The Arkansas State Red Wolves have been blessed with two great coaches in the last two years. Unfortunately for Arkansas State, those coaches left for bigger paydays with two Southeastern Conference schools.
Hugh Freeze won 10 games with the Red Wolves and left for Ole Miss, while Gus Malzahn did the same thing and left for Auburn after the 2012 season. This year new head coach Bryan Harsin has been handed the responsibility to keep Arkansas State the Sun Belt Champions for their third straight year.
Arkansas State lost two games last year, which were to the Oregon Ducks and the Nebraska Cornhuskers. After the loss to Nebraska, they won their next eight, including Kent State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. With new coaching and with offensive stars leaving, there might be a transitional period for Arkansas State in 2013.
In 2012, Arkansas State was one of the better offensive teams in the FBS. They ranked No. 23 in rushing yards per game (206.2) and No. 43 in passing yards per game (260.5). A large part of those offensive numbers came from quarterback Ryan Aplin, who graduated.
Replacing Aplin will be the team’s biggest challenge. The team has been searching for a quarterback all spring and recently named senior Adam Kennedy the starter. Fredi Knighten and Phillip Butterfield were believed to be the favorites, but Harsin really liked what he saw from Kennedy, who is a Utah State transfer. He started five games for the Aggies in 2011 and led his team to a 4-1 record. He threw 11 touchdowns with 972 yards and four interceptions in his limited time there.
The Red Wolves bring back their best receiver from a year ago as J.D. McKissic returns for his sophomore season. The 5-foot-10 receiver averaged more than 145 receiving yards per game, but he lost his quarterback and secondary receivers from a year ago. Julian Jones will be expected to step up in his senior season. The Red Wolves should remain consistent with their receiving corps this year, as the talent still exists.
The best news about this year is easily the Red Wolves running game. David Oku rushed for 1,061 yards in 243 carries a year ago. To go along with those yards, he rushed for 16 touchdowns. Expect another big season from Oku as he returns for his senior year.
To go along with the running game, Arkansas State brings back most of its offensive line. Unfortunately, the lineman they lost was First Team All-Sun Belt right tackle Zack McKnight. The team has the bodies to fill in his loss. Steven Stevens could land his starting role.
The Arkansas State offense was pretty good last year, but this year has a lot of question marks surrounding that side of the ball. The loss of Aplin will be felt, as will the loss of some of his offensive weapons. The passing game may struggle, but the running game should be just as good as last year. That said, expect a drop-off from last year’s numbers.
Much like the offense, the defense is losing some key members from last year. In 2012, it ranked No. 43 in the FBS with 24.5 points allowed per game. That only tells half the story. In the final eight games, the Red Wolves allowed just 20.6 points per game, which led to an eight-game winning streak. But, as stated earlier, there will be some unfamiliar faces on that side of the ball.
The defensive line returns five of the eight players who played at least 10 games last year. Not only is there depth and experience on this line, there is also athleticism. This skill is very effective when playing lesser opponents, as it creates different matchups.
The line does suffer from losing defensive end Tim Starson, who led the team in sacks last year. Expect to see senior Eddie Porter take on more of a role with Starson's departure. Porter is a hard hitter, who forced four fumbles and 2.5 sacks last year in limited minutes. The tackle position lost a key player, but senior Amos Draper is more than good enough to minimize that loss.
Overall, the line should be just as good as last year, with a little room for improvement. Depth and experience is always a good thing, and it will be needed with the losses suffered at linebacker and the secondary.
Unfortunately, Arkansas State lost four of its top six tacklers on defense, and three of those are coming out of the linebacker corps. Junior linebacker Kyle Coleman will be expected to take on a bigger role this season and Qushaun Lee could emerge. The linebacker unit wasn’t a strong point last year and fans shouldn’t expect to see much of an improvement.
The secondary was a vital part to Arkansas State’s success last year. This year, three of the starters are gone and the replacements are going to have some tough shoes to fill. Free safety Sterling Young returns to be the focal point of the secondary along with Chris Humes, but the surrounding staff will be inexperienced. Money Hunter is a freshman that could see some increased playing time due to the veterans leaving, particularly cornerback Chaz Scales.
Overall, the secondary is the biggest question mark for this defense. Expect to see more blitzes in order to help the secondary. This could be bad news, as the linebackers and defensive line had trouble applying pressure on the quarterback last season.
Toughest Stretch of Schedule
Arkansas State has a tough six-game stretch that includes Auburn, Missouri, and Memphis on the road and Troy and Idaho at home before Louisiana-Lafayette finishes the stretch. Auburn is projected to be better than it was last year, Missouri should be strong, Memphis is on the rise, and Louisiana-Lafayette should have a potent offense again. It isn’t unthinkable that the Red Wolves can go 6-0, but with the team remodel, things could go south quickly.
8-4. Arkansas State will be competitive in the Sun Belt, but its team might not be as good as it has been in the past. The Red Wolves might struggle during the aforementioned stretch, but they could go either way this year.
Tim Starson stole a lot of the show last season for the Red Wolves. Expect Ryan Carrethers to step up and be that guy this year. He was named preseason First Team All-Sun Belt and has the most experience on the line. He’s a space eater in the middle and a huge force against the run.
Most important position to fill from 2012
Let’s stick with quarterback. Aplin was a very good quarterback for the Red Wolves. He wasn’t drafted in April’s draft, but his presence will be missed. The offense will need steady and effective quarterback play to keep up with the tempo it set last year. If the defense struggles, Arkansas State’s offense will be expected to put up big points in order to win.