First Down: Begin Again
It was bad, right?
Every game watching the opponent light up the scoreboard. Seeing plays that should’ve only been three yard gains turn in to 20 yards or 50 yards or more. Knowing that the opposing offenses surely had Arkansas State’s name circled on the schedule, that facing the Red Wolves defense would be the cure for whatever ailed them. Watching opposing players earning conference Offensive Player of the Week honors. And then it getting worse before it got better, ending with future NFL standout Kareem Hunt of Toledo running all over the Red Wolves for 271 yards and becoming just one of seven players ever to score five rushing touchdowns in a bowl game.
Oh, you thought this was about the 2021 A-State defense?
I guess it will be, in a kinda sorta roundabout way, but if you don’t mind to humor me, it might take a minute to get there. This isn’t the first time in the recent era that we’ve seen the Red Wolves defense struggle, but we’ve seen some quality defenses, too, so how did the team get from one to the other?
Flash back to 2014: Arkansas State was playing under a new head coach with new coordinators and schemes and everything that goes along with it. The team was lacking in depth, particularly in the trenches, due to inconsistent recruiting by previous staffs. Players were playing big minutes earlier in their careers than they probably should have, or playing out of position. Unsurprisingly, the defense struggled, especially against the run with several opposing running backs having career days against A-State. It led to defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen’s most well-known quote, that his defense “couldn’t stop a hard-charging marching band.”
That all sounds pretty familiar.
Of course, sizing up the 2014 and 2021 A-State defenses isn’t an exact apples-to-apples comparison. The ’14 unit was still decent against the pass, so the overall defense numbers don’t indicate anything near the issues that this current defense has had. And that team had some studs- guys like Qushaun Lee and so many more- while the defensive standouts on the current roster are still developing.
But there’s enough similarities that the comparison works, especially considering that everything current defensive coordinator Rob Harley has said indicates that he wants the same type of havoc-creating defense on the field that A-State had with Cauthen as DC.
So what changed after 2014? How did a unit that had gotten gashed so easily turn into a top-20 defense and the nation’s leader in tackles for loss just two short years later?
Easy. A-State rebuilt the interior of the defensive line.
Head coach Blake Anderson inked seven total d-lineman the following signing class, including five that would play in the interior. Of those five, three were JUCO or FBS transfers that signed in December and were available to practice that spring. And all of those three- Robert Mondie, Waylon Roberson, and Jake Swalley- were instrumental in beefing up a unit lacking in talent and depth and turning it into the best defensive line in the Sun Belt.
The improvement was subtle in 2015. From an overall statistical viewpoint, not much changed in terms of points or yards allowed. Defense against the run was drastically improved, but the Red Wolves were allowing more yards through the air. Sacks were down slightly, but the team was second in the nation in interceptions. Third down defense was better, but red zone defense was not.
Four games in to 2016 is when it all came together.
It was not an ideal start to the season. The defense still had no answer to the Toledo puzzle, and a game with Auburn went about how you’d expect a game with Auburn to go. The fourth game of the season… let’s just skip that for now. When Sun Belt Conference play rolled around though, the defense had figured it out.
The improvements showed up on the scoreboard and on the stat sheet. The team allowed a whopping 15.25 points per game against SBC foes. Tasked with trying to figure out who to focus on against a d-line that featured Roberson, Swalley, Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, and Chris Odom, opposing offensive lines often found themselves on the wrong side of a numbers game. You simply couldn’t double-team everybody. The result? A-State led the nation that season in tackles for loss per game, averaging 9.62.
Shortly before that season wrapped, Cauthen spoke with Kevin Turbeville of the Jonesboro Sun and flashed back to a game against Louisiana in 2014 when the Red Wolves lost 55-40, mostly in part to the fact that they surrendered 419 yards on the ground.
“I said after that game, ‘I can’t have this. I’ll never be a part of this again.’ We’re always going to have defensive linemen here. We’re going to bust our tail to recruit them and get them here. After that game, we really put an emphasis on recruiting defensive linemen.”
So see, Butch Jones? Just go out and get ya a couple, three interior DL guys and this defense too can strike fear into the hearts of all opposing Fun Belt QBs.
It is a little laughable to think it will be that easy for several reasons. One, as stated previously, the ’14 team had plenty of talent to build around at several positions, particularly at linebacker. After years of light recruiting at that position and with the upcoming graduation of Caleb Bonner, it will be crucial for A-State to have a dynamic Mike guy to quarterback the defense in ’22. Two, building up depth in the trenches takes time. It’s wild how much just one season of recruiting to a 3-man front significantly impacted the roster. Three, to find another Waylon Roberson or Forrest Merrill out there completely under the radar like they were is much easier said than done. And finally, does Butch even want to build it like the previous staff did by bringing in DL transfers to play right away?
The Arkansas State HC has stated repeatedly that he wants to build a developmental program, meaning that the focus will be on signing players out of high school. However, in his most recent press conference he weighed in on the balance between wanting to develop players in the program and having positions on the field that need help immediately.
“First of all, we are going to be a developmental program,” Jones said, “We’re going to build it around high school players in terms of growth and development. I think that’s critical because you want players that have been home grown in your program. They understand the principles, the values, the work ethic, the capacity for work; they have an affinity for being at Arkansas State. We also want individuals that have a number of options. We want individuals that have Power 5 offers, a number of Group of 5 offers, and that they’re picking Arkansas State because they believe in the mission, they believe in us, they believe in the program, and they want to come to Jonesboro, Arkansas. I think what’s very important is also the dynamics of recruiting and having those individuals that have gone through our recruiting program.
