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With transfers and an aggressive identity, Arkansas State is playing for keeps

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1. Playing for keeps

It's really fun to talk about the Sun Belt's new kids. During the conference realignment frenzy of a few years ago, C-USA replaced what it had lost with long-term plays and the biggest possible markets. It plucked away some Sun Belt schools, added some startups, and made a lot of moves that a) made sense in theory and b) did nothing to help the actual on-field product in the short-term.

The Sun Belt, meanwhile, aimed for quality. In replacing what C-USA had plucked away, the SBC went out and nabbed Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, two of FCS' recent dynasties. Both programs stumbled as they got ready to make the jump, but both immediately improved and thrived once in FBS. The result: In terms of S&P+ averages, the Sun Belt was actually a better conference than Conference USA last year.

But as good as Georgia Southern and Appalachian State were, neither won the league. Arkansas State did. Blake Anderson's Red Wolves stumbled to a 1-3 start in non-conference play, then hit the turbo button. They were the steadiest team in Sun Belt action, thumping Appalachian State in Boone and scoring at least 37 points in every conference game. Their November run was particularly impressive, so impressive that Vegas couldn't keep up: In four November games, ASU overachieved compared to the spread by an average of 16.6 points per game (and overachieved S&P+ by an average of 22.2).

And then they went out and landed not only the third-best recruiting class in the conference (per the 247Sports Composite), but also a boatload of intriguing transfers: former Oklahoma quarterback Justice Hansen, former Alabama defensive lineman Dee Liner, former all-star TCU return man Cameron Echols-Luper, etc.

Anderson is playing for keeps in Jonesboro. Not only is he actually still in town -- from 2010-14, ASU had a different coach each year, so this is actually a rather impressive note -- but he's putting together what will probably be, on paper, the most athletic team in the conference. Talk about the newbies all you want, but ASU's got the crown and seems intent on keeping it.

Almost every year in my Arkansas State preview, I talk about ASU's previously announced intentions to become the "Boise State of the South." That was a particularly easy comparison to make when the Red Wolves hired former Boise State offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin in 2013. But by hiring Anderson to replace Harsin (when Harsin left for, predictably, BSU), they might have found someone who is willing to stick around long enough to realize this ideal. ASU has upgraded its facilities and is evidently giving Anderson enough resources to land some high-caliber athletes. It's going to be particularly interesting to see what he might build here if he stays long enough.

2015 Schedule & Results

Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 9-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 71 | Final S&P+ Rk: 79
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Win
Expectancy
vs. S&P+ Performance
vs. Vegas
Sept. 5 at USC 17 6-55 L 1% 0% -31.9 -22.0
Sept. 12 Missouri 75 20-27 L 22% 28% +6.9 +3.5
Sept. 19 Missouri State N/A 70-7 W 86% 100% +38.5
Sept. 26 at Toledo 20 7-37 L 9% 0% -22.4 -22.5
Oct. 3 Idaho 114 49-35 W 67% 97% +0.2 -6.0
Oct. 13 at South Alabama 102 49-31 W 58% 93% +13.2 +13.0
Oct. 20 UL-Lafayette 104 37-27 W 65% 94% +4.6 +4.0
Oct. 31 Georgia State 87 48-34 W 70% 93% +0.5 -4.5
Nov. 5 at Appalachian State 42 40-27 W 69% 74% +29.2 +23.5
Nov. 14 at UL-Monroe 121 59-21 W 65% 98% +23.4 +23.5
Nov. 28 at New Mexico State 118 52-28 W 62% 97% +12.8 +7.0
Dec. 5 Texas State 116 55-17 W 84% 100% +23.4 +12.5
Dec. 19 vs. Louisiana Tech 57 28-47 L 12% 1% -13.7 -17.0

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 29.2 61 30.2 81
Points Per Game 40.0 12 30.2 86

2. Consistency kills

Technically, Georgia Southern had more great performances than Arkansas State did, hitting the 85th percentile or higher in seven games while ASU did so only twice. Appalachian State hit that mark three times. So did Troy, for that matter.

But all three of those teams also laid eggs in conference play. And after a bumpy ride through the non-conference portion of the schedule, ASU was stunningly consistent. In their first seven Sun Belt games, the Red Wolves were between the 58th and 70th percentile each time. And in the eighth, with a chance to claim the conference title outright, they jumped to 84 percent. This team figured out what it wanted to become early in the year, then became it during the important games.

