Fredi Knighten was one of the most exciting quarterbacks in Arkansas State history. He helped lead the Red Wolves to some of their best offensive production in recent years and became a nationally-recognized name thanks to his great performances during mid-week games.
Knighten was an impressive dual-threat quarterback for the Red Wolves, leading them to two straight seasons inside the top 20 for scoring offense in the FBS. In the six seasons before that, the offense placed inside the top 40 in scoring just twice (26th in 2012 and 31st in 2011). For quarterbacks, he ranks fourth in school history for career passing yards (5,371), second in rushing yards (1,619), and second in total touchdowns (67).
The only quarterback that can really compete with Knighten and his impact on the Arkansas State program is Ryan Aplin. Aplin just happens to be the guy at the top of every list I just mentioned and he just happens to be the quarterback that Knighten succeeded. 10,758 passing yards, 1,756 rushing yards, and 99 total touchdowns later, Aplin handed off the reigns to Adam Kennedy then to Fredi Knighten and the rest was history as the saying goes.
Before jumping into who could possibly become the next Aplin or Knighten, you must look at what kind of quarterback the offense needs to run most efficiently. Over the last three seasons, the Red Wolves have run the football 575 times or more. During that stretch, the quarterback has led the team in carries (2013 and 2014) and no running back has rushed for more than 166 carries (Michael Gordon in 2015).
This style of rushing attack has resulted in three different running backs rushing 95+ times in each of those seasons with an average of 186 carries from the quarterback position. Through the air, Arkansas State ranked in the bottom 35 in passing attempts twice over the last three seasons, while throwing the football just 40% of the time. It is quite clear this offense thrives when the quarterback can run the football effectively. This season, the team will have a new offensive coordinator, Coach Buster Faulkner, who had some very typical comments of a new coach here.
Replacing Fredi Knighten is not going to be easy, but there are many options to consider going into this spring practice. The returning quarterbacks that are in consideration for the job are DJ Pearson, James Tabary, and Justice Hansen. Those three were mentioned by Coach Faulkner over a month ago in the interview linked above. Of course, the team should also have true freshman Logan Bonner as well as redshirt freshman Carson Coats, and junior Cameron Birse. These three don’t look to be true contenders for the job this upcoming season.
From what little video we have of DJ Pearson, he's deserving of further consideration. Out of Northview High School in Duluth, GA, Pearson is a left-handed dual-threat quarterback. His throwing motion needs a lot of work, as it’s very long. There isn’t a whole lot of zip on his throws, but he’s fairly accurate on them.
Pearson’s footwork is very good for a young player and he has a good bit of experience throwing on the run and against his body. From a throwing perspective, he’s got a pretty solid lower half. As a runner, he has above average speed, but can’t break away from the pack. His agility could be better, but he made some very nice plays getting away from tacklers. There’s nothing negative about his running game that doesn’t make me think he can’t be used in this system.
James Tabary will be a redshirt sophomore during the 2016 season as he threw just 105 passes as a redshirt freshman. He completed nearly 62% of his passes for four touchdowns and six interceptions. His snaps mainly came during the first five games of the season, three of which he started (Missouri State, Toledo, and Idaho).
Tabary ran 18 times for -92 yards. Those rushing attempts were basically pass plays that turned into sacks or him scrambling for yardage. Tabary’s passing skills leave much to be desired and he doesn’t possess the dual-threat ability I think is necessary to be under center for Arkansas State, so I’m going to move on to our third and final candidate, Justice Hansen.
We All Deserve Justice
Justice Hansen was a four-star recruit out of high school as he signed with Oklahoma two years ago. Hansen decided to transfer to Butler Community College last June after redshirting his freshman year. He has three years of eligibility left after transferring to Arkansas State and it wouldn’t surprise us one bit if he’s named the starter by the end of spring practice.
Hansen is the type of dual-threat that reminds me a lot of Jeff Driskel at Louisiana Tech this past year. He doesn’t excel at either running or passing, but has the potential to be very good at both as long as he’s in the right offense. Driskel struggled at Florida, but was a star for the Bulldogs in 2015 (4,033 passing yards, 27 TDs, 8 INTs, 3.5 yards per carry, 5 TDs).
As a thrower, Hansen possesses very good accuracy and good footwork, which was evident at Butler Community College. Take it for what it’s worth, but Hansen completed 89.2% of passes in conference and 77.3% of passes overall (163 for 211, 12 TDs, 2 INTs) during the 2015 season.
The one negative found when looking at his passing ability was his lack of arm strength. Whether it was a slant, a post, or a fly route, Hansen threw the ball with the same amount of average at best zip. Considering the past offenses at Arkansas State have been more focused on accuracy with the football, limiting turnovers, and being efficient on the ground, it’s not something I’d worry about.
On the ground, Hansen doesn’t have near the amount of speed or agility that Fredi Knighten had when healthy, but has more than enough to get by. His Rivals page also has him listed at a 4.55 runner (he’s likely to be closer to 4.65), which is more than enough speed for this offense. At Butler CC, the offense ran the same style of shotgun with misdirection as Arkansas State, and he was also an early enrollee to the school just last month. This leads me to believe that he’ll be very comfortable from day one of spring practice.
At the end of the day, you can’t expect one of these quarterbacks to replace Fredi Knighten or Ryan Aplin as they are arguably the two greatest quarterbacks in the school’s history. What you can expect is Hansen to win the job (Pearson as the backup) and to show signs of keeping this program moving in the right direction. They likely will not win their fifth Sun Belt championship in their last six years because of him, but Hansen should at least keep them in the thick of it in 2016.