I'm pretty sure that almost every mid-major head coach hired since Boise State's January 2007 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma has delivered a similar line. "We're going to win here! We're going to become the Boise State of the _____!" Saying it is easy. Doing it, on the other hand, has proved difficult, to say the least. (We know this because, among other things, nobody else has actually done it.)
But when Gus Malzahn says it about Arkansas State, it feels a bit more realistic. We don't know if it actually IS, of course, but his hire has created serious buzz in the mid-major universe. ASU promoted first-year offensive coordinator Hugh Freeze to head coach a year ago, watched as he won 10 games and a conference title, then watched as he left for Ole Miss. It felt like the typical mid-major life cycle -- win, lose your coach to a school with more money, start over -- but then the Red Wolves went out and snagged the most high-profile assistant coach in the country, a local boy who engineered a national title at Auburn and allegedly passed up multiple major-conference head coaching jobs just 12 months earlier.
From his first minute on the job, Mazahn has carried himself like the coach of a major program. He snagged some talented recruits -- and a former five-star running back -- during the recruiting process. He has gone about installing his high-speed, high-intensity offense. He has continued to say things like "Buckle up. We're fixing to take this thing to the next level." And ASU has spent the last four months asking itself, "Now what?"
ASU has committed itself to committing itself -- the "big, hairy, audacious goals" portion of the Boise State To-Do List -- and now it has to figure out how to take the next step toward major credibility. Spring game attendance? Yeah, that costs money now. Renovations and construction? Under consideration. Serious, serious fundraising? That goes without saying. The process is underway. Now eyes shift to Malzahn, a deep batch of athletes … and some potential vulnerability on both lines. ASU projects relatively well in 2012, though like everybody else in the Sun Belt, they project far behind Florida International.
Can Malzahn engineer some gains maintenance following one of ASU's best seasons ever? And if they are truly becoming the Boise State of the South, when does installation of the Red and Black Field begin?
Here's what I said about ASU and their "Most Interesting Coach In The World" last April:
New Arkansas State head coach Hugh Freeze's resume is almost as interesting as the company he has kept ... and with some of the imports he's brought to Jonesboro, it seems the company is going to stay rather interesting. I get the distinct impression that the Most Interesting (new) (mid-major) Coach in the World is going to either be a colossal success at ASU ... or a colossal failure. Either Gus Malzahn or Todd Dodge. Honestly, anything else would be somewhat disappointing. […]
Steve Roberts left Hugh Freeze with quite a few interesting pieces. Arkansas State has been trending upward for a number of seasons, even if their record did not really shot it. With skill position players and interesting components of an odd defense returning, Freeze could hit the ground running with a nice first season. With likely conference favorites Troy and Florida International both coming to Jonesboro (FIU on ESPN2!), the Red Wolves could be a couple of upsets away from a semi-unexpected conference title run. Or, with another handful of tight losses, they could squander the same type of golden opportunity that they let slip away last season. One thing is certain: they, like their coach, should be interesting.
Interesting they were. The Red Wolves were indeed a colossal success, winning double-digit games for just the fifth time ever, the first since a 1986 run to the 1-AA finals. For years, ASU had been a league-average Sun Belt team, but without the occasional wins to back it up. They somehow had had not even finished with a winning record since 1995, even counting their 2006 conference title season. But everything clicked in 2011; after a couple of years of snake-bitten finishes (ASU was 3-9 in one-possession games in 2009-10), they succeeded by eschewing close games altogether -- eight of their 10 wins were by at least 18 points.
A good portion of ASU's surge came on the defensive side of the ball. The offense was still solid and fast-paced, as it had been in 2010 with Freeze as offensive coordinator, but the D ranked 31st in Def. F/+, seventh among all mid-majors. There is some rebuilding to do on each side of the ball, but Freeze did not leave the cupboard bare for Malzahn.
With Freeze running a high-paced offense, one would assume ASU's wins were high-scoring, explosive affairs. Not so much. Despite Freeze's reputation, the ASU offense was only average in 2011, playing efficient ball but lacking in big-play threats and making a few mistakes on passing downs. Malzahn inherits some pieces, but we'll start with who he loses:
- Receiver Dwayne Frampton was one of the best mid-major receivers in the country last year, combining a decent 12.3 yards-per-catch average with an astounding 79 percent catch rate. He had some crazy stat lines in 2011: he caught 10 passes (in 11 targets) for 153 yards versus Troy, 10 of 12 for 141 yards versus Middle Tennessee. He is virtually the only loss in the receiving corps, but his departure puts a lot of pressure on returnees Josh Jarboe and Taylor Stockemer. Both had their moments last year; Stockemer caught 11 of 15 passes for 185 in the bowl game versus Northern Illinois, while Jarboe caught a combined 14 of 15 passes for 258 yards versus Memphis and North Texas. But Frampton was infinitely more consistent. Jarboe, a former high four-star Oklahoma signee, caught just two of six passes (with two drops) for 23 yards in the bowl game.
- All-conference center Tom Castilaw and second-team all-conference tackle Delano Moore are both gone, along with 2011 starting guard Alex Kautai. Four linemen with starting experience return, but they have combined for just 33 career starts. And unlike other areas of the field, ASU has not shown incredible recruiting prowess on the line -- each of the seven remaining members of the two-deep were, at best, two-star recruits, and most were low two-stars. The good news, however, is that the Red Wolves had to replace quite a few starters last year, too, and improved considerably. Their sack rates remained roughly the same, while their Adj. Line Yards ranking improved from 72nd to 31st.