  • Five non-conference games (including the bowl):
    Average percentile performance: 26 percent (~top 95) | Yards per play: Opp 6.1, ASU 4.9
  • Eight conference games:
    Average percentile performance: 68 percent (~top 40) | Yards per play: ASU 6.4, Opp 5.5

There's something to be said for using non-conference games as a testing ground and treating conference play as the real season. We don't completely know that's what happened here -- for all we know, the timing of the improvement was purely coincidental, and it certainly bears mentioning that Appalachian State is the only top-75 opponent ASU actually played well against. This could have also been an athleticism thing, where if the Red Wolves had a speed advantage, they were unstoppable (and if they didn't, they had no answers). But whether it was supposed to work out this way or not, it did, and the Red Wolves ended up with their third nine-win season in five years.

If ASU is to pull that off for a fourth time in six years, however, some new pieces will have to very quickly click into place.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.23 80 IsoPPP+ 102.9 56
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 44.4% 32 Succ. Rt. + 103.5 58
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 26.3 6 Def. FP+ 30.1 77
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.5 61 Redzone S&P+ 101.8 68
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 24.8 ACTUAL 26 +1.2
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 37 56 58 56
RUSHING 15 25 30 26
PASSING 85 83 93 78
Standard Downs 51 53 56
Passing Downs 63 76 66
Q1 Rk 64 1st Down Rk 58
Q2 Rk 77 2nd Down Rk 67
Q3 Rk 57 3rd Down Rk 31
Q4 Rk 48

3. A change ... sort of

Fredi Knighten's limitations were pretty clear by the time his career ended. He was only so much of a passer and wasn't going to be able to carry the offense without getting his legs involved. But ASU's run game was awfully dangerous with him at the helm, and offensive coordinator Walt Bell was able to craft a high-tempo, run-first offense around his skills.

Maryland hired Bell away, however, but Anderson was able to lure another well-regarded spread guy to town: former MTSU offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner. Under Faulkner, MTSU's tempo was basically the same, but he employed pass-first tendencies and leaned heavily on his quarterback on passing downs.

With the turnover ASU is experiencing at quarterback and in the skill positions, now wouldn't be the most awkward time for a change in identity, but there's no question that the Red Wolves will be dealing with major continuity issues this year.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Fredi Knighten 136 251 1835 19 9 54.2% 15 5.6% 6.3
James Tabary 6'2, 195 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7926 65 105 788 4 6 61.9% 10 8.7% 6.2
Cameron Birse 6'2, 213 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7917 4 4 37 0 0 100.0%
D.J. Pearson 6'2, 190 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8458
Justice Hansen 6'4, 220 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8530
Logan Bonner 6'1, 200 Fr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7895

4. Everything depends on the quarterback

With the quarterbacks on hand to replace Knighten, I'm doubting Faulkner will have to stray from his pass-happy ways. Sophomore James Tabary (last year's backup) and junior Cameron Birse were both regarded as pro-style guys in high school, as was Justice Hansen when he was a four-star OU commit from Edmond (Okla.).

Tabary was hit-or-miss in an extended audition last year, completing a higher percentage of his passes than Knighten but struggling mightily with picks, sacks (as freshmen sometimes do). One figures that the winner of a battle between these three, plus redshirt freshman D.J. Pearson and incoming freshman Logan Bonner, will produce a solid signal caller. But that's still only an assumption until it's proven correct. [Update: Tabary transferred to McNeese State this offseason.]

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Michael Gordon RB 167 1063 9 6.4 6.6 43.1% 3 2
Fredi Knighten QB 123 544 5 4.4 3.8 44.7% 5 2
Warren Wand RB 5'5, 174 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7959 117 707 5 6.0 6.3 43.6% 2 1
Johnston White RB 5'11, 180 Jr. NR NR 99 616 14 6.2 6.7 41.4% 1 1
Logan Moragne RB 5'9, 195 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7889 20 203 1 10.2 12.6 50.0% 1 1
J.D. McKissic SLOT 18 112 0 6.2 6.1 44.4% 2 2
James Tabary QB 6'2, 195 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7926 8 -15 0 -1.9 0.0 0.0% 5 1
DeKeathan Williams RB 6'1, 212 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) NR 6 31 0 5.2 1.3 66.7% 0 0
Tyler Trosin WR 4 4 0 1.0 0.0 0.0% 1 0
Terrance Hollingsworth RB 5'9, 195 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7785
Brandon Byner RB 5'11, 177 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000
Jamal Jones RB 5'9, 185 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8013
Armond Weh-Weh RB 6'0, 205 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.8300
Torrance Marable RB 5'9, 180 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7793

