In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
No. 78 Arkansas State
Arkansas State could be one of the 40 best teams in the country by the end of season. For now, uncertainty on defense and ball-security issues on offense that keep the Red Wolves outside the top 75.
They have high-end talent, including the Sun Belt's top quarterback in Justice Hansen and one of the better nickel safeties in the country in Justin Clifton but lack depth and need to find replacements at several key positions.
2017 Record: 7-5 (6-2, Sun Belt)
Arkansas State hit seven wins for the seventh consecutive season, won six Sun Belt games, nearly beat Nebraska and narrowly missed a conference championship. The offense was unstoppable (498 yards per game) and the defense had a ton of turnovers (24) and sacks (35).
But it didn't feel that good.
Hurricane Irma forced the cancellation of their home game vs. Miami (and they're suing Miami for failing to reschedule) and they were rolling through the Sun Belt until a five-point road loss to South Alabama and seven-point home loss to Troy crushed their title chances.
Head Coach: Blake Anderson (5th Year, 31-20)
After losing three head coaches in three years, Arkansas State has finally found stability in Blake Anderson.
The Arkansas native is still chasing his first 10-win season in Jonesboro but he had more wins in his first four seasons than any coach in program history. Anderson, who reportedly discussed the Baylor job two years ago, has kept their bowl streak alive (seven straight) and avoided a return to years of mediocrity.
He did a brilliant job with the offense last year, his first as the play-caller.
WR Chris Murray, TE Blake Mack, OT Jaypee Philbert, DE Caleb Caston, DE Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, LB Kyle Wilson, CB Blaise Taylor
Of Arkansas State's nine All-Sun Belt First- and Second-Team selections, five graduated, including Sun Belt Player of the Year Ja'Von Rolland-Jones. He set the program and conference records for sacks (42).
First-Team corner Blaise Taylor is also gone, as are First-Team tight end Blake Mack and Second-Team receiver Chris Murray. Murray was Justice Hansen's favorite target for most of the season, catching a team-high 51 passes for a team-high nine touchdowns.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Justice Hansen, RB Warren Wand, RB Armond Weh-Weh, WR Justin McInnis, WR Kendrick Edwards, OT Lanard Bonner, C Jacob Still
Arkansas State's offense was powerful in Anderson's first two seasons — 2014 and 2015 — but sputtered through some of 2016. Anderson, who called plays as offensive coordinator at North Carolina in 2013 and 2014, took over play-calling duties from coordinator Buster Faulkner.
It worked. They ranked in the top 15 nationally in total offense, passing and scoring, among other areas. But as good as the Red Wolves were on that side of the ball, they could've been light years better.
Their 25 turnovers were 110th-worst in the FBS and their 72-percent red-zone conversion rate was only better than six other FBS teams. Turnovers (six) were the only reason they lost South Alabama. It's been a huge focus for Anderson and the entire offense, led by senior quarterback Justice Hansen (below).
"I think everybody is real comfortable [with the offense]," Hansen said We don't have a lot of new guys in on the offensive end so everybody has been through this system a lot . . . I can see my reads a lot faster and I know what the defense is doing a lot quicker than I have in the past."
Anderson said he was pleased with Hansen's ball security and overall decision-making during spring practice. Hansen is a former Oklahoma transfer who improved his completion percentage by nearly five points and threw one touchdown per 13 passing attempts but, like 2016, struggled with interceptions. He had four multi-interception games, including two games with four picks.
He has the tools to be one of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the country.
Warren Wand is their all-purpose senior back who's been baffling opposing defenses for three seasons. He and fellow senior Armond Weh-Weh could both flirt with 150 carries again.
"Really pleased with the way Armond Weh-Weh is running the ball," Anderson said of his senior running back. "I think he's been one of the biggest bright spots for us offensively."
