Prairie View at home.

This isn’t the first time, by far, that the Red Wolves have lost to a vastly smaller program at basketball, and that was what gnawed at me. Arkansas State has fallen to programs like Prairie View, UAPB, Cleveland State, Savannah State and Lamar with regularity. There’s nothing shocking about a loss to Prairie View at home. There’s always somebody out there who’s going to say “Prairie View upset Fresno State in 2016!” or “Lamar has had some good years in the Southland!” like that makes everything okay.

But it’s not okay. “Life is about growth,” Thor once explained to Loki. “It’s about change. But you seem to just want to stay the same.” Arkansas State is Loki. We’re not growing. We’re not changing. It’s not just basketball. Volleyball and women’s basketball has nose dived in recent seasons. Baseball is a radioactive zone. And football? Three straight losing seasons in a conference that is gaining strength every year. What are we even doing right now?

It’s Too Easy to Determine What Went Wrong

“Where did it all go wrong?” is a common groan uttered by anyone currently immersed in a seemingly inescapable imbroglio. Pinpointing the exact moment when a slow-developing disaster occurred isn’t always easy. For Arkansas State, many would say the wheels began to wiggle in 2016, when the Red Wolves opened the season 0-4 (and yet somehow managed to win a share of the conference championship). However, the evidence takes us to at least a season earlier – when Toledo pounded visiting Arkansas State 37-7.

That particular game, played at Toledo, followed the bowl game played played the season before, when the Rockets outscored the Red Wolves 63-44. The followup in 2016 was billed among fans as a Revenge Game for the Red Wolves. But it didn’t play out that way. Back-up QB James Tabery subbed for Fredi Knighten (injured in a home heartbreaker to Missouri) and the Rockets would come away with a crisp, businesslike 37-7 win.

I wouldn’t see it (or maybe I wouldn’t accept it) until the Rockets visited Arkansas State the following year for the season opener. Toledo simply dominated the line of scrimmage and out-muscled the Red Wolves to a dreadfully dull 31-10 win in Jonesboro. Toledo was everything the Red Wolves weren’t: big, fast, and strong. (This point was underscored in that season’s Cajun Bowl game with Louisiana Tech, when the Bulldogs seemed at least one size bigger than any Red Wolf on the field.)

Blake Anderson is just a fun guy.

At the time, Coach Blake Anderson was known nationally for a failed trick play – The Fainting Goat of 2014. Earlier in his Red Wolves tenure, Anderson faked a punt in his own end zone to disastrous effect. The failures didn’t matter. The entertainment mattered. We were Trick Play U! Anderson became trapped by his own reputation, feeling it his duty to entertain the masses with play calling so creative one might all it reckless. But the reason behind those trick plays may have gone deeper than showmanship.

Perhaps Anderson realized that his competition had out-talented his talent.

It’s Difficult to Make It Right

When Coastal Carolina entered the Sun Belt, they were a small and slow team reliant on a quasi-triple option to move the ball. It was my observation that the Chanticleers played as many as four quarterbacks a game. Much like their hideous teal turf, the offensive scheme was a gimmick to amuse visiting ESPN announcers. Coastal was brought into the Sun Belt for its baseball. I harbored doubts that it could ever compete as a football program.

Suddenly, Chanticleers size and speed seemed to triple. What the hell had these wimpy Jekylls become such ferocious Hydes? As it turned out, head coach Jamey Chadwell had used the red shirt to conceal and develop talent beneath our very noses. Today, his program plays its second SBC Championship game in three years.

I haven’t set foot in Conway to take the pulse of Chanticleers’ fans, but one can imagine that Coastal’s deliverance of a national baseball championship in 2016 gave Chadwell all the agency and privacy he needed to develop and winning football program – without too much grumble from fans and boosters. For three miserable seasons, Coastal Carolina delivered loss after loss before emerging from out of nowhere in 2020.

Arkansas State lacks the luxury of an alternate sports program pulling the spotlight from the gridiron. The basketball team hasn’t provided true competitive fire in 30 seasons. The baseball program has become the stuff of ridicule. Women’s volleyball, once a nice reprieve, has cratered, as has women’s basketball. Women’s soccer has become more than just competitive, and for that we are grateful. We’re good at track. We’re good at bowling. Neither can sustain us fully.

Bowling has become our Northstar

The brutal glare on Butch Jones to terraform the football program requires a welder’s mask to behold. Every failure to convert on third-down, every player who enters the transfer portal, every sack the quarterback absorbs is a black mark on Jones’ performance.

Oddly enough, his situation at Arkansas State mirrors his situation in Knoxville. During Jones’ tenure at Tennessee, the Volunteers saw one NCAA Basketball Tournament appearance and zero NCAA Baseball Tournament appearances. Football was the only program Vols’ fans had. Sound familiar?

An Amateur’s Guide to Program Building

During a recent press conference, Butch Jones referred to himself as a “program builder,” and his performance as a recruiter provides important validation – he delivered the conference’ #1 recruiting class in 2022 and appears destined to do it again in 2023.