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
Yds/
Target
%SD Success
Rate
IsoPPP
J.D. McKissic SLOT 65 52 525 80.0% 19.8% 8.1 61.5% 64.6% 1.12
Tres Houston WR 55 36 615 65.5% 16.7% 11.2 50.9% 60.0% 1.81
Dijon Paschal WR 6'1, 196 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8315 50 28 541 56.0% 15.2% 10.8 58.0% 48.0% 2.11
Tyler Trosin WR 23 8 113 34.8% 7.0% 4.9 47.8% 34.8% 1.29
Warren Wand RB 5'5, 174 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7959 22 18 135 81.8% 6.7% 6.1 54.5% 40.9% 1.48
Michael Gordon RB 20 13 81 65.0% 6.1% 4.1 60.0% 30.0% 1.44
Darion Griswold TE 19 13 187 68.4% 5.8% 9.8 63.2% 57.9% 1.70
Booker Mays WR 17 7 74 41.2% 5.2% 4.4 64.7% 35.3% 1.22
Chris Murray SLOT 5'9, 178 Sr. NR NR 16 11 187 68.8% 4.9% 11.7 75.0% 56.2% 2.20
Blake Mack WR 6'3, 200 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7959 16 7 86 43.8% 4.9% 5.4 50.0% 25.0% 1.82
Warren Leapheart TE 6'5, 242 Sr. NR 0.7700 11 5 77 45.5% 3.3% 7.0 45.5% 45.5% 1.20
Sterling Stowers WR 5'10, 198 Sr. NR NR 7 5 51 71.4% 2.1% 7.3 71.4% 71.4% 0.95
Darveon Brown WR 5'11, 176 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8253
Omar Bayless WR 6'3, 190 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8133
Jaylon Marshall WR 6'2, 190 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7963
Kendall Sanders WR 6'0, 187 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9492
Cameron Echols-Luper WR 6'0, 190 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8588
Christian Booker WR 5'11, 185 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8389
Justin McInnis WR 6'6, 190 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8530
Brandon Bowling WR 5'9, 168 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7793

5. Reinforcements!

Whoever wins the quarterback job will have a hell of an offensive line blocking for him. ASU returns two all-conference linemen (guard Colton Jackson, tackle Jemar Clark) and five other players with starting experience from last year's unit. ASU struggled with glitches up front -- 91st in stuff rate, 94th in passing downs sack rate -- but some of that had to do with injury and shuffling, and some had to do with Knighten's tendency to scramble around and try to make something happen. If the injury bug is at least a little bit benevolent, the line should be fine. And that might be the single biggest asset a new quarterback can have.

The next-biggest asset: having guys who can catch the ball and/or run with it. ASU might have them, but the two-deep at running back, receiver and tight end is going to look completely different this year.

Most of the ASU names college football fans have come to know in recent years are finally gone, from Knighten, to explosive running back Michael Gordon, to wobbly (in a good way) slot receiver JD McKissic, to deep threat Tres Houston.

This is a lot of breakthrough talent to lose when you're not signing top-50 recruiting classes. But there's hope in both youngsters and transfer. Sophomore Warren Wand and junior Johnston White nearly matched Gordon's productivity last year, combining to rush 216 times for 1,323 yards and 19 touchdowns and producing similar rates of efficiency and explosiveness. And a couple of recent three-star recruits -- redshirt freshman Jamal Jones and JUCO transfer Armond Weh-Weh -- wait for their opportunity.

And despite losing some wonderful talent at the receiver position, it's impossible not to be a little bit excited about the replacements. The return of junior Dijon Paschal helps. In two seasons, he has caught 66 passes and averaged a stellar 10.9 yards per target. He has been basically a co-No. 1 target with McKissic and Houston, and he could be primed for a big year.

