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Season preview: Arkansas State begins 2019 with heavy hearts

Red Wolves set to compete for Sun Belt West crown

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-Arkansas State vs Nevada Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Perspective can change faster than the wind.

An overtime bowl loss for Arkansas State to Nevada in the Arizona Bowl back in December would normally register as “heartbreaking” for a football program. It would usually serve as default motivation to dust themselves off and strive to go one step further as a new season begins.

Not stAte.

Not as the 2019 season is set to kickoff this Saturday.

The tragic passing of Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson’s wife Wendy this past week has left the entire Red Wolves community in Jonesboro with heavy hearts.

After finishing 8-5 last season, it will be a hard task to ask 18-to-22 year-olds to suit up and play elite level Sun Belt football given the solemn news.

Still, they will suit up. And they will play. Hard. For their football family.

Improving on 8-5 is the goal, but how they play this season will undoubtedly be played with more perspective than perhaps any FBS school in the country.

Logan’s time has come

All Arkansas State’s offense needs to do to replicate a high-octane offense is replace two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year Justice Hansen.

No big deal, right?

All signs point to Logan Bonner as the incumbent quarterback. The junior saw limited snaps last season, but seemed to solidify his standing as starter after an impressive Spring Game debut.

Bonner will be lining in the backfield with reigning Sun Belt Freshman of the Year in Marcel Murray, who may play an even bigger part in the Arkansas State offense this season.

His continued development between the tackles will be crucial, but if Murray develops further as a short-yard option in the passing game, Bonner will likely be thrilled with the quality lifeline to throw to when plays break down.

Another Bonner (Lanard) will be sorely missed in 2019. Jacob Still takes the mantle as the best O-lineman in the bunch that will need to gel quickly.

In terms of a dependable lifeline, the same goes for tight end Javonis Isaac. He must be reliable, especially on third down in the passing game as a proper outlet for Bonner.

Wide receiver Kirk Merritt enters 2019 as the team’s most dynamic playmaker. The Preseason Biletnikoff Watch List member lead the Sun Belt in receptions (83) and receiving yards (1,005) last season.

This means he will draw many, many double teams. That’s where senior Omar Bayless, senior Dahu Green and junior Jonathan Adams Jr. can exploit secondaries by winning one-on-one coverage schemes.

Green is returning after breaking his ankle in last year’s season opener and has shown some impressive flashes this summer.

Will defense flourish under new DC?

David Duggan was officially installed this past January as the new stAte defensive coordinator. Duggan has had due success in his recent stints at Southern Miss and Western Michigan.

He inherits a quirky defensive challenge in Jonesboro.

The Red Wolves keep developing and graduating defensive line talent it seems every year. They move on from Ronheen Bingham, but return two studs up front in senior Forrest Merrill and junior William Bradley-King.

The back end will be shored up by junior Jerry Jacobs and seniors B.J. Edmonds and Darreon Jackson.

Jacobs has very smooth footwork and with added pressure from the aforementioned defensive line, look for all three of these guys to compete for most INTs in the Sun Belt.

Linebacker is the biggest question mark in the Arkansas State.

Tajhea Chambers in the middle of the defense is a versatile weapon, but will need help from outside linebackers such as Derrick Bean to truly be effective as a unit.

Duggan must find roles for support players early as well. With his appointment as interim coach while Anderson is on his leave of absence, there will be extra pressure on Duggan and the rest of the defensive coaches to make adjustments quickly if the Red Wolves fail to execute on their defensive plans early this season.

Special teams looks solid

Sophomore Blake Grupe will continue his duties as the kicker after a 14-for-21 showing last season. He had limited success in a small sample size from beyond 40 yards (2-for-5), but seems dependable.

Senior Cody Grace resumes the punting responsibilities. The native Australian has booted the ball for over 40 yards per punt through his career.

And as for returns, stAte would be well served to put Merritt back to receive and get him a gap to fly through.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 Arizona Bowl - Arkansas State v Nevada Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s hard not to root at 110% volume for the Red Wolves this season.

The team sought to challenge itself with interesting non-conference games early, which should have them well prepared once the Sun Belt is in full swing.

With the Anderson family firmly on Jonesboro hearts, I am predicting a Sun Belt West title game appearance and a re-do at a quality Sun Belt bowl come December.

Whatever happens, they will suit up and play hard.

And with perspective unlike any other set of teammates to kickoff in 2019.