Chris Murray led the team in receiving and was Hansen's top target for most of the season before Justin McInnis went bonkers in the season's final weeks. He entered the ULM game with 26 receptions for 391 yards (15 yards per catch). He had 23 catches for 409 yards (18 yards per catch) in their final three games, including nine for 211 vs. the Warhawks.
Arkansas State will enter fall camp with an unsettled offensive line. Tackle Lanard Bonner is a stud and Jacob Still is back at center after a solid redshirt freshman season but, after spring practice ended, Anderson said they don't have a set rotation yet.
Returning Defensive Players
DE Ronheen Bingham, DE William Bradley-King, DT Hunter Moreton, LB Caleb Bonner, S Justin Clifton, S B.J. Edmonds, S Darreon Jackson
Arkansas State's loss to Middle Tennessee in the Camellia Bowl was a fitting end to a frustrating season for the defense.
They had three interceptions, one sack and eight tackles for loss. Blue Raiders' quarterback Brent Stockstill completed only 54 percent of his passes and 25 of Terelle West and Tavares Thomas' 27 carries went for a total of 41 yards, or 1.6 yards per carry.
The Red Wolves still allowed two 30-yard touchdown passes and West and Thomas' other two carries went for a combined 73 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown run on 1st-and-10.
Throughout the season, Joe Cauthen's unit generated pressure, forced turnovers and was good on third and fourth down. They just couldn't prevent the big plays, ranking 95th nationally in allowing plays of 30 yards or longer. The fourth-year coordinator said they spent a lot of spring practice "getting to know each other," search for depth and experimenting with different personnel.
Rolland-Jones is gone but Cauthen seems pleased with a defensive line now led by senior Ronheen Bingham (below), a 6-foot-2, 241-pounder who had eight tackles for loss and five sacks last year. He'll move around and come at the quarterback from many different spots.
Sophomores William Bradley-King and Hunter Moreton appear set for big steps forward.
Corner is a concern (a couple inexperienced upperclassmen and a lot of freshmen, though Anderson was pleased with the play of senior Brandon Byner and junior Jeremy Smith in the spring game) but safety is not. Junior B.J. Edmonds is back after a breakout sophomore season and Justin Clifton is a stud at the nickel safety and one of the most fun players to watch in the country. The 6-foot, 204-pounder is a rare player who can attack the line of scrimmage in run support, cover big tight ends and run with slot receivers.
Arkansas State runs a 4-2-5 so they don't use many true linebackers but the position is still a major concern. Caleb Bonner is one of several players competing for time and they could use five or six players regularly at the two spots early in the season.
DT Kevin Thurmon, S Logan Wescott
Ball State transfer Kevin Thurmon is eligible after sitting out last season. The mobile 6-foot-3, 288-pound tackle had 6.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore for Ball State in 2016.
Joe Cauthen is seeking a backup for nickel safety Justin Clifton and Logan Wescott could be his man. The Delaware State transfer played free safety for the Hornets and made some nice plays in the spring. He'll hit the ever-loving crap out of you.
Arkansas State visits Alabama in Week 2 for their second-ever meeting with the Tide and first since a 35-0 loss in Tuscaloosa in November 2008.
They open Sun Belt play with a Week 5 trip to Georgia Southern and host Appalachian State 10 days later in a Tuesday primetime game.
|Saturday, Sept. 1||vs. Southeast Missouri|
|Saturday, Sept. 8||at Alabama|
|Saturday, Sept. 15||at Tulsa|
|Saturday, Sept. 22||vs. UNLV|
|Saturday, Sept. 29||at Georgia Southern|
|Tuesday, Oct. 9||vs. Appalachian State|
|Thursday, Oct. 18||vs. Georgia State|
|Saturday, Oct. 27||at Louisiana|
|Saturday, Nov. 3||vs. South Alabama|
|Saturday, Nov. 10||at Coastal Carolina|
|Saturday, Nov. 17||vs. UL-Monroe|
|Saturday, Nov. 24||at Texas State|