Beyond Paschal, there is almost no proven talent but a whole lot of potential. Texas transfer Kendall Sanders is a former four-star recruit, and TCU transfer Cameron Echols-Luper was an absurdly impressive return man two years ago. JUCOs Christian Booker and Justin McInnis also join the mix, giving the Red Wolves an experienced, inexperienced unit.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 104.4 2.88 3.18 42.6% 66.0% 21.4% 93.2 3.0% 9.2%
Rank 46 66 71 23 65 91 72 24 94
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. 2015 Starts Career Starts Honors/Notes
Colton Jackson RG 6'4, 276 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7826 13 39 2015 1st All-Sun Belt
Jemar Clark LT 6'6, 304 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8494 8 20 2015 1st All-Sun Belt
Devin Mondie C 6'5, 291 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7749 11 23
Austin Moreton LG 6'1, 318 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 13 14
Joseph Bacchus RT 6'5, 275 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7852 11 11
Daniel Keith LT 6'2, 275 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7835 5 5
Kyle Harris LT 2 3
Brandon Berg C 6'2, 276 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7585 2 2
Steven Stevens LG 0 0
Cameron Davis OL 6'4, 280 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8281

Dalton Ford OL 6'4, 295 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8081

Jamal Fontenot RG 6'4, 300 So. 2 stars (5.3) NR


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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.48 124 IsoPPP+ 97.6 74
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 35.5% 15 Succ. Rt. + 107.9 40
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 34.7 2 Off. FP+ 30.4 55
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.6 88 Redzone S&P+ 94.3 90
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 25.5 ACTUAL 34.0 +8.5
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 89 58 40 74
RUSHING 44 68 61 75
PASSING 114 58 22 72
Standard Downs 74 48 94
Passing Downs 42 37 45
Q1 Rk 38 1st Down Rk 58
Q2 Rk 90 2nd Down Rk 102
Q3 Rk 73 3rd Down Rk 69
Q4 Rk 53

6. Symmetry

There's a chance the offensive identity could change with a new offensive coordinator, even if it's basically just a shift in how the ball is distributed. But one assumes the Red Wolves will still move quickly and aggressively on offense while maintaining a perfectly symmetrical identity on defense.

ASU attacked you in 2015. The Red Wolves had no interest in a bend-don't-break routine. They created havoc plays and three-and-outs, and they were willing to give up big plays in the process. (And they certainly gave up big plays: 78 gains of 20-plus yards, 115th in the country.)

In this regard, Arkansas State was like Arizona State in that a single identity pervaded on every unit. And assuming the new pieces on offense click quickly enough to move the ball relatively well, the aggressive defense should have the experience and depth to do some nasty things.

The Red Wolves return 10 of their top 12 defensive linemen, six of seven linebackers, and, though three starters are gone in the secondary, eight other experienced pieces return. A large portion of the two-deep is back. Trade one big play for one more havoc play per game, and ASU could improve from 81st in Def. S&P+ into at least the 60s or so.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 104.8 2.51 2.77 34.9% 65.5% 23.0% 111.1 5.1% 7.7%
Rank 43 17 27 29 59 26 46 62 61
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Ja'Von Rolland-Jones DE 6'2, 224 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) NR 13 30.0 4.4% 12.5 8.5 1 1 4 0
Waylon Roberson NG 6'2, 338 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7867 13 26.0 3.8% 2.5 0.0 0 0 1 0
Chris Stone DE 12 23.5 3.4% 7.5 1.5 1 2 0 2
Robert Mondie DT 12 18.0 2.6% 4.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Chase Robison BANDIT 6'4, 234 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8298 13 13.5 2.0% 7.5 2.0 0 0 0 0
Chuks Ota NG 6'2, 285 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8133 12 10.0 1.5% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Caleb Caston DE 6'2, 210 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7533 13 9.0 1.3% 2.0 0.5 0 1 0 0
Darrius Rosser DT 6'3, 284 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 11 8.0 1.2% 6.5 3.5 0 1 0 0
Jake Swalley DT 6'2, 292 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7919 13 6.5 1.0% 3.5 2.5 0 0 0 0
Donovan Ransom NG 6'1, 270 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7826 6 5.5 0.8% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Griffin Riggs BANDIT 6'3, 235 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8302 13 3.5 0.5% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Clifford Thomas DT 6'2, 280 Jr. NR NR 5 3.0 0.4% 0.5 0.5 0 1 0 0
Chris Odom DE 6'3, 234 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7783 11 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Marcus Hudson DE 6'4, 265 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7611 8 1.5 0.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
E.J. Sutton DT 6'3, 275 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7659
Javier Carbonell NG 6'2, 285 RSFr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.8000
T.J. Harris DE 6'2, 225 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7793
Dee Liner DE 6'3, 295 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9756
Dajon Emory DE 6'3, 255 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.8000
William Bradley-King DE 6'4, 240 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7859

