This past season for the Red Wolves was an emotional roller coaster for the coaches, players and fans alike. There were the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. But the key was; the roller coaster never fell off that track. It very well could have, and even the most loyal Red Wolves’ fans had their faith tested. However, the real story of last season will always be about “The Turnaround.” It is a rare occurrence to see a team suffer a setback like a 0-4 start, yet be able to turn the tide of their season and end up winning a conference championship. The 2016 Red Wolves did it.
Of course, now the question is, what did the coaching staff and the players on the team learn from that experience, and how will they use that to keep taking steps forward in 2017 instead of a step backwards? In this two-part series, AStateNation examines this past season, and then turns the page to tackle the upcoming spring practice season and what to expect heading into fall camp. It will analyze what went wrong in the beginning, what went right in the end and Head Coach Blake Anderson will add his insights to this discussion.
The Season That Was
The 2016 season started with some lofty expectations in Jonesboro. Coach Anderson’s team won the Sun Belt Conference the year before after going undefeated in conference play. The roster had a lot of returning playmakers from that 2015 team. In addition to those players, Coach Anderson and his staff added some firepower on offense via transfer that made this team look dynamic on paper. There was talk of double-digit wins for this team. Unfortunately, the season did not start out as planned. In fact, after 4 games in, the Red Wolves were staring at a 0-4 record and chances of a conference championship looked bleak at that moment.
Before we get to The Turnaround, let’s look at what contributed to the poor start. At the end of each game you look up at the scoreboard and see who scored more points. The Red Wolves’ early problems started with scoring points and keeping other teams from scoring points. During those first 4 games, Arkansas State averaged about 17 points-per-game, which was well below their average under Coach Anderson. At the same time they gave up 36 points-per-game over this stretch of games, which is not characteristic of Coach Joe Cauthen’s defense. Simple math will tell you that is a recipe for disaster.
On offense, they could never get everybody on the same page. When you don’t have people on the same page it becomes hard to execute your game plan. A good throw would be dropped. A bad throw or read would be intercepted. A possible big run play would fail due to a missed block. A big gain would be called back. Or a fumble deep in their own territory would put the defense on its heels. In each game early on it was something different. The only thing consistent was the inconsistencies on the field.
At first glance this inconsistency was hard to figure out. Upon further review, it should have been expected. On paper, it looked like a roster that would set the scoreboard on fire, but games aren’t won on paper. The reality was Coach Anderson and his offensive coordinator, Buster Faulkner, had to replace a record-setting quarterback in Fredi Knighten, a record-setting running back in Michael Gordon and your do-it-all playmaker, J.D. Mckissic.
At quarterback there was Justice Hansen, who had just transferred in and only had the spring camp to get acquainted to the offense. You also had Chad Voytik, who only had the fall camp to get himself acclimated in this offense. That left the Red Wolves with a giant question mark behind center, the most important position on the field in Coach Anderson’s offense.
The stability appeared to be on the offensive line, a senior-laden group with a ton of experience. However, that experience was under a different coach. New relationships had to be built. New techniques and strategies had to be learned. An identity had to be forged. The Red Wolves brought in new coaches on the offensive line, the running backs, and at offensive coordinator. For the first time in Coach Anderson’s career, he working with a group of coaches on the offense that he had never worked with before in this offense. The hope was that this offense would just keep on rolling from 2015 into the 2016 season. In reality, there was a learning curve there that only time could build. Some bumps in the road should have been expected.
The problem of getting everybody on the same page was compounded by another problem early on in the season; committing penalties. In those first four games, the Red Wolves committed 42 penalties for a rate of 11 penalties-per-game. It’s hard to sustain drives, and stop opponents’ drives when you’re committing critical mental errors. For every step forward a yellow flag was there to send them two steps backwards.
The final roadblock was the play of the defense at the beginning of the season. The points given up were not what everybody expected from an experienced, talented group returning for Coach Cauthen. It wasn’t that their level of play was poor early on; it just wasn’t near the potential they had on that side of the ball. The physicality and ball-hawking skills displayed during the previous season were missing. The expectations of that potential seemed to overwhelm those guys early on. Instead of using their instincts to fly around the ball and make plays, they looked tentative or hesitant, like they were playing not to fail.
All in all, the future looked bleak. I asked Coach Anderson what was going through his mind the day after the fourth loss. “I was trying to figure out how I would rally the team from that situation. How would I hold them together? What can I do to be part of the change we needed at that point? To be honest, I spent that time looking in the mirror and evaluating what I was doing and what I could change to pull us up. I didn’t want to panic and I definitely didn’t want my guys to see or feel panic. At that moment we were on the edge and looking over that cliff of really losing control of the season and never recovering. And in that reflection I kept coming back to the same themes; being positive, but being firm. Making sure I knew what I wanted to do before I did it, so that the steps to take were clear for me, then clear to the staff and ultimately clear to the players. Thankfully, those steps led us in the right direction.”
The Moment of Truth
When Coach Anderson met with the team after Central Arkansas loss there was no finger-pointing. Nobody was blaming one another. In fact, the players had met on their own prior to meeting with the coaches and one thing was clear; nobody was satisfied with the results at that time and everybody believed they could turn it around. When the coaches and the players got together they drew a line in the sand at that moment. Coach Anderson said they asked each other the question, “Are you interested, or are you committed? You can’t be ALL IN unless you’re committed to this team and committed to turning it around.”
