In August, it’s tempting to tread heavily into the season opener. You buy into the coach speak. You become influenced by the swagger. You fall victim to the potential of a stud transfer or precocious freshman.
And you conveniently forget the weaknesses.
And yet, embracing the Red Wolves swagger feels so good entering the 2016 season. Arkansas State is, after all, the undefeated conference champions who have managed to strengthen what was one of the nation’s best playmaking defenses – while adding exciting new weapons to the offensive side of the ball. Despite losing a talented quarterback, a key defensive end, a starting running back, a corner with 6 INTs and a pair of gifted wide receivers, this year’s Red Wolves look faster, more athletic, and deeper.
At least it does on paper. The gridiron tends to extract the truth from the preseason stats. But let’s you and I examine the pieces and determine for ourselves if the Red Wolves are worthy of its hype.
Five Numbers That Sum Up 2015
The 2015 Red Wolves were terrible out-of-conference, losing to USC, Missouri, Toledo and Louisiana Tech (New Orleans Bowl), but A-State did collect a win against FCS Missouri State.
A-State steamrolled the Sun Belt, going undefeated while collecting another conference trophy.
The Red Wolves monster defense led the nation in interceptions (26) and interceptions returned for scores (6).
Arkansas State ranked 12th in the nation for scoring offense with a robust 40 points per game.
Penalties were a huge problem, and only three teams in the nation accrued more penalty yards than Arkansas State (1,032 yards)
Three New Guys Who Will Make An Immediate Impact (None of which are QBs)
Dee Liner, Defensive Lineman
As an Alabama Crimson Tide recruit, ESPN rated Liner a 4-stars and the No. 4 defensive tackle in the nation and ranked him 26th in the ESPN 150. Now a 325lb red shirt junior, Liner is projected to create maximum havoc with first-team All Sun Belt selection Waylon Roberson. Liner is one of a number of Rivals 4-star transfers that will see the field in Red Wolves’ black and red this Fall.
Cameron Echols-Luper, Wide Receiver and Punter (?)
You may recall that the speedy CE-L made NFL.com’s “16 for 16: College football’s most freakish athletes” list. A former ESPN 3-star recruit and track star at TCU, Echols-Luper fills the void left by current Atlanta Falcon receiver, J.D. McKissic. Echols-Luper was named Phil Steele’s First Team Preseason All-Sun Belt Conference punt returner, but he’s also known to be one of the rosters most intriguing punters. Yeah. He uncorked a 40-yard blast during the team’s last scrimmage. Imagine a man with first-class speed at the punter position.
Kendall Sanders, Wide Receiver
Recruited by the Texas Longhorns as a Rivals and ESPN 4-star receiver, Sanders was once ranked as the 13th-best cornerback by ESPNU. Sanders seems to be fitting in well in Jonesboro, even starting a rivalry of speed between he and fellow transfer Cameron Echols-Luper. At 6′ and nearly 200lbs, Sanders will be a faster and meatier replacement for the graduated Tres Houston. By all accounts, he’s having an incredible Fall camp.
Honorable Mention: Justin McInnis (WR). A gem mined out of Canada, the 6’6″ junior is a big target.
Three Red Wolves Veterans Who Will Become Stars In 2016
Omar Bayless, Wide Receiver
A 3-star recruit in 2015, the uber-athletic Omar Bayless looked dynamite in Spring and has earned a heap of praise from the coaching staff this fall. Bayless is listed at 6’3″, 200lbs which adds to more height to what is already one of the program’s tallest receiving corps in recent memory. Oh yeah, he can also perform a back-flip flat footed. Look for Bayless to use his height and athleticism to become the go-to #3 wideout.
Tajhea Chambers, Linebacker
Before suffering an unfortunate season-ending injury against Missouri, Taj Chambers collected eight tackles (2.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks) in the season opener against USC. Chambers (6’2″, 250lb) was at one time rated the No. 6 prep school quarterback in the state of Georgia. Today, he’s a legit sack monster, and should be terrorizing opposing QBs for years to come, as he is just a redshirt freshman. He and fellow linebacker Xavier Woodson-Luster should dominate.
Colton Jackson, Offensive Line
Jackson isn’t a secret among Red Wolves fans, but the offensive trenches forge stoic studs not superstars. But Jackson’s celebrity is growing nonetheless. He was named Athlon Sports, Lindy’s, Sporting News and Phil Steele’s Preseason First Team All-Sun Belt Conference, and Lindy’s declared Jackson to be the No. 7-ranked top -10 NFL talent in the Sun Belt. Jackson is among a posse of talented beef on the Red Wolves offensive line.
