Last season was a memorable one for the Red Wolves and Head Coach Blake Anderson. An undefeated conference season and the Sun Belt Conference Championship gave the program a lot of momentum heading into the offseason. However, that doesn’t mean the offseason was an easy one for Coach Anderson. Like other coaches around the country, Coach Anderson and his staff were burning the candle from both ends as they raced towards the finish line to complete their recruiting class on signing day. That’s not where the recruiting stopped for Coach Anderson. With the departures of three assistant coaches, starting with Walt Bell right after the bowl game, recruiting for Coach Anderson included looking for new coaches to join his staff. Coaching turnover can be tough and finding guys that can fit into your coaching philosophy and into your culture can be a challenge. As he’s proven in recruiting and with previous staff hires, Coach Anderson knows the type of people he wants to bring into his program and he proved that once again with the hiring of Buster Faulkner(Offensive Coordinator), Allen Rudolph(Offensive Line Coach), and Norval McKenzie(Running Backs Coach).
AstateNation got a chance to sit down with the new coaches after the spring practice season finished up to see how their transition into their new jobs is going and what they think of Coach Anderson and the AState football program he’s building.
What did you know about the program before the hiring process started?
Faulkner: “I’ve had a chance to watch them a good bit. Coach Cauthen and I have a long history together that goes back to Texas A&M-Commerce. So you always tend to gravitate to watching guys you know and seeing how they’re doing. We became great friends and talked all the time and compared notes together. He was always talking about Blake and the kind of program he runs and the core values he instills in his players and coaches. Joe just always commented on how real Blake was in living out faith, family, and football. So that’s what I knew about Blake and this program. Of course, the winning was very attractive too as was the support the program has from the administration and the fan base.”
Rudolph: “I was at Louisiana-Monroe a little over 10 years ago, so I had an idea of AState. But in my 2 years at ULM we actually never played them in Jonesboro. Brian Hall, who played for us in Hamilton, played at AState, so I always got an earful about his Red Wolves and the program(chuckling). I knew football was important to AState and that they had a good thing going here. ”
McKenzie: “I didn’t know a whole lot about it. But I actually did get to watch a few games last season because they were on national TV during the week. The Appalachian State game stands out to me most because we used to play them when I was at Furman, so I was interested in seeing how they were doing at the FBS level. Well as I’m watching that game I couldn’t help but notice Arkansas State and their playing style. They just looked so fast and physical. Then they ended up winning strong and that was a huge win for them. So that made an impression on me.”
When the opportunity to coach at AState came your way, what were some of the reasons that led to you saying “yes” to Coach Anderson?
Faulkner: “Cool thing about this place is how successful they’ve been the past few years. Then being around Blake Anderson and the energy he brings every day to the office is amazing. I think he knew that I was very happy at Middle and that I loved working for Coach Stockstill. He really talked about the offensive philosophy, the type of culture he was building, and his goals here in winning championships. The funny thing is that as I listened to him, everything he told me felt like I was listening to my own thoughts because they were things I always thought I wanted to do if I ever ran my own program. So the similarity in our thinking was attractive to me too. Our belief system is very similar off the field, but what was really crazy was how similar our minds work when it comes to talking ball and analyzing film. He was an outstanding OC too and somebody I always watched and felt like he ran a great style of offense that I loved to watch. All of that is what really drew me into this opportunity.”
Rudolph: “I had interviewed at Middle Tennessee State when he was the Co-OC there and we met for the first time then. Since then we’ve talked several times over the years and always remained in contact. It was one of those relationships where even though we may not have spoken to each other for some time, when we did talk again it was as if we talked all the time. So when this opportunity opened up I looked at it as a chance to work for a guy I'd come to respect and a football program that I admired. We prayed about it a lot and at the end of the day I feel strongly that God opened this door for us and we were meant to be here. So it was an easy conversation to have when it came to being offered the job.”
McKenzie: “I knew going into the interview that Coach Anderson was a great guy. I researched him a bit before that and everything I found was positive. So that was important to me first and foremost. Then, career-wise, this was an opportunity for me to coach on the FBS level in a successful program, and that got me excited about the opportunity. My parents both attended Troy so I had some knowledge of the Sun Belt and I wanted to be a part of it all. As the process played out and I got to know Coach Anderson more and what the program was all about I knew it was the place for me. He coached at Middle Tennessee State while I was playing at Vanderbilt so he was coaching a lot of guys I knew from playing against them in high school. My wife was an athlete at UNC, where he was before AState. So we had some connections to build off of in the interviews.”
What did Coach Anderson tell you about the program he’s building and the culture he’s created at AState?
McKenzie: “The biggest thing he emphasized to me was faith, family, and football. A lot of people have mottos or mission statements that can sound cliché, but with him, it’s real. I’ve already seen and learned that it really is what he lives every day. He walks the walk. Our staff bible study is awesome and he makes our families part of the program. And the football speaks for itself. It’s a great balance of fun and competitive fire that gets me excited just talking about it. I’m only a few months in and I’m ready for the season to be here.”