The next game up to prove their commitment was the Georgia Southern game at home. The Red Wolves showed a different resolve in that game. The offense managed to rack up over 500 yards against what was the top-ranked defense in the Sun Belt Conference at the time. The defense was swarming to the ball again. However, with 1:53 left in the 4th quarter, the Red Wolves found themselves staring at 4th-and-16, and they were down by 6 points. It is not overstating the magnitude of this moment by saying the entire rest of the season was riding on this one play. In the most improbable of scenarios, quarterback Justice Hansen scrambled all over the field and made the first down with his feet. Four Hansen completions later and the Red Wolves’ scored the go-ahead touchdown with 9 seconds left to secure their first win of the season. “The Turnaround” had begun.
After defeating Georgia Southern, the Red Wolves went on to win their next 4 games in a row. Sitting at 5-4 and 5-0 in the Sun Belt, the Red Wolves traveled to Troy to face the 25th-ranked Trojans in front of a national television audience. They walked out of there with a dominant 35-3 victory, and their sights set squarely on winning their 2nd Sun Belt title in a row.
After a stumble in Lafayette, the Red Wolves went down to San Marcos, Texas and won a share of the Sun Belt title, their second in a row. That earned them an invitation to the Cure Bowl in Orlando. They would be matched up against Central Florida from the American Athletic Conference. The Red Wolves entered the game as 7-point underdogs. When the final whistle blew they exited the field with a 31-13 victory over UCF. It was another dominant victory on national television, and it was the perfect ending to a season of redemption.
The next question is what led to “The Turnaround?” One of the tactics Coach Anderson implemented after the early stumble was changing the way they practiced. However, turning up the intensity wasn’t they only thing that changed.
Coach Anderson explained, “Going good on good and getting more physical wasn’t the main thing that changed our season. It was the change in the mentality behind all of that, and the personality it created that changed our season. I think we were complacent to a certain extent and weren’t attentive to the details of what it would take to play at high level. Our veterans said that’s what let things go wrong. I think guys were assuming we’d turn it around, when in reality assumptions weren’t going to get us there. Actions of change are what would get us there. We had talent and we were wasting our talent because our mentality wasn’t right.”
How did that change of mentality manifest itself on the field? Let’s first look at the offense. After averaging only 17 points-per-game in the first 4 games, the Red Wolves lit up the scoreboard over their next 8 games by scoring 32 points-per-game. That change in scoring moved the Red Wolves up 80 spots in the national team rankings. That jump represented one of the biggest mid-season improvements in the nation. The offense still struggled to find an identity as they were winning, and had to find different ways to win those games, but they did what they had to do to change the fortunes of this team.
On defense the story was similar to the offense; the scoreboard results needed to change if this team was going to start winning. Like the offense, the defense turned the tide of their season by ratcheting up the intensity and keeping their opponents out of the end zone. Over the course of the first four games, the Red Wolves were giving up 36 points-per-game, good for 111th in the nation. Then, during the next eight games, Coach Cauthen’s defense put the clamps down and only allowed 15 points-per-game, good for 7th in the nation. That jump in the national team rankings was the largest improvement in scoring defense in all of FBS.
A key to that success was the pressure put on the opposing quarterbacks by the defensive front and their ability to make tackles-for-loss(TFLs). The Red Wolves were 8th in the country in sacks for the season and 1st in the Sun Belt Conference. As the season went on, the defense’s sack totals rose. In the month of November they moved into the Top 10 in sacks and in the final 2 months of the season they led the country in sacks. The story was similar with regards to TFLs. For the season, the Red Wolves made 125 TFLs, second only to Clemson in the national rankings. Again, as the season went on, the TFLs went up with this defense. Only 25 of those TFLs came in the first four games. They went on to make 100 more over the rest of the season, averaging 12-per-game over the last 6 games. That’s how you dominate the line of scrimmage. That effort was led by Ja’Von Rolland-Jones and Chris Odom, who were ranked 5th and 8th, respectively, in the national rankings for sacks. The Red Wolves were the only team with two players in the Top 10 in sacks, and their total of 25.5 sacks between them was more than 58 other teams accomplished as a team.
Looking back now, the early struggles should have been expected as Coach Anderson not only had to break in a lot of new pieces on the roster and find some cohesion there, but he also had to integrate a new offensive coordinator and two position coaches into the Red Wolves’ system. Growing pains were going to be a part of their reality. Would it have been nice to minimize those growing pains and expedite the improvement? Absolutely. Does that take away from the nation’s biggest turnaround of the season? Absolutely not. What it showed was a coaching staff able to make adjustments and find different ways to win. It also showed a team filled with players who were resilient and guys that were willing to buy into what those coaches were saying when all of the voices outside of the program were spouting doom and gloom. That speaks to the culture that has been built inside of this program and bodes well looking ahead to the future.
Part 2 of this series will take a look at the off-season as the Red Wolves prepare to start spring practice and set their sights on next fall.