The streak is alive and well in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Not for consecutive conference wins, which stands at nine games, not the consecutive bowls streak which is five, or Blake Anderson’s impressive third consecutive year at the helm of the Red Wolves, the first multi-year head coach at ASU since Steve Roberts (2009-2010.), but the 16 year streak of not being picked as a preseason favorite to win the conference title.
Despite ASU claiming four out of the last five conference championships the Red Wolves are still fighting for respect. This year the mood around Jonesboro is of high expectations, expectations that go further than just another conference title. There is a sense that Anderson might have enough firepower and depth to push his squad onto the national scene.
Here are some points to remember as the favorite mid-week, mid-major gets ready to defend the ‘Belt.
The Super (transfer) Friends
Never has so many expected so much out of so few, with so few actual snaps under their belt. Over the last year a handful of transfers have landed on the ASU campus. That itself is not extraordinary but what is, is the fact that all five had been on rosters of P5 schools before become a Red Wolf.
- Cameron Echols-Luper---WR/KR---Jr---Original School : TCU—What to know: Made NFL.com “16 for ’16 : College Football’s Most Freakish Athletes”—Sporting News “Fastest Receiver” in the Sun Belt---Preseason All-Sun Belt Kick Returner by Phil Steele while having never played a down in the Sun Belt.
- Dee Liner---DT---Jr---Original School : Alabama---What to know : #4 DT prospect and #26 prospect overall by ESPN as a high school recruit---had 32 sacks in high school---Phil Steele & Athlon First Team All-Sun Belt while never having played a down in the conference.
- Kendall Sanders---WR---Jr---Original School: Texas---What to know: Sports Illustrated Honorable Mention High School All-American—Played 2 seasons at Texas and was #3 on the team in receptions and yards in ’13.
- Chad Voytik---QB---Sr---Original School: Pitt---Graduate transfer---Scout tabbed as nations #12 QB coming out of high school---Started all of ’14 and played in 7 games of ’15 for Pitt---Armed Forces Bowl MVP in ’14.
- Justice Hansen---QB—Soph---Original School: Oklahoma---#100 recruit in the ESPN300 coming out of high school---Redshirted as a freshman at OU before transferring to Butler County CC---Has three years to play at ASU.
There seems to be so much potential in this group (note the two pre-season all-Sun Belt picks) but for now that’s all it is, potential. No doubt it will take some weeks of play to get the guys on the offensive side time to gel and play together and to decide which QB will eventually take the job. (Voytik is my choice) Running the offense this year for Anderson is new OC Buster Faulkner, formerly of MTSU, who enjoyed success in the same role there.
The Not-So Big Secret is…..DEFENSE
While Blake Anderson’s previous teams have racked up big numbers on the offensive side (2015-520 total points and 400+yds per game), last year’s success was propelled by an aggressive, productive defense. A 2 time all-conference end in Jr. Ja’Von Rolland Jones (17 career sacks) along with newcomer Dee Liner should make the Red Wolves stout upfront. Two returning all- conference linebackers with a combined total of 152 tackles will back them in Xavier Woodson-Luster and Khair Lain and don’t sleep on Quanterio Heath in that spot as well. The secondary created turnovers and points in 2015, with interceptions in 11 straight games and a nation leading 26 pics to join eight defensive TD’s. The secondary will see a mix of talent used including Blaise Taylor, Brandon Byner, Jamaris Hart at the corners and Money Hunter(41 tackles-3 Ints), Cody Brown(65 tackles in ’15), and Chris Humes(11 starts in ’15—50 tackles) at the safety positions.
The Rushing Game Or If 2 were 1
If you were able to meld Warren Wand and Johnston White into one player, their total statistics for 2015 would have made them one of the greatest single season performances in ASU history. The duo returns after gaining 1323 yards on 217 carries (6.09 yds per att.) and 19 TDs. Now thrown into the mix is highly touted JUCO running back Armond Weh-Weh, who arrives on the ASU campus having originally signed and redshirted at Texas Tech only to detour through Scottsdale CC in Arizona on his way to Jonesboro. The strong running game should help give the offense time to gel.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There is much excitement and anticipation in Jonesboro for the 2016 season as there should be. The potential on the offensive side of the ball is there but will more than likely take time to come together with a new starting QB. As the season went on in 2015, the offense became more fluid and balanced and the defense hit its stride once conference play began. In 2016 this should be a similar tale with ASU opening with 3 solid FBS opponents, (Toledo, Auburn, Utah St) before striding into conference play. ASU doesn’t face Appalachian St this year and gets the long awaited matchup with Georgia Southern at home. After a long September / October homestead, they should have enough momentum going into the final weeks of the season as they close with a 3 game conference road swing to be in the mix for their 5th conference championship in 6 years.
Best Case: 10-2
Worst case: 8-4