Rudolph: “The great thing about Blake is that he lives what he preaches. Faith, family, and football is real here. Being a family guy, his message was very appealing to me as a coach, as a husband, and as a father. Coach is a blue jeans, hat, and let’s have some fun type of guy. He told me he wants to build a winning program and a culture of faith, family, and football because he believes it can be done at the same time and so far the results have proven him right.”
Did working for a former OC give you a moment of pause before taking the job?
Faulkner: “Honestly, no. I felt like I knew what kind of person he was first and foremost because of all the things Joe had told me about him over the last two years. And I also knew conceptually, we were so similar that there wouldn’t be any issues there. Also, he’s been in my shoes before. He knows what it’s like to be an OC for a head coach that’s an offensive guru from when he worked for Coach Fedora. So I liked that aspect as well.”
What has the work/life balance been like for you with Coach Anderson’s philosophy on how you guys work?
McKenzie: “It really is unique in coaching. I actually think his way of doing things requires and inspires us to be more efficient in what we do. That will have positive effects on each other as a staff and on our players. In order to play how we want to play we have to be efficient in everything we do and it starts with the coaching staff. It makes us better at maximizing our time and efforts in every aspect of our jobs. Coach Anderson will walk the halls and tell us to go home when it gets late. And at the end of the day, that allows us to maximize our time with our families too which is why the personal side of his culture is so great.”
Faulkner: “I was very fortunate to work for Rick at Middle. He operated under a lot of the same principles when it came to family. It’s something I’ve enjoyed because it’s allowed me to enjoy and experience some things with my son; so that was a big piece to the puzzle when I was looking at this job was being able to continue that aspect of family here. And Blake has created that same atmosphere here and that was huge for me. I think it’s huge for the staff and it’s big for the players to see the importance of family and faith. And when you add in the ability to do that and win at a high level as well, you have a great program.”
After going through spring practice and getting acclimated to the staff, the players, and the program; what has surprised you most about AState?
Faulkner: “I think from a coaching standpoint, I knew their recruiting here was good, but I didn’t realize how good the recruiting has been here, both from a strategy/philosophy standpoint and a results standpoint. Just top notch all around from every single member of the staff. The kids really have taken on Blake’s personality too and you can see it throughout the whole program on an everyday basis. You hear how culture wins; well this is one of the best cultures I’ve ever been around in college football. And then I’ve been amazed at the support for this program throughout the university and the community of Jonesboro. There are Red Wolves everywhere and it’s a great thing to be a part of when the support level is that high.”
Rudolph: “The first thing that stands out to you is that given the turnover they experienced prior to Blake, you’d think the lack of stability would hurt your ability to win. But it’s the opposite deal here. This program has a culture of winning and the players, staff, and administration expect to win. With that expectation comes a level of accountability and responsibility that permeates throughout the building. The guys in my meeting room are dialed into what you’re saying and what you’re asking them to do on the field. That level of focus blew me away.”
McKenzie: “I think the competitiveness was incredible. I also was impressed with how fast and physical the team was on the field. I knew we wanted to play fast and practice fast, but to see the speed and physicality was impressive. And the then the little things impressed me too. The culture of accountability is strong here. We didn’t have to sit there and tell guys to play harder or touch the lines in drills because doing things right and going the extra mile is already instilled in the players. That speaks to Coach Anderson and the rest of the staff that’s been here on what they’ve built with the players.”
How has your transition gone in terms of joining this staff and getting to know the other coaches and where you fit in to your role on the staff?
Faulkner: “It’s been great. It takes some time to build a comfort level with each other but I can’t say enough about this staff and how we’ve been welcomed into it. I really like the guys I get to work with every day.”
McKenzie: “To be honest, it’s been really smooth. I’m working with a great group of men. They’ve welcomed me here from day 1 and brought me into the fold immediately. With Coach Faulkner and Coach Rudolph being new as well I think that has helped us all in our room in getting adjusted quickly and hitting the ground running. We all have different experiences that we’ve been able to bring to the table and create some new ideas that I think Coach Anderson has liked and been open to as well. I mean football is football. We all want to win and we know what it takes to do that as a staff. It’s a team effort that requires all of us to contribute.”
Rudolph: “I didn’t know Buster at all or really any of the other coaches other than Blake. But if you know Blake, you have a sense of what type of guys he would surround himself with in his program. So I expected to walk into a room of really good people and really good coaches, and I did. I feel like I’ve meshed quickly with Buster and we’re working well together. Every coach in that building is a solid dude so I think that made finding where I fit in easy. It’s been a great deal so far.”
How has it gone for you in getting to know the players and building those relationships during the spring?
McKenzie: “It’s been great. When I first got there I met with every guy and we just talked about my expectations and coaching style. I wanted to get to know how they worked too and what motivates them. Then after spring we talked about what they needed to work on this summer and what we all needed to do to be ready to win this season as we start fall camp. I’ve been on the road a lot here lately but I touch base with them constantly. We’ve been able to mesh well with each other and I’m excited to see how our room grows together moving forward.”
