Arkansas State enters the season with its fifth coach in as many seasons. It has also been predicted to finish second in the conference by Sun Belt coaches despite that coaching turnover and losing much of its offense from a year ago. The offensive prowess of new head coach Blake Anderson and the play-makers that do return on that side of the ball are reasons for that projection. What the Red Wolves possess in its back seven demands even more respect.
ASU's 4-2-5 defense is anchored by senior middle linebacker Qushaun Lee, who was chosen by those same coaches as the Sun Belt's preseason defensive player of the year. Lee is a proven monster, totaling 100 or more tackles in each of the last two seasons. The 2013 first-team All-Sun Belt performer is 114 tackles away from the conference record, a number he should exceed.
Lee was expected to be joined in the second level by Arkansas transfer A.J. Turner, but Turner was dismissed from the team on the same day he was named the starter. Sophomore Xavier Woodson will likely replace Turner, and that shouldn't be too much of a drop off. Woodson started against Louisiana-Lafayette and Ball State last year, which were two of ASU's bigger games. In the bowl game against Ball State, Woodson recorded 10 tackles and broke up a pair of passes.
On the outside, ASU boasts a trio of cornerbacks that can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the conference. Artez Brown, Rocky Hayes and Andrew Tryon are all vastly experienced upperclassmen. Hayes is the most decorated of the three, earning second-team All-Sun Belt honors last year and being placed on the Thorpe Award watch list, along with basically every preseason first-team All-Sun Belt list you can find, heading into 2014. Despite those accolades, he is listed behind Brown and Tryon on the two-deep. That should speak to how good those other two guys are.
All of the starts at safety return from a year ago. Sterling Young will hold down the free safety gig again after putting together a season worthy of second-team All-Sun Belt honors a year ago. Chris Humes is listed as the starter alongside him, but has competition with Money Hunter. Hunter stole five starts from Humes last year as a true freshman. The nickel back position will be manned by Charleston Girley and Frankie Jackson. Jackson started nine games at the position last year after playing running back, and gaining 670 yards and 10 touchdowns, during his first two seasons. Girley is listed as the starter this year, however, after starting three games a season ago.
The problem is these guys might be at least partially negated by a defensive line that features Chris Stone and a bundle of question marks. Safeties will need to rack up tackles in defense of the run game, cornerbacks will need to respond well to being isolated against receivers, and linebackers will need to be able to shed blockers. The good news is all of those units were able to do that last year, but they will likely have to do it quite a bit more this year. With the competition this sort of talented, experienced depth brings, there's little doubt that these guys will be improved and up to the task.
In a conference more known for putting points on the board than keeping opponents off of it, it's unusual for a team to be highly regarded because of its defense. Arkansas State is that team, and there are going to be games this year when the defense needs to keep the inexperienced offense in the game. The back seven should certainly do its part.