For the first time in five years, Arkansas State enters the season with the same head coach they had last season. And while the Red Wolves have proven that they don’t need it, that stability and continuity has to be welcome in Jonesboro. It could also mean that a conference championship is in the cards.
The Red Wolves are loaded with offensive weapons, but none are more critical than quarterback Fredi Knighten. Knighten came into last season as the starter, but with not much proven production. This season? He’s the consensus top quarterback in a conference fraught with experienced signal callers. Part of that has to do with his passing (3,277 yards on 62.3% completion percentage and a 24 to 7 touchdown to interception ratio). The other part is his ability to run the ball (969 rushing yards and 11 TDs). One area improvement for Mr. Knighten is that he lost seven fumbles last year, if he does that again it just might cost them a key game and the conference.
Knighten won’t be alone though. RB Michael Gordon returns after amassing 1,100 yards on the ground and 13 TDs a year ago, plus what was an unlikely source of rushing yards last season returns in 2015 a proven commodity. Johnston White started his career at Arkansas State as a walk-on, but earned his way on to the field and provided over 500 yards and six touchdowns.
J.D. McKissic leads the top receiving corps in the Sun Belt. McKissic, a slot receiver, caught an astounding 85% of his targets last season, so his label as “Best Hands” in the conference might be an understatement. He was also one of three receivers for the Red Wolves to top 600 yards receiving last year. The other two, Tres Houston and Dijon Paschal, also return. All in all, eight of the top nine receivers from last season are back in Jonesboro in 2015.
Offensive line remains the biggest question mark and the biggest source of attrition for this offense. Any time you have a scrambling quarterback and a smaller running back it’s to be expected that your sack rates and short-yardage conversion rates will suffer, but this team was a little worse than it ought to have been last year. They do return three starters, including both tackles, but they will need to ramp up their play this season and bring the other two along if they want to reach their full potential.
Creating havoc is one of the best ways for a defense to outproduce its talent level. Arkansas State figured that ought last season and managed to excel in doing so, but the issue with havoc is that it isn’t always sustainable. The Red Wolves will look to find a way to sustain their sack, forced fumble and defensive touchdown rates from a year ago, all of which ranked in the top 20 nationally, but if they can’t the defense may fall on hard times.
Ja’Von Rolland-Jones and Chris Stone were the two biggest contributors in those impressive sack rates as they combined for 21.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks. They will look to anchor a defensive line that should be the strength of the team with interior linemen Chuks Ota and Robert Mondie. Mondie, a UAB transfer, is the only 300+ pound defensive lineman on the team and should help a run defense that struggled last season.
One of the primary sources of concern last season was that Arkansas State did a poor job of preventing big plays, particularly big rushing plays. As was just mentioned, Mondie may help preventing guys getting to the next level, but what happens once they do? This linebacking corps is thin, and if they have injuries or poor play there’s not a whole lot they can do about it. Xavier Woodson is a decent backer, but if they can’t get some help to go with him then this unit could struggle mightily.
Turnover has hit the secondary harder than any other unit on the team, offense of defense, but there is some talent there. Rocky Hayes showed plenty of potential at corner last season as a backup, and some think he may even be All-Sun Belt caliber. They do return one starter at safety, Money Hunter, which is clearly one of the coolest names in all of sports.
Prediction: 9-3 Sun Belt co-champion
The offensive talent is enough for me to pick them to win the conference, despite my concerns about the defense. Arkansas State will be battle-tested when they enter conference play after playing at USC and Toledo and hosting Missouri in September. They have the ability to run the table in conference play, but they did last year too and had a few no-show games cost them the opportunity to do that. In conference, their toughest games will be against UL-Lafayette and a road trip to Appalachian State.
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