When we last saw Arkansas State in 2009, the Red Wolves were a sub-.500 football program stumbling and bumbling their way through the Sun Belt Conference. Back to back 4-8 seasons in 2009 and 2010 led to the resignation of head coach Steve Roberts. He was replaced by offensive coordinator Hugh Freeze; an interesting move since Freeze had only three years experience as a division 1-A assistant coach. (2006-07 as the tight ends coach at Ole Miss.) Freeze did have 10 years experience as a high school head coach (1995-2004) and two years as an NAIA head coach (2008-09 at Lambuth University).
Recipe for disaster, right? Arkansas State jumped to 10-2 in 2011, winning the Sun Belt championship, and a berth in the Go Daddy Bowl. That was enough proof for Ole Miss, who hired Freeze to be their head coach last December. Some might have thought that was the end of Arkansas State's 15 minutes of fame...but then the Red Wolves nabbed Gus Malzhan from Auburn to replace Freeze. Hard to believe that it's possible to upgrade after your head coach quits to take a better job, but Arkansas State managed to do that. Malzahn is the innovative head coach who brought the Wildcat formation to national prominence during his two years at Arkansas and help mold Cam Newton into a national champion quarterback at Auburn. But can he do that at Arkansas State?It helps to have a quarterback like Ryan Aplin returning. He's a two-time all-Sun Belt selection and was named the Sun Belt's male athlete of the year. Last year, Aplin completed nearly 64% of his passes for 19 touchdowns. The downside was 16 interceptions. He's one of those dual-threat quarterbacks who also rushed for 588 yards and ten touchdowns last season. Sounds like Aplin should be a good fit for Malzhan's offensive scheme.
Sophomore Frankie Jackson will likely be the Red Wolves running back this season. Unless, of course, the NCAA grants Auburn transfer Michael Dyer's request to be eligible immediately, which isn't likely. Dyer rushed for 2,335 yards and 15 touchdowns in two seasons in two seasons at Auburn; he still has two seasons of eligibility left. He also was MVP of the 2010 BCS National Championship game. Jackson rushed for 355 yards and six touchdowns last season as a freshman backup. He averaged 4.0 yards a carry on 88 carries for the season. His best game of the season was a 101 yard outburst against Memphis. It will be interesting to see how Malzahn's offense utilizes their running backs; last season, Aplin was Arkansas State's leading rusher.
Update: Hours after this story was posted, Arkansas State announced that former Tennessee running back David Oku had signed with Arkansas State and is expected to play this season. Oku caused a stir late in his high school career by transferring to Lincoln East to finish out his senior year in high school. Some thought that meant he wanted to be a Husker, but he instead signed with the Vols. He left after two years after dropping on the depth chart, and then was arrested on a domestic assault charge. He rushed for 174 yards on 42 carries as a sophomore, though he was used primarily as a kick returner at Tennessee. Oku obviously jumps to the top of Arkansas State's depth chart at running back.
Last year's leading receiver Dwayne Frampton is gone, leaving Josh Jarboe and Taylor Stockemer to pick up the slack. Jarboe is a former Oklahoma recruit who was dismissed before ever donning a practice uniform. He then spent two seasons at Troy before being dismissed again. After a season at Northeast Mississippi Community College, he found a home at Arkansas State, catching 54 passes for 730 yards and two touchdowns last season. He's a spotty receiver, having big games against Memphis and North Texas, but then dropping two passes in the bowl game against Northern Illinois. Stockemer did catch seven touchdown passes last season to lead the Red Wolves.
Up front, Arkansas State only returns two starters on the offensive line. They'll count on senior tackle Zack McKnight to be a leader, but it's a green group of offensive linemen. The returning offensive linemen have combined for 33 starts in their careers, and nobody on the two-deep roster came highly regarded in recruiting services. This looks like a long term project in Jonesboro.
Depth problems also exist on the defensive line where only defensive tackle Ryan Carrethers returns. Junior college transfers Ishmael Hayes, Lawrence Cayou, and John Gandy will have to step up right away. But there is a solid returning group in the back seven. Senior linebacker Nathan Herrold is the Red Wolves leading returning tackler with 66 last season. Sophomore Qushaun Lee had 49 tackles last season as well as a game-sealing interception late in the game against Florida International. Incoming junior college transfer Eddie Porter is expected to round out a solid group at linebacker.
In the secondary, senior cornerback Chaz Scales broke up eleven passes last season but only intercepted one. Senior safety Don Jones 54 tackles last season is the second highest among returning Red Wolves defenders. Sophomore Andrew Tryon should find a spot in the secondary this season; he's also a dangerous kickoff returner who averaged over 30 yards a return last season.
There is a scattering of talent for Malzahn to work with, but serious questions up front on both lines need to be addressed for Arkansas State to make another postseason run in 2012.