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Khari Lain WILL 5'10, 185 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8015 13 64.5 9.5% 7.5 2.0 1 2 0 0
Xavier Woodson-Luster MIKE 6'1, 214 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8094 10 56.0 8.2% 5.5 1.0 2 3 2 0
Austin Copeland WILL 11 28.5 4.2% 4.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Quanterio Heath MIKE 6'2, 210 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8138 13 23.5 3.4% 1.0 0.5 1 0 0 0
Tajhea Chambers WILL 6'2, 215 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8137 2 8.0 1.2% 2.5 2.5 0 0 0 0
Jarrod Chandler LB 6'2, 205 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7733 12 7.5 1.1% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Ben Gallagher LB 6'3, 215 Jr. NR NR 9 2.5 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Avery Johnson LB 6'2, 210 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8023
Kyle Wilson LB 6'0, 226 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7600
Vada King LB 6'1, 230 Fr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7885








7. Speed, speed, speed

This front seven should be so much fun to watch. Ends Ja'Von Rolland-Jones and Chase Robison combined for 20 tackles for loss (Rolland-Jones also forced four fumbles), Waylon Roberson is a monstrous nose tackle, all the second stringers are back, and now Dee Liner and three-star JUCO Dajon Emory join the party. The Red Wolves were leaky in the red zone, but they stopped nearly one quarter of rushes in the backfield and created decent push in short-yardage. And if Liner in particular can add a little more heft to go with the play-making, all the better.

Meanwhile, the Red Wolves have the deepest set of linebackers in the conference. Khari Lain and Xavier Woodson-Luster were solid, disruptive forces, and then-freshman Tajhea Chambers was flashing major playmaking potential before getting hurt against Missouri.

Six is an issue at linebacker -- of the seven returnees listed, the biggest is 215 pounds -- but the Red Wolves seem to have enough size at tackle to offset some of that. Meanwhile, the speed is top-notch. ASU had a top-30 havoc rate last year, and it's not hard to see that ranking improving.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Cody Brown SS 6'2, 204 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8100 13 52.5 7.7% 2.5 0 3 9 0 0
Rocky Hayes CB 13 41.5 6.1% 2.5 0 6 4 0 0
Chris Humes FS 5'11, 207 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8510 13 41.0 6.0% 0.5 0 2 6 0 0
Money Hunter SS 6'1, 193 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7778 13 35.5 5.2% 1 0 3 4 1 0
Charleston Girley NB 10 29.0 4.3% 2.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Justin Clifton NB 6'0, 207 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7883 10 23.5 3.4% 4.5 1 1 1 1 0
Blaise Taylor CB 5'9, 170 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8251 11 21.5 3.2% 1 0 1 7 0 0
Jamaris Hart CB 5'9, 163 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7956 13 20.5 3.0% 1.5 1.5 1 6 0 0
Nehemiah Wagner DB 6'0, 170 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8220 13 11.5 1.7% 0 0 1 3 0 0
Bo Sentimore FS 6'0, 181 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7956 2 8.0 1.2% 0 0 1 0 0 0
Brandon Byner CB 5'11, 177 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 6 7.0 1.0% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Raziel Velgis DB 8 5.0 0.7% 0 0 1 0 0 0
Charles Grant FS 5'11, 180 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8026 5 1.5 0.2% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Sterling Wright NB 6'2, 215 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000
Mark Johnson DB 6'2, 180 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7544
Landon James-Wilson CB 6'0, 180 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7885
Chauncey Mason FS 5'9, 190 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8074
Ben Sukut S 6'1, 185 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8274
B.J. Edmonds S 6'0, 200 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8322

8. Depth in the back?

Despite losing starting safety Bo Sentimore in the second game, ASU still ranked 22nd in Passing Success Rate+, allowing just a 54 percent completion rate and picking off 26 passes. There was risk with the reward -- opponents also averaged 13.1 yards per completion -- but ASU at least had enough athletes to do some damage.

