The signs of spring are upon us. That means football teams around the country are starting to hit the field again for spring practice. AStateNation is examining what that means for the Arkansas State Red Wolves. Part 1 of this series took a look back at the season that was in 2016. Part 2 looks at what has happened since the Red Wolves walked off the field victorious in Orlando, what to look for heading into spring practice and a peak towards the fall.
The offseason has been a hectic one for Head Coach Blake Anderson and crew. With the bowl game and recruiting, has he even had a chance to catch his breath?
Coach Anderson responded, “I think I did a little bit during the Christmas Holidays. But I was focusing a lot on recruiting and what I was evaluating in terms of the offense and scoring more points. So, honestly, it hasn’t happened yet other than some days here and there with the family. And I’ve tried to really make those moments be relaxed and focused on my family, but my mind isn’t really letting that happen. It’s been a non-stop year for sure.”
Starting with recruiting, the Red Wolves hit the road hard right after the bowl game to secure their next class. They had a number of guys committed, but they had to work hard to keep those guys in the fold towards the end of the season as other schools swooped in trying to poach their commits. Recruiting can be different between the different levels of FBS.
Coach Anderson explained, “I think at Power 5 schools, what you find after January 1 is that they’re working on the next class for the most part. The bulk of their current class is committed or already enrolled early. They still have to be protective and attentive to those guys, but they’re already moving on to the next class. We battle for the current class all the way up until signing day and that ink is dry or the text has been received. It’s never over for us. Down the stretch we’re battling to keep who we have committed and then fighting to take a few more guys. So I think we have to work longer and harder on the current class before moving on to the next class than the Power 5 schools do. Plus, I think our footprint has grown. Our area of influence has expanded with the success we’ve had and the brand recognition that comes from winning our conference 5 out of 6 seasons. And this staff loves to recruit and that battles involved in that process.”
Overall, the coaches were excited about the class they have assembled. First, a number of the players enrolled early and were already on campus when January came around. In terms of need, losing 5 starters and 7 guys total from the offensive line made that a priority for the staff in this class. They responded by signing “a massive amount of size and power on the offensive line.” That would include 7 new linemen, 4 of which come in weighing 300lbs or more. The next area of need was in the defensive backfield where graduation took a big chunk of the playmakers from Coach Allen Johnson and Coach Trooper Taylor. The staff signed 4 guys there with some others who figure to factor in the final equation of what the backend looks like in the fall. Again, the key was holding on to the guys they wanted and in some cases they had to fight off some SEC schools down the homestretch for some of these guys.
Once national signing day passed, news came that there would be some changes for the offense for the upcoming season. That change was the announcement that Head Coach Blake Anderson would take over play-calling duties and coach the quarterbacks. With the departure of Coach Dan Dodd, Buster Faulkner would slide over to coach the tight ends and remain the offensive coordinator. This decision was not made hastily and involved a lot of thought and deliberation on Coach Anderson’s part.
He explained, “I spent the entire break thinking about it. I had several conversations with Buster about what I was thinking about for our offense, and I wanted him involved in that process. I didn’t want to make a hasty decision. So I took the time to pray on it, and I took the time to consult with people I trust and look to for advice. I’m never too proud to seek wise counsel. The decision to do this was based on what the right thing to do for this team is at this moment. It comes too from the fact that Buster and I didn’t really have a lot of time together heading in to the season. That was a change from what situations I’ve been in for the last eight to fifteen years. So this decision feels right for where we’re at, and it’s something I think will evolve over time and could change again in the future.”
Besides calling the plays, Coach Anderson also returns to his roots in coaching the quarterbacks. It’s something he felt was needed with the change in responsibilities. If he is calling the plays he wanted to be closely involved with the guys getting those play calls from the sidelines.
When asked what he thought about taking over a position group again, he responded, “I love coaching guys. That’s where my passion will always be. But you lose some of that as a head coach if you’re not coaching a position group. That’s the first thing other head coaches told me I’d miss when I became a head coach was not having a position group under me and in my own meeting room. And they were right. So I’m excited about that and it feels natural getting back into that meeting room and being involved in that way again. The main difference is when I walk out of that meeting room I still have all of the responsibilities of being the head coach waiting for me in my office so it will be a process to find that balance. I couldn’t have done this when I first got here and been able to be great at both.”
