The offseason has begun for the Red Wolves. There is no rest for the weary following the GoDaddy Bowl in Mobile as Coach Anderson and his staff are full steam ahead with recruiting as they try to lock down their class heading into National Signing Day on February 4th. Anderson and his staff have 26 players currently committed and the group is the top-ranked class in the Sun Belt Conference. Before we look ahead to the future, let’s take a look at the events of the past year and how this season played out, good and bad.
On December 13th, 2013, Arkansas State University hired Blake Anderson to be its 5th coach in five years. In his opening press conference last December, Coach Anderson promised, "We will be one of the fastest operating flying-around football teams in the country. You will never be bored if you come to a game." It’s safe to say he was able to keep his promise on both of those statements. The offense broke numerous records, both for the school and in the Sun Belt Conference. The Red Wolves were anything but boring with numerous trick plays for touchdowns, the “Fainting Goat” play that became a national sensation, and more special teams’ surprises than we can count.
Coach Anderson also said before the season, “We have a chance to do some great things, but we are very thin and can’t afford many injuries.” These words proved very prophetic as the team was decimated by injuries all year long. Starting with losing All-Conference center, Bryce Giddens, who ended his football career early due to concussions, the Red Wolves suffered one injury after another. 12 to 13 starters missed games during the season including significant time lost for the team’s biggest playmakers, J.D. McKissic and Michael Gordon. Add the fact that the offensive line was never healthy all at once and was nothing more than a patchwork mess at season’s end, it’s remarkable that quarterback Fredi Knighten and the offense were able to turn in the best offensive season in school history.
A quick look at some of the game results tells of a season full of ups and downs. The season started out well with a solid home opener win against the Montana State Bobcats, where both the offense and defense dominated the game. Next up was a trip to Knoxville to face the Volunteers. The Red Wolves held their own throughout the game and had a chance to really grab momentum midway through the third quarter. Down 24-12, and showing the ability to move the ball, McKissic fumbled a punt return that would have put the Red Wolves in a great position to score quickly and be down by 3 heading into the stretch run in the game. It really felt like a missed opportunity in that game to steal an upset. Miami proved to be too much for ASU in a game where the Red Wolves didn’t do much to help themselves. Of course, the famous “Fainting Goat” play was attempted and gained national attention.
Next came a pivotal moment in the Red Wolves’ season. Sitting at 1-2, they faced Utah State and their Top 10 defense at home, and it really had the feel of a must-win game to put the season on the right trajectory. It proved to be a battle from start to finish with the Red Wolves celebrating a hard-fought win in overtime. The win seemed to propel the team to their next two victories over Louisiana Monroe and Georgia State. Then came a big Sun Belt showdown at Louisiana that was marred by self-inflicted wounds and the inability to get a stop when they needed one on defense. The game felt like one that would have had a different result if the Red Wolves played to their potential.
The Red Wolves went on the road and overcame the difficulties of traveling to Moscow, Idaho and walked out with a workman-like victory over the Vandals. Then came one of the best performances turned in by the Red Wolves in a dominant victory over South Alabama at home.
The coaches’ main concern at times during the season was the team’s ability to come out and play to their potential and have the mental intensity to win some games. That failed to happen in losses to Appalachian State and Texas State, two teams where ASU was the better team on paper. However, the team rebounded and absolutely pounded New Mexico State at home, 68-35, and ensured a chance to be selected for a bowl game. Indeed they were selected for a bowl game and headed to the GoDaddy Bowl for the 4th straight year. Unfortunately, self-inflicted wounds and the inability to get a stop when it needed once again prevented the Red Wolves from winning a game that was within their grasp.
So, the question is, what was accomplished this year and what does the future look like for Coach Anderson and Red Wolf football?
First, a ton of positives can, and should be taken from this year. Coach Anderson took over a program that had a new coach in each of the previous 4 seasons. It’s hard to build relationships with players and establish a culture when all they’ve been used to is change and uncertainty every year. However, it’s clear that Anderson and his staff have established a culture of family, accountability and the expectation of excellence. A lot of credit has to go to the outgoing senior class who, in Coach Anderson’s words, “Have done everything we asked of them, and we asked a lot of them. But that’s what has allowed this team to gel quickly and learn our system and generate good results on the field. The foundation they set is what we will build off of in the offseason in preparation for next year.” So the foundation for future success has been set.
Next, you can’t ignore the offensive output generated by the offense run by Offensive Coordinator, Walt Bell. As mentioned before, the team’s top playmakers missed a lot time due to injury. That required first-time starter, Fredi Knighten, to have to grow up quickly and run an offense that he just learned this past spring. And run the offense he did. Knighten was voted 1st-Team All-Sun Belt at quarterback. He was rewarded for leading the Red Wolves to a Top 20 national ranking in total offense and the top scoring team in Sun Belt and school history. Not too bad for his first year in this system and not a bad job by Coach Bell in his first year as Offensive Coordinator, and as he always says, “Wait until we have the time to work and really get good.” With all of Bell’s playmakers coming back and plenty of starters returning, the future is bright for this offense.
Now, one thing Coach Anderson has said before, moral victories really aren’t his style. So, like him and his coaching staff do, we have to look honestly at what needs to be improved heading into next season. Put simply, the defense has to be able to make stops when the team is in a position to win or grab control of a game. That is where the Red Wolves consistently came up short in the games that got away from them. Unfortunately, the defense was also decimated by injuries in areas that are counted on to make these stops up front.
The depth on the defensive line was paper thin, and the tragic passing of Markel Owens began a very difficult season in trying to field a competitive defensive line. Injuries forced true freshman into the mix and the lack of size and experience really hurt their ability to stop the run. Then add in the fact that the linebacker crew lost one expected starter early in the fall and leader, Qushaun Lee, was playing hurt all season long. You can’t have a merry-go-round of players on your front seven and expect to be able to consistently turn in solid defensive performances. The defensive backfield held their own and really came up big in key wins when they had to and they were the bright spot on that side of the ball. Coach Cauthen is not one to make excuses, and he expects better results. He will get better results next season as all of these young players, plus the key recruits coming in, take this season’s experience and build on it in the offseason.
The season ended in a bowl loss, but that can’t take away from all that ASU and Coach Anderson are building in Jonesboro. The regular season record matched last year’s record and any year you get to go to a bowl game is a successful step forward. Most fan would say, despite the loss, the bowl week in Mobile was an outstanding experience for the Red Wolf family. In less than a year, these coaches have made it seem like they’ve been here forever and they have made Red Wolf Nation feel like everybody is a part of this program. The commitment to football by the university is evident as construction continues in giving ASU state-of-the-art facilities. The team has plenty of talent returning, including the entire coaching staff! The knowledge of the systems going into this spring offers the chance for huge leaps in progress on both sides of the ball. Add in the fact that this staff is tirelessly working the recruiting trail to bring in the top class in the Sun Belt, and you end up with a program on the rise!
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