Honorable Mention: Blake Mack (TE). The converted wide receiver dominated the Spring and has continued to impress in the Fall.
If Arkansas State Has A Troubling Weakness It’s Here:
There’s no getting around the fact that Blake Anderson and OC Buster Faulkner are breaking in a brand new quarterback this season (more on those guys in a moment). That generally means inconsistency and growing pains, especially at the start of the season when Arkansas State can really use some signature victories. It doesn’t help that the squad lost seasoned veterans at wide receiver and tight end this year. Fortunately, whoever starts behind center will be protected by Athlon Sports 27th strongest offensive line this season. That should help.
Three Guys Arkansas State is Going To Miss The Most.
- CB Rocky Hayes (6 interceptions)
- TE Darion Griswold (Blocking specialist)
- WR J.D. McKissic (Hands and leadership)
Honorable Mention: Fredi Knighten (QB). A-State fans got spoiled with consistent, capable QB play.
What Will Red Wolves’ Opponents Think They Can Exploit (But Won’t)?
Some believe that A-State’s defensive backfield is shallow and vulnerable, even though the Red Wolves led the nation last year with 26 INTs and eight defensive TDs. A significant portion of that awesome production left with departed seniors Chris Stone (3 fumble recoveries) and Rocky Hayes (6 INTs). Still the Red Wolves backfield is not without weapons, led by Chris Humes, Money Hunter, Blaise Taylor and preseason All-Sun Belt First Teamer Cody Brown. But what will make the Red Wolves backfield dangerous are the Monsters up front. Taj Chambers, Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, Dee Liner and Waylon Roberson will force a ton of mistakes from opposing signal callers, creating a field day for Red Wolves in the backfield.
A Guy Who Will Surprise Us All
Quantario Heath, Linebacker
Earlier this year, when Coach Blake Anderson was asked who made the biggest impression in Spring practice, he said without hesitation “Q Heath.” The 6’2″ redshirt senior is a former 3-star recruit by 247Sports from Risen, Arkansas who played reliable minutes in 2015. He finished the season with a career-best 31 tackles, including 16 solo stops. Anderson thinks Q is ready to take his game to another level, which should give opposing offensive coordinators indigestion.
Okay, All Right, Let’s Talk About Those Quarterbacks
Arkansas State enters the season with a question mark at quarterback, but it’s a question mark followed by a hundred exclamation marks. Early this year, the Red Wolves recruited Justice Hansen (6’4″ 207lbs) out of Butler Community College, but he began his career as an ESPN.com four-star recruit signed by Oklahoma. Buried behind Heisman hopeful Baker Mayfield, Hansen transferred to Butler. Now he’s a redshirt sophomore for the Red Wolves, wowing fans with a big arm and surprisingly fast wheels.
But hold on. Following Spring practice, the Red Wolves added 5th-year graduate transfer Chad Voytik (6’1″, 215lbs) from the Pitt Panthers. Voytik (also an ESPN 4-star recruit) brings a starter’s experience that Hansen lacks, plus even more foot speed. Voytik was rated 4-stars and the nation’s No. 4 “pro-style” quarterback by Rivals. As the starter for Pitt in 2014, Voytik completed 61% of his passes for 2,233 yards with 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also tacked on 466 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns.
Both Blake Anderson and Buster Faulkner have played it cool and coy concerning who will emerge as the starter. After the Fall’s second scrimmage, Voytik seemed to have a slight edge of Hansen, using his legs to keep the Red Wolves talented defense off balance. But Anderson insisted that neither quarterback had established himself as the #1, leaving open the possibility of a dual-quarterback situation when the Red Wolves open the season against Toledo.
Still, one cannot help but to think that the more seasoned Voytik will wind up leading these Red Wolves. Think of Voytik playing Adam Kennedy’s role in 2013, who like Voytik was also a seasoned transfer and gave sophomore Fredi Knighten time to develop.
Meanwhile, true freshman Logan Bonner and redshirt freshman DJ Pearson have also been solid behind center, so who knows? Maybe we’re focused on the wrong guys.
The Big Picture: Offense
True, the Red Wolves lost plenty of good talent on offense, including two starting wide receivers, the starting tight end, the starting running back and the starting QB. Yikes. You’d think Blake Anderson would be despondent over all those losses, but he isn’t. Three Red Wolves were named to the Sun Belt’s First and Second Team Offensive Lines (Jemar Clark, Colton Jackson and Devin Mondie), the departed wide receivers were replaced by taller and faster models, and we’ve already discussed the quarterback situation. Coach Anderson is doing cartwheels.
