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Arkansas State faces the ultimate stability test in 2019

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Blake Anderson’s Red Wolves are the steadiest entity in the Sun Belt, but a new quarterback and staff turnover could challenge that notion.

NCAA Football: Arkansas State at Alabama
Blake Anderson
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

“It’s a lot like Year One.” That’s how Blake Anderson described going into his sixth year as Arkansas State head coach. A cliche? Perhaps, but it’s also applicable.

On the field, he’s looking at replacing what were basically the faces of his 2018 squad: his quarterback (Justice Hansen, who threw for nearly 3,500 yards last season), his left tackle (Lanard Bonner, a multi-year first-team all-conference performer), two absurdly productive defensive ends (Ronheen Bingham and Dajon Emory, who combined for 31 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks), and one of my favorite nickel backs in the country (Justin Clifton, who produced 10.5 TFLs and 21 passes defensed over two seasons).

Overall, the turnover isn’t horrible — ASU is right in the middle of the pack in overall returning production — but these five players’ respective coach-on-the-field absences will be felt quite a bit because of turnover on the sideline.

Take a quick look at ASU’s coaching staff page. Offensive coordinator Keith Heckendorf, defensive coordinator David Duggan, offensive line coach Sean Coughlin, tight ends coach Rashad Jackson, defensive ends coach Brandon Joiner, and interior defensive line coach Ed Pinkham all have “1st year” by their names. Third-year running backs coach Kyle Cefalo is now the dean of ASU offensive assistants.

To a degree, this is the price of success. It’s a compliment, in a way. Duggan was hired because former DC Joe Cauthen got hired away by Houston. Offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner went to Southern Miss. Other assistants went to Louisville, Duke, and Houston again. Once you prove you’re good at hiring assistants, your reward is having to hire more assistants.

Still, Anderson had managed to bring stability to one what was, coaching-wise, one of the more unstable places in FBS — in 2014, he became the fifth ASU head coach in five years. ASU survived because of a strong, burgeoning football culture and continuity behind the scenes, but Anderson stabilized things up top. The Red Wolves have won more steadily than any Sun Belt team, having now attended bowls for eight straight years.

And when I say steady, I mean steady. Look:

Basically the same team for five years in a row.

Anderson is still in Jonesboro. Most of the familiar faces around him aren’t.

Then there’s what’s happening off the field, something I struggle to simply insert into a piece about football: Anderson’s wife is currently battling Stage 4 breast cancer and has been receiving radiation and immunotherapy this offseason. His most recent update on her health was not completely encouraging.

Ugh. Anderson has had to rebuild his staff this offseason, but he’s done so while getting pretty clear reminders of what’s work and what’s actually important. Only the best of wishes to Wendy Anderson.

Offense

ASU will indeed be breaking in a new starting quarterback, but he’ll have weapons around him. The running back corps appears well-stocked despite the loss of Warren Wand, and the receiving corps features two of the most efficient wideouts in the league in Kirk Merritt and Omar Bayless. A trio of JUCO transfers and some star freshman recruits should provide skill depth, the line still features six players with 65 career starts. (The defense still returns stars like tackle Kevin Thurmon, safety Darreon Jackson, and linebacker Tajhea Chambers, too.

You don’t become the steadiest winner in your conference without generating layers of star talent, and ASU’s defense could improve enough to absorb a slight drop-off from the offense. This program is sturdily built, even if said sturdiness will get a bit more of a test than normal this fall.

Anderson has been his own play-caller, so perhaps that makes a coordinator transition easier, but it appears he’s handing those duties to Heckendorf.

A former St. Cloud State quarterback, Heckendorf spent the last seven seasons with Larry Fedora, a former Anderson boss, at North Carolina. Anderson first tried to bring him to town five years ago. You figure there won’t be any massive stylistic changes with Heckendorf in charge of the O.

That’s good because the ASU offense usually works pretty well — the Red Wolves have ranked in the Off. S&P+ top 60 for four of Anderson’s five seasons.

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-Arkansas State vs Nevada
Kirk Merritt
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

To make it five of six years, the Red Wolves need a quarterback. Obviously. And I’m not completely sure they have one.

  • Over two years as Hansen’s backup, junior Logan Bonner has completed 24 of 53 passes for 235 yards, two touchdowns, and two INTs. In a minimal role in 2018, Bonner’s marginal efficiency was minus-13.1 percent, far worse than Hansen’s plus-4.4.
  • Junior Jake Walker, a onetime UT Martin signee, is a career backup.
  • Freshman Coltin Clack is one of the stars of the 2019 recruiting class; Karon Coleman signed in February, too.

The likely starter is Bonner, and it’s hard to make too much of his stats because they were mostly in small samples against Alabama (6-for-14), Coastal Carolina (5-for-9), and SMU in 2017 (7-for-17). He might be just fine, but he hasn’t necessarily proven it yet.

You know what can do a new QB favors? Efficiency weapons. Merritt and Bayless are tremendous in that regard. The seniors-to-be combined to catch 122 of 166 passes (73 percent) for 1,571 yards and a 55 percent success rate. ASU’s quick passing game worked really well for Hansen and could for Bonner, too. And it would probably help further for Heckendorf to continue Anderson’s against-the-grain play-calling — the Red Wolves threw a lot on standard downs (99th in SD run rate) and ran a lot on passing downs (40th in PD run rate).

The depth is strong at receiver, too. Eleven players were targeted at least 12 times last season, and eight return. That includes not only Merritt and Bayless but also big-play weapons like Jonathan Adams Jr. (17 catches for 267 yards) and tight end Javonis Isaac (12 for 210). And while I expected more production from Boise State transfer Bubba Ogbebor and Oklahoma transfer Dahu Green (combined, they caught seven of 14 passes for 68 yards), they’ve still got time.