Rudolph: “I think every coaching change brings with it a period of transition and feeling each other out. These guys are experienced and have won a lot of games with other coaches. There was time when they had to get to know me and trust me. I pushed on them really hard early on because that’s just who I am. The good thing is that these guys know what hard work is and what demanding coaching looks like. So as they got know me and more importantly, I got to know them, we started working really well together quickly.”
How did your position group do in the spring?
Faulkner: “The offense has had great success but we’re breaking in a new quarterback and our offensive line was really beat up this spring so you couldn’t really get a solid look on what we’ll be working with in the fall. But those guys will be back then and it will be a strong group. But we’ve got a ton of weapons. The coaches here have done an excellent job in recruiting playmakers with a lot of speed. I think we can score from any part of the field with a lot of different guys. We play fast but I think we can push the pace even more.”
Rudolph: “We had some good days and then we had some bad days, and sometimes the bad days were really bad days. But look, part of that is because I think we have a really strong defense. What made me happy about the Spring is how many reps we were able to get with some younger guys that could not only play a role for us this season, but definitely in the future. The other part of that was the ability to get guys reps at multiple positions too which will give us some versatility this season. The injuries weren’t ideal but they did provide us some opportunities to grow that we took advantage of during spring ball. Was it everything we wanted? No, but we have a ton of positives coming out of the Spring.”
McKenzie: “I think they did well. Our room is stacked in terms of both talent and numbers. We have about 8 tailbacks and we run mainly 1-back sets so it’s really competitive. They have to maximize their reps and they know that. It’s something we discuss every day. Every rep counts. Overall, we’re building a family in the backfield. They have to have each other’s backs and push each other at the same time. I think we have a deep group that can be successful this season.”
When the spring game ended and you closed the door on the spring practice, what’s the first thing to come to your mind about your position group heading into the offseason?
Faulkner: “Figuring out a way to bring this whole thing together so that it’s all moving in the same direction. You have new coaches and we’ll be starting a quarterback who hasn’t played a down at AState. We have potential on the O-line, transfers with all of the talent in world, and a plan to get it done. Now the key is to put all together so that we’re hitting our stride heading into the season, not during the season.”
Rudolph: “The first thing I think about is that we will have 7 seniors in that meeting room this season and that kind of experience is exciting to me. I want to see how far we can carry this offense and the team. So what I’m excited about is getting into that meeting room in August and into the season. I’m also interested to see which of the younger guys can progress far enough to create some competition up front and have competitive and fired up position group.”
McKenzie: “First thing I thought was that I have a talented group in my room. Of course, we're never going to be content so I felt we still have some work to do. In terms of talent, worth ethic, and the will/desire to be good we have a lot of potential. We must continue to compete as a whole to be the best RB group in the conference, then nation. That's the challenge. If we can continue to do that, we will be very successful.
What’s the reception been like for you on the recruiting trail representing AState?
McKenzie: “It’s been great. People know who we are and that’s always a great feeling. I have some areas I haven’t covered before and then I have some home areas like Atlanta. The reception has been positive and people know we have been successful recently so there is a positive buzz. Plus, they, like me, have seen our program on national TV during the weeknight games and it’s created an interest in finding out more about our program. You can’t ask for anything better than that heading into an area you’re recruiting.”
Rudolph: “First and foremost, so many people on the road know Coach Anderson. His network of people that know him around the south carries a lot of weight on the recruiting trail. Then you combine that with the knowledge of the type of winning this program has experienced in recent years and you end up with a great brand to sell. Selling a school like AState, a program like the one we have, and a guy like Coach Anderson makes my job fun when I’m on the road.”
What are you looking forward to the most heading into the season?
Faulkner: “The best thing about this job is that you always have a season to think about. We have about 4-5 seasons in any given year. You have camp season, recruiting season, spring season and the games. But what I really love is that first 2-3 weeks of fall camp when there is nothing going on but football. No classes, no distractions. Just straight football during that time. I love it and that’s what I enjoy the most.”
Rudolph: “The coolest thing to me is watching it all come together. Each football team is a different team. I enjoy watching the process of guys coming together to make it all work on the field after putting in the hard work in the Spring and in Fall camp. Watching the development and growth the guys make is what I enjoy most. I love it and I can’t wait to see what the final product looks like this season.
McKenzie: “I love the excitement of a new season. Setting goals and a standard and then working to reach that standard and surpass it. I’m a competitive person, my wife is a competitive person, so just getting the competition of a new season started back up is what gets me excited.”
After speaking with the new coaches and getting their thoughts on Coach Anderson and the AState program, it’s safe to say that adding these three guys to the staff may have been Coach Anderson’s most important recruiting job this offseason. All three of them have bought into Coach Anderson’s culture and so far everything is off to a great start. They're looking forward to fall camp and heading into their first season on the Red Wolves’ sideline.