Before looking to the spring, Coach Anderson also took time to analyze the 2016 season and find out what he learned about himself and the program.
In reflecting on last season he commented, “The first thought I have is about the resiliency of our guys. They could have folded the tent and settled for having a bad season. But they didn’t let that happen. They weren’t going to look each other in the eye and let that happen. So it’s hard not to think first about how those guys turned it around and made it a championship season. It is extremely hard to do and rare to pull off that kind of turnaround during the course of a season, but those guys did it.”
What does that mean to him moving forward? He explained, “It proved to me that moving forward, the standard has to be set high, and once the standard is set, there cannot be any excuses of why we aren’t meeting that standard in everything we do. Our emphasis from the first day we came back after holidays was on accountability to that standard. The difference I see in these guys right now is tangible. They are focused on not letting that happen to this team again.”
Looking ahead to the spring, the first thing that is evident to all is the need to replace guys that had become staples of the program in helping win the last two Sun Belt titles. Guys like Chris Odom, Xavier Woodson-Luster, Money Hunter and Cody Brown on the defense. Players like Kendall Sanders and the entire offensive line on offense. There are plenty of familiar names coming back, particularly at offensive skill positions, but how well those holes are filled and how quickly guys step up to fulfill their potential will determine what kind of spring this team has, which will translate into how next season will go for the Red Wolves. In addition to filling position needs, there is also a leadership void that needs to be filled. There are plenty of guys ready to fill that role but until you see it on the field and in the locker room, you never quite know who those new leaders will be.
Coach Anderson commented on the priorities of the spring, “We have holes to fill. We have to find guys to step up and fill those roles. So the first priority has nothing to do with Xs and Os. It has to do with discovering who will step up in those roles and what the leadership on this team will look like. This spring will be about setting that standard I mentioned earlier, and seeing which guys are going to be the leaders who hold us accountable to that standard in everything we do. After that, we have to then find out what our identity is going to be in all 3 phases to be honest. On offense, I think one thing that held us back last season was never really finding our identity. We found different ways to win which was great, but I want us to know what our identity is heading into game 1. We have to keep our speed and exploit it this year. We have more size and mass on the offense. We need to find out who our 2-deep will be and what that identity will look like. Defensively, we know who we want to be, but we had guys graduate that defined a lot of our identity on that side of the ball. So we’ll need to see what we look like and who we can be as guys step in to fill those roles. On defense I think we’re going to be longer, taller and rangier. That will allow us to cover more ground and space to make things difficult on the other team’s offense. And then finally, with regards to Xs and Os, we need to find out how we’re going to get back to what I’m used to doing and that’s scoring a lot of points.”
Looking to the fall, there is no reason to believe that the Red Wolves won’t be in contention to win the conference for a third straight season. Once again, the non-conference schedule is a daunting one with a road game at Nebraska to open things up before hosting Miami back in Jonesboro. However, last season’s turnaround showed the ability of this program to win games. In fact, over the last two seasons the Red Wolves are in the Top 35 overall nationally in win percentage. In conference play over the last two seasons, the Red Wolves are tied with the likes of Clemson, Alabama and Oklahoma for highest win percentage in conference play at 94%. Since Coach Anderson and crew arrived on campus, Arkansas State is 20-4 in the Sun Belt Conference, which is tied with Appalachian State for the best conference record over those three seasons. The key for 2017 will be learning from that success and also the challenges of last season.
Heading into his 4th spring practice season as the Red Wolves’ head coach, I asked Coach Anderson what he would tell the Blake Anderson of 2014 if he could go back in time.
He laughed, “I would tell him that he wouldn’t believe me if I told him. He won’t believe it until he lives it. You’re not prepared to be a head coach until you do it. You think you’re ready, but you’re not completely ready until you live it. I would also tell him that the most important thing for him will be learning to have more patience in what he does. The right answer is better than the fastest answer. Ego has to be removed from the equation. And he needs to just try and remain being a servant leader. I want to serve my staff, my players, my school, my community, my family, and my lord and savior. All of that and being patient has allowed me to see the ball coming in to the plate a little bit slower, and that’s been a great thing for me as the head coach of this program.”