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-Arkansas State vs Nevada
Omar Bayless
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Marcel Murray’s emergence built a bridge in the run game. Wand was expected to be ASU’s top back, but Murray came out of nowhere as a two-star freshman, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and carrying the ball more than 14 times per game over the last half of the season. He’s back, and he’ll likely get help from either JUCO transfer Ryan Graham, three-star freshmen Isaiah Azubuike and Samy Johnson, or both.

Despite leaning partially on a freshman running back, ASU lost minimal ground in the run game. The Red Wolves were stuffed at or behind the line on just 14 percent of their non-sack carries, sixth in FBS. That says very good things about the line.

Losing Bonner and guard Marvis Brown hurts, but center Jacob Still was honorable mention All-Sun Belt, four others started games last year, and tackle Troy Elliott started in 2017. Throw in two JUCOs, and you’ve got enough quantity to make quality likely.

Defense

Not including the bowl game — an incredibly unlikely loss in which ASU created nine scoring opportunities to Nevada’s four but somehow lost, 16-13 — Arkansas State allowed 18.8 points per game in wins and 41.8 in four regular season losses.

The pass defense was aggressive and efficient for most of the season, but if a team could run on the Red Wolves, they would run on them for 60 full minutes. Alabama, Georgia Southern, App State, and UL-Lafayette averaged 43 rushes and 275 rushing yards per game.

Arkansas State v Alabama
B.J. Edmonds (3) and Forrest Merrill (92)
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

For better or worse, Cauthen deployed a huge rotation up front. That might not have helped at the time, but it could help this year, as five players with at least 4.5 tackles are gone but six return. And with Kevin Thurmon and Forrest Merrill in the middle, the new line coach has some known play-makers.

It’s all-hands-on-deck at end. Only one of those six returnees — William Bradley-King (9.5 TFLs, six sacks) — is a non-tackle, so some combination of senior T.J. Harris, junior Noel Iwuchukwu, and three JUCO transfers (Kailon Davis, Aaron Donkor, Billy Tuitavake) will have to produce.

Duggan is also from the Fedora tree. He and Anderson worked together under Fedora at Southern Miss, and he served as Southern Miss DC from 2013-15. (He was also head coach of NFL Europe’s Cologne Centurions, which is pretty badass.) He’s been a linebackers coach as much as anything, and it seems he’s got a good one in junior Tajhea Chambers, who, after missing most of 2017, broke through with 56 tackles and 7.5 TFLs last year.

Arkansas State v Alabama
Darreon Jackson
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The secondary has been a strength and should remain so.

Clifton’s gone, as are corner Brandon Byner and safety Michael Johnson, but the Red Wolves still have safeties Darreon Jackson and B.J. Edmonds (combined: 7.5 TFLs, eight passes defensed) and corners Jerry Jacobs and Jeremy Smith. And it might not be a bad thing if junior safety Demari Medley got some more playing time: he was on the field only long enough to make 13 tackles, but in that time he picked off two passes and broke up four more. And there are six three-star freshmen and sophomores in the chamber.

Special Teams

ASU was all over the map in special teams last year.

  • Punter Cody Grace ranked 15th in punt efficiency. His punts were not incredibly long (40.6 average), but they were damn near un-returnable — opponents attempted only eight returns all year and lost 15 yards.
  • Kickoffs and punt returns were decent.
  • Kickoff returns were below average.
  • Place-kicking was bad. Blake Grupe made just 14 of 21 field goals and ranked 117th in FG efficiency.

Grace and Grupe are both back, and Grupe’s no longer a freshman, so that can’t hurt.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug SMU 85 5.7 63%
7-Sep at UNLV 100 6.0 63%
14-Sep at Georgia 2 -32.1 3%
21-Sep Southern Illinois NR 25.1 93%
28-Sep at Troy 69 -2.9 43%
5-Oct at Georgia State 114 13.7 79%
17-Oct UL-Lafayette 99 10.7 73%
26-Oct Texas State 102 12.3 76%
2-Nov at UL-Monroe 103 7.4 67%
16-Nov Coastal Carolina 116 19.1 86%
23-Nov Georgia Southern 81 5.0 61%
30-Nov at South Alabama 127 19.3 87%
Projected S&P+ Rk 70
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 82 / 58
Projected wins 7.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 0.3 (74)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 95
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 4 / 5.2
2018 TO Luck/Game -0.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 64% (53%, 75%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 8.7 (-0.7)

On paper, this team looks like ... Arkansas State. The Red Wolves have produced an average S&P+ ranking of 70.6 in Anderson’s tenure, and they’re projected 70th this season. They have averaged 7.8 wins per year with Anderson, and their projected win total is 7.9.

If they have a merely decent quarterback, you could see how this might be a big year. ASU plays eight teams projected 99th or worse and is either a projected favorite or the slightest of underdogs in 11 games (the trip to Georgia might be out of reach, to put it politely).

Off the field, things are obviously trickier. The coaching attrition bug bit Anderson and ASU hard this offseason, and you just never know how a batch of new hires will go. It’s a crapshoot. (And this, of course, doesn’t mention Anderson’s wife’s battle, which trumps any sort of “key 2019 factors!” list.)

This season is the ultimate stability test for the Arkansas State program. You could see things playing out in a lot of different ways, and it starts right at the top of the schedule with tricky non-conference games against SMU and UNLV.

The steadiest team in the league is a mystery this year.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.