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Opponent Preview: Arkansas State Red Wolves

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One of the Fun Belt’s perennial contenders is back and loaded with talent.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 24 Arkansas State at Texas State
Arkansas State Red Wolves DT Donovan Ransom (91) chases a player during the Sun Belt Conference game against the Texas State Bobcats on November 24, 2018 at Bobcat Stadium in San Marcos, TX.
Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Red Wolf Recital

Location: Jonesboro, Arkansas

Head Coach: Blake Anderson (5th season, 39-24)

Stadium: Centennial Bank Stadium (30,964)

Notable Alumnus: ASU has produced the usual assembly of politicians, businesspersons, and academics. But easily its most noteworthy alumnus is Rodger Bumpass, who voiced Squidward Tentacles on SpongeBob SquarePants. I look forward to my first trip to campus to take a picture of his honorary statue. Which reminds me, I need to set up a Kickstarter for a Rodger Bumpass statue in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Hungry Like The Wolves

The Arkansas State Red Wolves have been hands down one of the funnest mid-major college football teams to watch, and among the most consistently winning, in recent years. All this despite the fact that they seem to rebuild the entire operation from the ground up every fall and prove themselves all over again.

Jonesboro has played home/stepping stone to a succession of up-and-coming football coaches, being led variously by Hugh Freeze (2011), Gus Malzahn (2012), Bryan Harsin (2013), and now Blake Anderson, the only head coach to last at the school for more than one season since Steve Roberts (2002-2010) . Anderson came to the Natural State after serving as the offensive coordinator at North Carolina.

See, Arkansas State likes to score points. You could have probably guessed that from the list of recent program architects above. Freeze and Malzahn both honed their hurry up, RPO-heavy styles on the sidelines at ASU before taking it to the SEC.

The most recent mind behind the offense in Jonesboro was former Valdosta State QB and UGA graduate assistant Buster Faulkner, a guy who in-the-know observers have kept on the short list of candidates if Kirby Smart finds himself offensive coordinator shopping. Faulkner is taking over as the offensive coordinator at Southern Miss this season, and I’m betting the Golden Eagles will also be lighting up the scoreboard shortly.

Offense

The Red Wolves are actually coming off their second lowest offensive output of the Anderson era in 2018 (30.3 ppg). That’s a little surprising given that departed senior quarterback Justice Hansen put up a whale of a season, throwing for 3447 yards and 27 touchdowns while completing 66.9% of his passes.

The likely heir to the QB1 throne is junior Logan Bonner, whose played the backup so far, attempting only 32 passes in 2018. The lion’s share of that action came in a 57-7 loss to Alabama in Tuscaloosa last season in which he went 6-14 for 53 yards.

Bonner will be learning under new offensive coordinator Keith Heckendorf, who comes over from North Carolina, where he worked under Larry Fedora. Don’t expect the Red Wolves to change what they do too much. While Faulkner did a lot of game planning, Anderson is known to call his own plays, and worked with Fedora and Heckendorf before. Even if the boss hands off the playsheet, the ASU attack will still be an up-tempo spread offense that makes judicious use of motion and misdirection to create winnable matchups.

The transition should be a little easier for Bonner as the boys from Jonesboro bring back a lot of skill position talent, including leading receiver Kirk Merritt (83 catches, 1005 yards, 7 TDs in 2018) and senior Omar Bayless (39 receptions, 566 yards, 2 TDs). Oh, also junior Jonathan Adams (17 catches, 267 yards, 3 TDs) and junior tight end Javonis Isaac (12 rec, 210 yd, 4 TDs).

In short, Arkansas State is like a mirror image of the Georgia passing attack. Instead of a veteran QB who needs someone to step up and catch it, they have a green signal caller who’ll walk into a fully loaded armory of weapons. Anderson likes to spread the ball around, and the Red Wolves did precisely that last season, targeting 11 different receivers at least 12 times. 8 of those return.

Sophomore running backs Marcel Murray (2018’s leading rusher with 860 yards) and Ryan Graham will likely key the Red Wolf rushing attack. Murray, a 5’11, 197 pound all-purpose player out of Hiram High in Paulding County also caught 16 passes for 141 yards during a breakout freshman campaign. He’s a productive player who Anderson will look to get the ball to in every way possible.

There is some turnover up front, where 2018 first team All-Sun Belt left tackle Lanard Bonner is in camp with the Atlanta Falcons and Sean Coughlin comes over from Missouri State as the new O-Line coach. But center Jacob Still returns with 25 consecutive starts to anchor that unit. Still is also on thewatch list for the Rimington Award, presented to the nation’s top center.

Defense

Coughlin and Heckendorf aren’t the only new faces in the coaching office. The price of the kind of success Anderson has enjoyed at ASU is turnover. And this offseason it came with a vengeance. In addition to a new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, the Red Wolves also have a new tight ends coach, defensive tackles coach, defensive ends coach, and defensive coordinator.

ASU will be looking to plug a run defense that was porous at times in 2018. While they “only” gave up 191.7 yards per game, that included 246 yards on the ground by Appalachian State, 348 by Georgia Southern, and 278 by Alabama. In short, the season average was likely helped by playing in the often pass-happy “Fun Belt.” Teams that committed to running the ball on the Red Wolf defense in 2018 (much as Georgia will in 2019) were able to.

The good news is that there’s experience from the unit that took those lumps last season. Upfront particularly, seniors Kevin Thurmon and Forrest Merrill are back after seeing action in every game last season. they’re joined by the super-productive William Bradley-King, who tallied 33 tackles and 6 sacks in 12 games. Junior linebacker Tajhea Chambers returns off a 90 tackle season, as does fellow junior Caleb Bonner. The team’s two leading sack masters (defensive ends Ronheen Bingham and Dajon Emory) are gone, but with Bradley-King, Merrill, Thurmon, Chambers, and senior defensive back Darreon Jackson (third team All-Sun Belt last season) there’s experience and production returning at all levels of this defense.

The Bottom Line

Arkansas State will come to Athens with a roster full of veteran players who won’t be cowed by Sanford Stadium. The Red Wolves played at Auburn in 2016, at Nebraska in 2017, and at Alabama in 2018. Did they lose all of those games? Sure. Though they did throw a mighty 43-36 scare into the Cornhuskers. But with Notre Dame looming the next week this one sets up as a little bit of a trap game for the Red and Black. Look for the visitors from the Natural State to come out on fire.

But I think eventually the superior depth and sheer heft of the Georgia rushing attack will eventually allow the ‘Dawgs to control the flow of the game, and stack on some points in the third quarter and early in the fourth to make this one look less respectable than it will early. Kirby Smart will however get some things to yell about heading into the showdown with the Irish, which isn’t inconvenient.

Prediction: Georgia 41, Arkansas State 13.