In fact, Coach Anderson expects the offensive to move even faster under new OC Buster Faulkner (Middle Tennessee), whose past-first mentality is a little different from departed OC Walt Bell (Maryland), who preferred to use Knighten’s wheels to flummox defenses.
And we haven’t even discussed Arkansas State’s Triple-W Backfield. Johnston White, Warren Wand and newcomer Armond Weh-Weh are expected to wreck havoc this season. Weh-Weh, a 6″0, 205lbs bruiser originally signed by Texas Tech, is still learning the offensive but is already becoming a legitimate defensive line tenderizer. Combine his power with White’s consistency (14 rushing TDs) and Wand’s ankle-breaking speed (709 yards as a true Freshman), and the Red Wolves should be even more dangerous carrying the rock.
The Big Picture: Defense
Two seasons ago, defense was Arkansas State’s Achilles Heel. Today, the defense is expected to be the class of the conference (and then some). We reminded you earlier about A-State’s 26 INTs and 8 defensive TDs in 2015. That monster unit is even scarier in 2016, with seven players named to the preseason Sun Belt 1st and 2nd Defensive Teams. The D-line, lead by the Sun Belt’s sack leader Ja’Von Roland-Jones, is especially strong this year, ranked 36th in the nation by Athlon Sports. The linebackers and defensive backs ain’t bad either. Defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen brings back All-Conference players like Blaise Taylor, Xavier Woodson-Luster, and Cody Brown. He also receives the services of Alabama transfer Dee Liner and Red Wolves veteran Robert Mondie, who received an unexpected 6th year of eligibility.
In addition, the defense gets back a pair of key players who suffered season-ending injuries in 2015: LB Tajhea Chambers and DB Bo Sentimore. Before he suffered a season-ending injury knee injury, Sentimore had recorded a combined 10 tackles (6 solo/4 asst.) and one interception (returned 45 yards versus Missouri) in two just games. Now Bo is back, and looking tremendous in practice.
In 2015, Red Wolves defense was one of the country’s most exciting units. There’s little reason to believe this year’s squad can’t duplicate that success. The defensive line is so deep, it’s almost unfair. The secondary is bestowed with senior leaders, including a last hoorah from super safeties Chris Humes and Money Hunter. In Jonesboro, Here There Be Monsters, and they live to terrorize offenses.
The Big Picture: Special Teams
Arkansas State fans enjoyed an unprecedented golden era of reliable (even spectacular) kicking and punting thanks to the feet of Luke Ferguson (P) and Brian Davis (K). Davis graduated in 2013 and set an all-time Sun Belt record for points scored with deadly accurate field goals. Ferguson, like a machine sent from the future, routinely pinned the opposition behind the twenty. Those guys are gone, and replacing their production isn’t easy.
Senior footman JD Houston gets the nod for kicking the XPs and 3s. Phil Steele’s and Athlon Sports Third Team Preseason All-Sun Belt Conference, Houston helped right the ship after Arkansas State recorded the nation’s second worst XP percentage in 2014. A little precision from Houston will solve a lot of gastrointestinal distress for Red Wolves fans. But who punts?
Enter redshirt freshman Damon Foncham. As a high schooler from Texas, the 5’8″ punter earned First Team All-District 6-6A and second team all-county honors as a senior after recording 35 punts with a 35.9 average and long punt of 68 yards. Foncham sat his freshman year on account Ferguson was so freaking incredible. Now Foncham is getting Fall camp snaps, though it is very possible that multi-talented Renaissance man Cameron Echols-Luper also receives a few intriguing long snaps.
Meanwhile, Sun Belt First Team punt returner Blaise Taylor is back, and kick returns may fall to junior Chris Murray, the super-speedy wide receiver whose Spring ended with a broken ankle.
Enough of This Insipid Talk! What is This Team Capable Of?
Twelve and Oh? Listen, I feel that way almost every season since 2012. And frankly, this team looks better (on paper) than Gus Malzahn’s 10-win juggernaut. It’s incredibly fast, strong, and deep at many positions. On the preseason Sun Belt First and Second All-Conference Teams, a whopping 12 positions were awarded Red Wolves. That’s twice as many as the programs with the second most selections.
Furthermore, this is Coach Anderson’s third year, the Magic Season, and the moves made by him and the staff indicate that the coaches are all in on 2016. We could be in store for something special.
Of course, it all goes to hell if the Red Wolves lose to Toledo again on September 2.