If ASU can overcome these losses, they should be fun to watch. Jarboe and Stockemer DO return, for starters, as does quarterback Ryan Aplin. Aplin was strangely effective on passing downs as a sophomore but lost his Maestro status last year. ASU's Passing Downs S&P+ ranking slipped from 42nd to 77th despite a deep receiving corps, and Aplin's interception total rose from 11 to 16. He was picked three times against Northern Illinois; in all, mistakes cost the Red Wolves horribly -- in terms of Turnover Points, they were minus-24.2 points in an 18-point loss. If Aplin can stabilize the mistakes a bit as a senior, he will certainly have some success with this receiving corps.
Of course, this being a Malzahn offense, one should probably expect quite a bit of running. His is a spread-to-run offense -- with or without Cam Newton, his Auburn offenses ran constantly -- 76 percent of the time on standard downs in 2010, 74 percent in 2011. They ran less on passing downs last year without Newton (go figure), but if AU had Aplin, that may not have been the case. Aplin was a zone read master in 2011, rushing 134 times for 783 yards and producing most of the big plays in the running game. He loses his primary backfield mate, Derek Lawson, but honestly that probably isn't much of a loss. Lawson averaged just 3.9 yards per carry despite solid run blocking, and his 0.9 Highlight Yards per carry suggest he was not much of a big-play threat. Three-star sophomore Frankie Jackson should be able to, at worst, replicate Lawson's numbers.
Despite the offense's occasional mistakes, the defense paved the way toward what really was a rather easy 10-win season. But late in the season, with the Sun Belt title on the line, Dave Wommack's defense went from good enough to great. They allowed a solid average of 27.6 Adj. Points per game over their first nine contests, then only 22.9 over their final four. (This personifies their in-game performance to a degree, as well; they ranked 72nd, 72nd and 74th in First, Second and Third Quarter S&P+, respectively, then ranked eighth in the country in the fourth quarter.
Wommack's defenses were odd in that they were bend-don't-break versus the run (inefficient but proficient at preventing big plays) and aggressive-but-leaky versus the pass. They ranked 14th in the country in Adj. Sack Rate and 20th in Passing Success Rate+, but they were just 72nd in Passing PPP+. This could be an issue in 2012 for one simple reason: they lose almost all of their attackers. Seven Red Wolves made at least 4.5 tackles for loss in 2011 (combined: 60.5 TFLs); five, who combined for 49.5 TFLs, are gone, including ends Brandon Joiner (19) and Justin Robertson (eight) and linebacker Demario Davis (10).
New coordinator John Thompson, who has served as a D.C. for just about every school in the South (Arkansas, Florida, Ole Miss, LSU, South Carolina, Memphis, Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech, Northwestern State and, most recently, Georgia State), will have to count on newcomers in key positions in 2012. Junior college ends Ishmail Hayes (a high three-star signee), Lawrence Cayou and John Gandy will likely need to make an immediate impact alongside returning tackle Ryan Carrethers and intriguing (and unproven) linemen Tim Starson, Amos Draper and Ronnell Wright.
If ASU can figure out how to patch together a line, the back seven could be capable. High three-star JUCO signee Eddie Porter joins potentially solid playmakers Nathan Herrold and Qushaun Lee at linebacker; the loss of middle linebacker Demario Davis (10 tackles for loss, four passes broken up) hurts but can be overcome, just like the losses of three starters in a sometimes shaky secondary. All-purpose safety Don Jones (6.5 tackles for loss, four passes defended) returns, as does aggressive corner Chaz Scales (12 passes defended to just 24.0 tackles). It is hard to say that the secondary will be better, but it might not be worse.
(Thompson, by the way, was Malzahn's second choice for coordinator. He first brought in Keith Patterson, Todd Graham's D.C. at Pittsburgh, but in Graham fashion, Patterson left for another job -- WVU defensive coordinator -- after just a month.)
ASU's schedule is simultaneously easy and challenging in 2012. All six home games (Memphis, Alcorn State, Western Kentucky, South Alabama, UL-Monroe, Troy) are likely wins, but the Red Wolves must survive early road trips to Oregon and Nebraska and all but win out to match last year's win total. The trip to Florida International is likely to determine the conference champion, but we will draw the success-or-not line at, simply, eight or nine wins and another bowl bid. After so many years without any sort of winning record, sustained gains would be a lovely thing in 2012.
There is a buzz around Jonesboro, and for very obvious reasons. ASU is investing in its football program like never before, and thus far the fanbase has played its part as well. An assistant coach who seemed to have his pick of jobs a year ago has chosen to call Jonesboro home. The Red Wolves are coming off of one of their best seasons ever, and they have a star quarterback ready to begin his third year as starter. Things are looking up.
But before they color their field and make Fiesta Bowl reservations, ASU will need to figure out how to maintain their 2011 form. With so many losses in the trenches, not to mention the departure of the criminally underrated Frampton, that may be difficult. Still, this team has as many interesting pieces as any Sun Belt team not named Florida International, and autumn in Eastern Arkansas should still be pretty fun.
While we're here, let's watch some college football videos from SB Nation's new YouTube channel together: