The Red Wolves football program has had an eventful off-season; starting with a highly successful National Signing Day, the first ever female FBS coach in the spring game, and the exciting facility construction going on with the completion of the indoor facility and the new, soon-to-be completed press box. Coach Blake Anderson and his staff conducted numerous camps that culminated in the Big Pack Weekend that sent shockwaves through the Sun Belt Conference as the Red Wolves picked up double-digit commitments from their top targets. In the last month the program has filmed their promotional videos, attended the SBC Media Days, and even held their annual Helmets and Heels football clinic. Needless to say, their off-season was a busy one.
Coach Anderson is a high energy guy who enjoys promoting the Red Wolves’ program and he’ll talk to anybody that wants to listen. However, as much as he enjoys all of what I just described above, now is the time when he, like many of us, is “Ready to talk about and focus on playing ball.” So with that in mind, let’s talk about Red Wolves’ football as they enter season 2 under Coach Anderson.
The Red Wolves have high expectations heading into this season. The offense returns many of the key starters, including quarterback Fredi Knighten, and they’ve bolstered the offensive line through the JuCo ranks and recruiting. The defense had more to replace but returns key personnel on the line and gets some upperclassmen help back from injuries in the secondary. Every team in the country has key factors that will affect whether or not they are successful this season. Below are 5 key factors that will determine how successful the Red Wolves’ season will be.
1.) Completion Percentage – Offensive Coordinator, Walt Bell, has to like having Fredi Knighten back under center considering he felt that, “In those last 7-8 games of the season, he was the best quarterback in the league.” One thing Coach Bell wants from Knighten is a higher completion percentage. Last season he completed 62% of his passes, “Which is decent, but decent isn’t good enough in order to reach our potential and intent with our system.” Bell wants Knighten completing passes more in the 70% range this season and there’s reason for that number. Last season that would have added around 400 more yards to their totals, almost an entire game’s worth of production. That doesn’t include yards that would have been gained in drives that would have been extended from more completions. Speaking of more yards, Bell is pressing Knighten to make those completions more efficient. This means putting the ball in positions where the wide receivers can turn short gains into first downs and 10-yard gains into touchdowns. Finally, Coach Anderson has said repeatedly they want to play fast. This doesn’t mean he just wants to score fast. Part of playing fast is being able to move the chains consistently. When the chains are moving, the offense can play faster and keep the defense on their heels. A higher completion rate will keep the chains moving fast. Moving the chains also means fewer three-and-outs which gives your defense a chance to rest too. If Knighten does indeed improve in this area, an already dynamic offense will reach new heights this season.
2.) Short Yardage Situations – This factor applies to both sides of the ball. First, on the offense, Coach Bell said this spring, “The other frustrating factor was being able to run the ball effectively when we needed it most. We have put a lot of focus on that this spring…It’s developing he mentality and the physicality to do better in that area.” Coach Bell’s squad can do better on 3rd and 4th down short yardage situations(defined as 3 or less yards). Last season they got first downs on 56% of those 3rd downs and 50% of those 4th downs. Those numbers are respectable, but many of those 31 plays where they didn’t get the first down were in pivotal moments, some inside the opponent’s 10yd line. Others like a crucial third down against Appalachian State would have been big first downs. Bell remarked, “We had the ball, up 13-0, with a 3rd-and-1. We get that first down and finish out that drive and we’re looking at being up 20-0 and possibly bruising the morale of the other team. Instead, we didn’t get the first down and now they go and score and it’s a ball game.” The returning experience and added depth on the line should improve this facet of the offense. Knighten’s ability to stretch the ball down field more should also help open up space for the run game.
Again, the Red Wolves had decent numbers in this area, but their opponents were able to convert 66% and 75% of 3rd and 4th downs, respectively, in short yardage situations. While the offense is focused on increasing their first downs, the defense is focused on reducing the opponents’ first downs in those situations. The addition of size, depth, and experience to the defensive line will be the first factor that should show improvement in this area. Stopping the run all around has been a big focus this off-season, and getting those short yardage situations stopped up front will get the defense off the field more and get Fredi Knighten and his crew more chances to score. Winning these short yardage battles will extend drives and increase scoring, while limiting the opponent’s ability to do the same.
3.) Kicking It Through the Uprights - Last season the place-kicking was inconsistent in both field goals and extra points. Even when you have a dynamic offense capable of scoring fast and scoring a lot of touchdowns, those kicking points matter. They matter from a simple scoring perspective, but they also matter to the coaches when they’re deciding whether to go for it on 4th downs or call more aggressive plays because the confidence isn’t there to get the three points. Every point matters and every point can affect momentum and morale on both the offense and the defense. Last season the Red Wolves’ kickers made 11 out of 18 field goals, but 7 of those were from 29 yard or less. They were 4 out of 10 from beyond 30 yards. There is a strong competition under way in fall camp to see who will be the man they can depend on to convert more kicks into points. Winning the conference could come down to needing those points.
4.) Managing “Both” Seasons within the Season – The Red Wolves have an exciting schedule ahead of them. The start of the schedule will be a challenge, to say the least. Coach Anderson takes his team out to Los Angeles in week one to take on preseason Top 10 team, the USC Trojans. When they get off the plane from Los Angeles all eyes will turn towards the home opener against a Top 25 Missouri Tiger team from the SEC. This game has a lot of excitement around it and the Red Wolves’ fans will be ready to blow the roof off a newly-renovated Centennial Bank Stadium. It’s that exciting “trap” type game for a team like Missouri as they visit Jonesboro. After a game against Missouri State, a similar “trap” game for ASU, the Red Wolves then have a chance to avenge last year’s bowl game loss with a tough road game at Toledo. So needless to say, there is a lot of excitement and focus on the optics of playing in the Los Angeles Coliseum, hosting an SEC team, and seeking revenge against Toledo.
However, none of those games have any effect on the team’s goal of bringing home another Sun Belt Conference championship. The players will give maximum effort and have a plan to win those games when they set foot onto the field. What will be important is how they handle their mindset and focus when they step off of the field after those games are over. Win or lose those early contests, and there’s an upset lurking in those early games, it’s the SBC games that will determine whether or not they bring home championship rings. So there can’t be a hangover from the excitement of playing those early games and the big-time atmospheres they’ll produce. They will need the fans to create those same environments at The Vault all season long, which favors the Red Wolves as most of their SBC home games are earlier in the conference season, before the height of hunting season, if I’m not mistaken. The crowd will need to bring the noise and the players will need to bring focus and intensity all season long as the SBC race is going to go down to the wire; making every single game important to the hopes of bringing the title back to Jonesboro.
5.) The Return of the Entire Staff – One of the most important announcements Coach Anderson made this off-season was the fact that every single assistant coach was staying with the Red Wolves’ program. Many of them were pursued by bigger programs and offered more money, but they all passed on those opportunities in order to continue to pursue the opportunity in Jonesboro working with Coach Anderson. The importance of these decisions can’t be understated enough. This continuity is what will allow the necessary growth and progression of the program from year one to year two to take place on the field. The players will not only be running the same systems they learned last year, but the same exact faces and voices will be coaching them through it all. Last year they were still figuring out what to do and where to be in the early games. They were still learning the coaches’ tendencies and the coaches were still learning what made the players tick. That learning curve is gone, replaced by a new one that can focus on building off of that foundation and taking their production to a higher level. The first four key factors listed above have a higher chance of occurring because everybody is on the same page. As Coach Bell said in the spring, “Now, instead of working on the ABCs with these guys, we can move forward and focus on the XYZs.” It’s the ability to refine those XYZs that will allow the team to go deeper into the playbook, excel at what they already do well, and put the Red Wolves right in the middle of the SBC championship race. It’s what will allow them to be in position to pull off an early upset and surprise people in those first four games.
The 2015 season is here. The first game is less than a month away. The Red Wolves’ program has a lot of excitement around it and for good reasons. The exciting thing for Coach Anderson and his team is that all of the factors above are definitely within reach. If they can successfully manage and leverage those 5 key factors then we will be talking after the season ends about how they won the conference championship.