Arkansas State ended last season on an impressive note by defeating Scott Frost’s Central Florida squad 31-13 in the Cure Bowl. Despite the game being essentially a home game for UCF (being played just 16 miles from campus), the Red Wolves dominated the Knights all game long. The bowl victory capped off an 8-1 conclusion to A-State’s 2016 season, matching the last parts of their 2015 season.
While Arkansas State has done very well in October and November the last two seasons, September has been another matter entirely, going 1-7 the last two season. Granted, some of those losses have been payday games on the road against Power Five competition (a 51-14 loss to Auburn last season), but others were just plain bad. Last season, A-State lost 31-10 at home to Toledo and 28-23 to 1-AA Central Arkansas.
(Good thing, the Huskers are playing the Red Wolves to open the season, right?)
Last season, Pitt graduate transfer Chad Voytik claimed the starting job in preseason practice, but after three games, A-State turned to Justice Hansen (6’4" 207 lbs.) A former four-star quarterback recruit, Hansen redshirted his freshman season then decided to leave after finding himself behind Trevor Knight and Baker Mayfield on the post-spring 2015 depth chart. After a season at Butler Community College, he found himself at Arkansas State, though initially behind Voytik. For the season, he completed 58% of his passes for 2,719 yards and 19 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He’s a pro-style quarterback, though with some mobility, netting 131 yards gained on the ground with a touchdown.
Junior running back Warren Wand (5’5" 174 lbs.) rushed for 879 yards and seven touchdowns last season though his yard per carry dropped from 6.0 to 4.4 between his freshman and sophomore seasons. Some of that responsibility falls on the offensive line, which regressed in Bill Connelly’s advanced stats despite having all five starters returning last season. But now those five are gone, leaving only sophomore guard Troy Elliott as the only player returning with any starting experience. (And just two games at that.) Iowa State graduate transfer (6’5" 314 lbs) Jaypee Philbert and juco transfer Marvis Brown (6’3" 337 lbs) will be counted on to provide an immediate impact when they arrive on campus this summer. A-State could be 10 pounds heavier on average across the offensive line this season than last, but they will be much less experienced and very much a work in progress when the arrive in Lincoln.
While last year’s leading receiver, Kendall Sanders, is gone, the rest of the receiver corps returns this season. Senior tight end Blake Mack (6’3" 245 lbs.) is the leading returning receiver with 34 catches for 652 yards and three touchdowns last season. Junior A-back Cameron Echols-Luper (6’ 0" 192 lbs.) caught 26 passes for 407 yards and a touchdown, and also completed a couple of passes for 66 yards and a touchdown. Former Arkansas receiver Kendrick Edwards (6’5" 212 lbs.) could be a big contributor; before being dismissed by Bret Bielema, Edwards caught eight passes for 121 yards and a touchdown in seven games for the Hogs.
Arkansas State’s defense has been the Red Wolves’ strongest side of the ball, and while they have some major holes to fill this season, the depth chart isn’t empty. Up front, last season’s Sun Belt defensive player of the year returns for his senior season. Defensive end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones (6’2" 244 lbs.) put his name on some NFL draft boards last season with 20.5 tackles for loss and seven quarterback hurries. Senior defensive tackle Dee Liner (6’3" 325 lbs.) finished last season pretty strong with two of his 8.5 tackles for loss coming against Central Florida in the bowl game. The former top-50 recruit transferred from Alabama in search of a better opportunity to see the field, and his game is certainly matching his name.
Senior Kyle Wilson (6’0" 228 lbs.) will slide over into the middle linebacker role this season after earning all-Sun Belt newcomer honors last season with 79 tackles, with 15.5 tackles for loss. In the secondary, senior cornerback Blaise Taylor tied for the team lead in interceptions (three) and pass breakups (nine) last season. Junior nickel back Justin Clifton (6’0" 206 lbs.) is A-State’s leading returning tackler with 87 last season (8 for a loss) earned second team all-Sun Belt conference honors. But the Red Wolves need to replace both safeties and a cornerback, and are counting on junior college transfers arriving this summer to fill those holes.
I’m sure Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson raised some eyebrows across Husker Nation last month when he called the Huskers "beatable" in an interview with the Omaha World-Herald.
A lot of things have to come together to make that happen for Arkansas State, starting with an immediate jelling of all the newcomers arriving this summer. The Red Wolves do have a pretty good group of skill players on offense and some star potential on defense returning this season. But if it happens, Arkansas State will have to break their recent history of "sucking in September" and count on Nebraska struggling through their own transitions on both sides of the ball.
Likely? Probably not. But not completely inconceivable either.