As Blake Anderson’s fourth season begins in Jonesboro, the Red Wolves find themselves in very familiar territory. ASU was picked to finish close to the top of the conference in the preseason poll but not quite the top at #3. ASU returns some star power at key spots while filling in other spots with transfers and JUCO players. The mantra hasn't seemed to change in the Delta as the program that has won or shared five out of the last six SBC titles may have just enough firepower and some help with scheduling to be right back in the mix.
Blake Anderson begins year four at the helm with an overall record of 24-15 and a Sun Belt record of 20-4 (.833). There has been much discussion about how to improve the OOC record which has been abysmal, including last year’s collapse at home against UCA (a 28-23 loss that left ASU 0-4 to start the season.) So in the offseason Anderson announced he would be getting more involved with the quarterbacks’ development and offensive play calling going into ‘17, seemingly nudging OC Buster Faulkner out of the way so he can focus on tight ends while keeping the OC title. Whether this helps ASU return to its scoring prowess of previous years remains to be seen.
The face of the offense in 2017 is undoubtedly returning junior starter QB Justice Hansen. Last year as a first-year starter after transferring from Oklahoma, Hansen threw for 2,719 yards and 19 touchdowns against eight interceptions. This year Hansen will have the luxury of a stacked backfield with last year’s workhorse Warren Wand (200 Att. / 879 yards / 7 TDs) returning for his junior season along with TD machine Johnston White (25 career TDs.) The Red Wolves will also get back Armond Weh-Weh after injury last season, and he will add needed depth and should help give Justice Hansen plenty of options in the running game.
The receiving corps returns a group of game-experienced players who should help the Red Wolves stretch the field vertically. Seniors Dijon Paschal, Christian Booker, and Chris Murray lead a group that is deep on potential and has many potential breakout stars including Omar Bayless and transfer Kendrick Edwards. The feature receiver in 2017 will be standout tight end Blake Mack who returns for his senior season after averaging an astounding 19 yards per catch in ‘16. Most of the focus in the offseason has been on the offensive line as ASU tries to replace all five starters from last season. Iowa State transfer Jaypee Philbert will lead a group that averages 320 pounds across the front making it the largest front five in ASU history.
The Takeaway: There are plenty of offensive weapons in the backfield and at receiver for QB Hansen to spread the ball around to. The biggest question is how quickly can the offensive line come together and protect the passer and open holes for a good trio of running backs? The Red Wolves scoring average dipped below 30 ppg last year for the first time in the Blake Anderson era. With Anderson taking over more QB development and play calling duties, the potential to get that average back into the high thirties is there. Look for the three backs to combine for more than 2,000 yards out of the backfield and Hansen to break the 3,000 yard passing mark this season.
Although only four starters return on defense from the ‘16 squad, there is enough experience sprinkled through the previous backups that the 2017 version might be just as effective as it develops during the season. Focus on the front line begins with returning Sun Belt player of the year DE Ja’von Rolland-Jones who is just 13.5 sacks away from being the NCAA career leader in that category. Former Alabama transfer Dee Liner returns and brings his surprising ability to get up field on ball carriers as a nice compliment to Rolland-Jones coming off the edge.
Three junior college transfers look to add talent and depth to the line. In the middle Tony Adams and Josh Curry can be the fire plug run stoppers as Ronheen Bingham could be the bookend that Rolland-Jones needs to take pressure off of him. The linebacker corps will be led by Kyle Wilson and Tahjea Chambers as depth may be an issue after Khari Lain was dismissed for rules violations over the summer.
Nickel back Justin Clifton along with senior Blaise Taylor return in the secondary but the other three starting spots will be up for grabs with a mix of transfers and a JUCO player all vying for time. These include Darreon Jackson who was a Boise State signee, along with Clemson transfer Jefferie Gibson and junior college transfer Michael Johnson.
The Takeaway : The 2017 version of the Red Wolves’ defense could be a lot like the 2016 edition — a unit that has potential to be very fast, physical, and athletic but might need some time to find its personality and cohesiveness. If Dee Liner can bounce back from a preseason camp groin injury, the front could be very special and dangerous. It may take some time to get the secondary up to speed with so many new faces being counted on.
9/2 @ Nebraska
9/9 vs Miami (FL)
9/16 vs AR-Pine Bluff
9/23 @ SMU
10/4 @ Georgia Southern
10/14 vs Coastal Carolina
10/19 vs Louisiana-Lafayette
10/28 @ NMSU
11/11 @ USA
11/18 vs TXST
11/25 @ ULM
12/2 vs Troy
The out of conference woes could continue this year with a very distinct possibility that ASU goes into Sun Belt play with a 1-3 record.
Once Sun Belt play begins the Red Wolves will get Louisiana-Lafayette and Troy in Jonesboro with only Georgia Southern and South Alabama on the road as potential threats to another title. It is very possible that ASU could go 7-1 or better in conference play, putting them once again around that eight win mark and a chance at a 6th title in seven years.