Recruits alone won’t build the program. Blake Anderson’s recruiting classes were pretty good, too. You have to recruit to a vision. For example, if you envision your team being tough in the trenches, then recruiting a 3-star running back you’ll eventually convert into a safety isn’t efficient to that end.

Butch Jones wants to build his team in the way he saw teams built in the SEC: with size, strength and speed – at depth. In 2016, Blake Anderson wooed a transfer from TCU said to have size, speed, and (for some reason) the ability to punt. So many eggs were placed into that one player that when the shell broke, there wasn’t enough yoke to sustain the team. Today’s Sun Belt cannot be driven by a single exceptional player. Even without Grayson McCall, the Chanticleers are a dangerous team. Even without the services Carlton Martial, the Trojan’s defense is in top form.

Even in this disappointing season, you can see some of the seeds bearing modest fruit. The Red Wolves have one of the better special teams units in the country. The defense, ranked dead last a season ago, is now ranked 90th. Ours is among the youngest roster in the nation, which means we should see a sudden spike in ability much like Coastal saw in 2020. As mentioned earlier, our recruiting is best in conference.

That said, what are the goals? Naturally, Sun Belt Championships are the ultimate goal, but what at the steps?

The first seems to be to develop an offense line that rivals that of Appalachian State, Troy, Louisiana and Coastal Carolina.

The second, charge the wide receiving corps with real speed.

Third, build more depth on the defensive line and at linebacker.

Fourth, develop a quarterback who throws well and can run when called upon.

Sounds easy, right?

The Elephant in the Room

Much of fan dissatisfaction is directed to the assistant coaches, specifically towards Keith Heckendorf, the only holdover from the Anderson Era who was retained because at least two of Butch Jones’ personal preferences declined the invitation.

This season, the Red Wolves finished 118th in total offense under Heckendorf. In the two years prior to Butch Jones’ arrival, the Red Wolves under Heckendorf finished 26th and 33rd, respectively. How can we explain such a drop? For starters, we never found a replacement for wide receiver talents like Jay Adams, Omar Bayless and Kirk Merritt. The heir to that throne, Corey Rucker, left for South Carolina. Guys like Jeff Foreman and Te’Vailance Hunt, though talented, could never deliver the same impact.

Corey Rucker was supposed to be the Chosen One

Meanwhile, the offensive line and the run game became progressively worse – even as the warning signs began to flash frantically late in Anderson’s tenure. A parade of offensive line coaches have come and gone, none of which have had the effectiveness as J.B. Grimes did under Gus Malzahn. More and more often, the staff was forced to reach deep into the portal for live bodies. (Today, an extraordinary number of freshman on the roster are offensive linemen). As the line deteriorated, so did the run game. No matter how talented the running back might be, he can’t run through gaps that don’t exist. When Robert Holmes went down with a season-ending injury early in the year, there was no depth behind him to salvage the run game.

Without a reliable run game to provide balance, Red Wolves quarterbacks were forced to throw and throw and throw, culminating in incredibly gaudy passing stats for Fredi Knighten and Justice Hansen and ending with Layne Hatcher’s Sun Belt Freshman of the Year performance in 2019. Unfortunately, once opposing defense coordinators learned they could stop the Red Wolves run and pressure the quarterback with a three-man front, it was over.

Is this Heckendorf’s fault? Is it Butch Jones’ fault? Is it Matt Limegrover’s fault? Or Andy Kwon’s? Why not Buster Faulkner? Or Allen Rudolph?

Well, it’s somebody’s fault. Coach Jones has been stubbornly loyal to Heckendorf, often defending questions about the offensive play calling by citing failures of execution. That hasn’t stopped critics of Heckendorf from declaring his play calling boring, predictable, and stubborn. When A.J. Mayer was brought in to sub for Blackman, everybody knew a QB run was coming. Way too many second down attempts began at least two yards behind the sticks. Third down was simply something that occurred right before a punt. Defenses didn’t have to worry about Blackman breaking out to run – he seemed ordered to maintain his presence forever in the pocket. When Blackman scrambled for a 30 yard touchdown during the season’s final game, jaws went slack. Were we even allowed to do that?

It may not be Heckdorf’s fault (or Jones’ fault, or Limegrover’s fault, etc.). But a new offensive perspective is desperately needed.

I Made Mistakes, Too

“With the West as soft as it is, the Red Wolves could finish as high as third and as low as next to last.” That was one thing I said. The Red Wolves, of course finished dead last. But that’s not nearly as egregious as what I declared in my Big Preview:

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.

The Red Wolves Real Big 2022 Preview

Yeah, I predicted the Red Wolves would go 9-3. I also foresaw Te’Vailance Hunt becoming the Red Wolves next great wide receiver. I was the one who declared that Red Wolves fans would finally be treated to a dangerous run game. As usual, I ignored all warning signs and went all in on my Red Wolves. When Arkansas State did its duty by destroying Gambling State 58-3, I felt confident that I would win the over on the 4-win prediction for which Vegas had us pegged.

I lost that 4-win over, if that makes you feel better about my rosy prognostications.