There might be a question of depth this year. Eleven defensive backs recorded at least seven tackles last year, and eight return, which is good. But losing corner Rocky Hayes and safety Charleston Girley hurts at least a little bit. Hayes was particularly active, and Girley had solid size and speed for the nickel.

Last year's backups certainly showed potential, though, so it's hard to worry too much. Justin Clifton was bigger than Girley and made more plays, and corners Blaise Taylor and Jamaris Hart combined to defense 15 passes. Plus, Bo Sentimore returns -- he began the year as starter but lasted only two games before injuring his ankle.

Combine those players with returning seniors Cody Brown and Money Hunter, and the starting five in the back should be sound, and it appears this unit will roll eight to 10 deep again.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Luke Ferguson 72 42.7 6 23 33 77.8%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Luke Ferguson 93 62.3 37 3 39.8%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
JD Houston 5'11, 165 Sr. 43-45 11-12 91.7% 1-2 50.0%
Drew White 5'8, 195 Sr. 19-20 0-2 0.0% 1-1 100.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Returns Avg. TD
J.D. McKissic KR 25 26.2 1
Tyler Trosin KR 5 10.8 0
Blaise Taylor PR 5'9, 170 Jr. 24 13.4 1
Chris Murray PR 5'9, 178 Sr. 10 9.1 0
Category Rk
Special Teams S&P+ 47
Field Goal Efficiency 80
Punt Return Success Rate 23
Kick Return Success Rate 7
Punt Success Rate 73
Kickoff Success Rate 26

9. A great return man leaves, and a great return man steps in

It really seemed like McKissic spent about nine years in an ASU uniform. He averaged 27.3 yards per kick return in his lengthy career, and losing a guy of that caliber would be a concern ... if a potentially strong return man weren't moving in. Cameron Echols-Luper doesn't have a ton of kick return experience, but in two years at TCU, he averaged 11.4 yards per punt return, and between Echols-Luper and junior Blaise Taylor, the odds are good that ASU will have a good kick return man.

If returns don't regress, this is should be a good special teams unit. JD Houston was mostly fine in place-kicking, and while Luke Ferguson was a solid kickoffs guy, his punt efficiency was at least replaceable.

2016 Schedule & Projection Factors

2016 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
3-Sep Toledo 58 -3.8 41%
10-Sep at Auburn 24 -19.6 13%
17-Sep at Utah State 73 -7.8 33%
24-Sep Central Arkansas NR 19.5 87%
5-Oct Georgia Southern 52 -4.6 40%
15-Oct South Alabama 115 12.7 77%
29-Oct UL-Monroe 125 16.3 83%
3-Nov at Georgia State 105 2.1 55%
12-Nov New Mexico State 117 13.3 78%
17-Nov at Troy 103 1.4 53%
26-Nov at UL-Lafayette 106 3.4 58%
3-Dec at Texas State 120 6.9 66%
Projected wins: 6.8
Five-Year F/+ Rk -0.6% (61)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 85 / 85
2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 8 / 0.7
2015 TO Luck/Game +2.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 53% (37%, 69%)
2015 Second-order wins (difference) 8.8 (0.2)

10. Seriously, just find a quarterback

S&P+ projections use recruiting rankings but don't take transfers into account. If they did, ASU would almost certainly be projected higher than 89th heading into next season.

But the biggest reason for this conservative projection is the lost production at quarterback and receiver. And knowing what we know about incoming transfers at QB and WR, it's not hard to see some pieces clicking and ASU playing at a level much higher than 89th. And if ASU plays at even a No. 75 level or so, the Red Wolves would be pretty serious Sun Belt contenders once again.

As it stands, ASU is given at least a 50 percent chance of winning in seven games and at least 40 percent in two more. And the team will have a chance to explode out of the gates in conference play -- four of the first SBC games are at home before a strange set of three (winnable) road trips to finish up. Beat Georgia Southern on Oct. 5, and the Red Wolves will likely be conference favorites into mid-November.

Arkansas State has a plan and appears to be implementing it well. The Red Wolves might have the fastest team in the conference, and if a couple of new pieces gel quickly, this could be a damn strong team. Commitment and good hires get you pretty far in college football, even at the mid-major level, and ASU is proof of that.