It’s an exciting time for Arkansas State and its football fans. The team went 10-3 last year, undefeated in Sun Belt play, is coming off of its best season in a quarter-century. Oh yeah, they also went out and hired offensive genius Gus Malzahn to replace Hugh Fezze, who bolted for Ole Miss.
Offense: The one player who has to be happiest with the Malzahn hire is senior quarterback Ryan Aplin. The senior put up video game numbers in his junior season, throwing for 3.588 yards, 19 touchdowns and completing 64 percent of his passes. Despite his accuracy, he will need to cut down on his interceptions, as he tossed 16 of them last year. He also rushed for a team-high 588 yards and 10 touchdowns. Aplin also ranks fourth among active FBS quarterbacks in total offense with 8.734 career yards.
Sophomore Frankie Jackson will be looked upon to take over the reigns of starting running back. Despite an injury-plagued 2011, he finished second in rushing touchdowns with six and ran for 355 yards. Jackson is also a passing threat out of the backfield, as he caught 13 passes for 178 yards last season. Jackson is just keeping the seat warm for stud transfer Michael Dyer, however. The running back followed Malzahn from Auburn.
The offense brings back a wealth of experience amongst the receivers, as all three starters are seniors and their backups are also upperclassmen. Taylor Stockemer led the wideouts with seven touchdown grabs and caught 48 balls for 756 yards. Josh Jarboe snared 54 balls for 730 yards.
Defense: Unlike the offense, the defense brings back little experience, as seven starters are gone from last year, as well as a number of top backups. Last year’s Sun Belt DPOY Brandon Joiner has departed, taking his 13 sacks with him. The Red Wolves are looking for someone to become the main pass rusher.
The linebackers are more experienced, with seniors Nathan Herrold and Nick Nelms back. Sophomore Qushaun Lee also returns. Herrold finished third on the team in tackles last season with 66. Lee had 49 stops and two interceptions.
Having to replace two All-Sun Belt corners will be rough, but ASU brings back experience at safety with Don Jones and Sterling Young. The two finished fourth and fifth in tackles last season, with 54 and 51, respectively.
Recruiting: The Red Wolves brought in a total of 30 recruits. The biggest is probably Dyer, but he won’t be eligible to play until 2013. Malzahn picked up much of his class within the trenches, as six recruits are offensive linemen, three defensive ends and four other defensive linemen. The star of the class, however, may be quarterback Fredi Knighten. Knighten comes in as a Parade All-American after throwing for a ridiculous 4,557 yards and 66 touchdowns. He did that all while completing 74 percent of his passes. Oh yeah, he also rushed for 840 yards and 15 touchdowns. He was Arkansas’ Gatorade Player of the Year.
Schedule: The nonconference schedule is going to provide the Red Wolves with some good experience, as they travel to both Oregon and Nebraska in the first three weeks of the season. Their other noncon games should be easy, as they face Memphis (who they defeated last year 47-3) and Alcorn State. Their two toughest conferfence games, against FIU and Louisiana-Lafayette, are both on the road, however.