“What you have to do also is you have to look at your program and say, ‘OK, instead of having to rely on a high school player coming in, what are the dynamics of our roster and where do we need immediate attention?’ and so that’s something that we will continue to address. We do have some areas that need immediate attention. You can’t just fill a spot to fill a spot to make yourself feel better on Signing Day that we went and signed an older player- whether a JUCO player or whether a transfer player. We have to make sure we get the best fit for us.”
Jones had no choice but to recruit the portal hard after his arrival to A-State, bringing in 17 D1 transfers. Even with the additions, the Red Wolves have players all over the defense in different spots. The starting defensive ends, Kivon Bennett and JoJo Ozougwu, played linebacker at their previous institutions. Terry Hampton, before going down with a knee injury, was starting in the interior after playing DE last year. Linebacker Jeffmario Brown was recruited to play DE. Jarius Reimonenq has spent time at safety and corner this year. And TW Ayers- good luck figuring out where he’ll be lining up on any given week, although that’s more of a positive than a negative. That dude just fits in anywhere.
Right now A-State has some of the pieces of the defensive puzzle, it’s just a work in progress in getting them all to fit. The biggest pieces still needed though, literally and figuratively, are not on the edge but in the middle. In a perfect world A-State could hit that position hard in recruiting and feel good about the future, but with other positions in need of immediate help- specifically the offensive line- right now only one of the Red Wolves’ 15 commits plays on the DL. Jones & Co will be very busy ahead of the early signing day on December 15.
2nd Down: Everything Has Changed
It’s amazing how different a Monday feels after a win.
Sure, it wasn’t without it’s nerve-wracking moments, but watching Samy Johnson haul in a game-winning interception to secure a 27-24 victory over ULM felt awfully sweet after more than two months filled with both near-misses and outright disasters. It also wasn’t easy, with two fluke interceptions and the return of the 1-play touchdown drive for the opposing team.
You won’t find any recaps here. Those are easy to find and several others do a much better job on that than I’ll be able to, but there will be key players, stats, and other notes posted following each game.
It’s hard to hand out just one game ball. Layne Hatcher completed 68% of his passes, his best performance as a starter this season, and threw for a career-high 444 yards. Yes, the stat line includes two interceptions, but both were deflections and tough-luck plays. He was helped by 12 total Red Wolves who caught passes, with Te’Vailance Hunt hauling in both touchdowns and Corey Rucker having another 100+ yard outing. The biggest help though came from the offensive line as Hatcher was sacked only once.
Defensively, both Johnson and Denzel Blackwell had INTs. The Red Wolves are now up to 10 of those on the year after just six last season. The front seven created havoc all game, with Ozougwu claiming 3.5 tackles for loss and Caleb Bonner recording a sack and a half.
Any other day, Blake Grupe would be the GOAT of the game as his 42-yard field goal put the Red Wolves on top for good. Believe it or not, out of the 59 field goals he’s kicked in his career, that was the first game winner. He’ll get his big accolades soon enough, as he sits just seven points away from becoming A-State football’s all-time leader in points scored.
This game ball has to go to Alan Lamar. Or maybe his mom.
The A-State running back / return specialist had been hospitalized earlier in the week to treat a cyst on his throat. He was not expected to appear be in Monroe, but there he was returning the opening kickoff 32 yards after being medically cleared Saturday morning and having his mom drive him five hours to the stadium for the game. Incredible.
The stat that stands out? Six sacks and 14 tackles for loss. It’s taken some time to figure out what Rob Harley wants his defense’s calling card to be, and it’s taken some time to see improvement. Slowly but surely, it’s starting to appear though. Flashing back to that ’16 season referenced earlier, A-State wrapped up its season with a dominant win over UCF, recording six sacks and 15 tackles for loss. Games like that- 6 sacks or more with double-digit tackles for loss- aren’t common.
The challenge ramps back up again next Saturday, with the Red Wolves headed to Atlanta to face a Georgia State squad fresh off a win over Coastal Carolina, but these next few days will be fun to enjoy.
3rd Down: Back to December
Get ready for Appalachian State-Louisiana Part 3.
The two teams are the only programs to have played in the Sun Belt Conference championship game and appear headed for another match-up on December 4. Coastal Carolina had to bow out last year due to an untimely battle with COVID, and couldn’t keep the dream alive this year with losses to App State earlier in the year and Georgia State over the weekend after losing quarterback Grayson McCall to injury.
It’s been a bit of a weird year for the league. The season started on a very high note with two teams ranked in the preseason top-25. Although CCU is no longer in the running for the championship, the top tier of the league has been very clear with three teams standing out. App State has two game left and has not clinched the East Division title, but it appears inevitable. As for everyone else? Three teams in GSU, South Alabama, and Troy are all sitting at 5-5. The league could see six teams bowl eligible for five spots. Equally likely, it could see only four reach the six-win mark for eligibility.
The Mountaineers won the first two ‘ships between the teams, but after the Cajuns walloped App State earlier this season and with this one set to be played in Lafayette, they’re undoubtedly thinking the third time is the charm.
4th Down: Look What You Made Me Do
In case you missed it over the weekend, Kansas (yes, the football one) topped Texas (also the football one) in an actual live football game. As exciting as that was for Jayhawk fans and Longhorn trolls alike, no one was more pumped than the parents of walk-on freshman fullback Jared Casey. Their reaction was caught on video, and it was understandably bonkers.
As for the Longhorn trolls? An impossible choice when there are just so many to choose from, but this gets the vote for the tweet of the weekend. TEXAS. IS. BACK.
Thank you for reading. -KR