A rash of injuries on both sides of the ball means 15 different offensive starters are back for Coach Steve Roberts while another 10 defensive starters return along with the deep snapper. With so much experience returning this should be a much improved team after slumping to 4-8 last season and Saturday night at Auburn is the first chance to show that is the case.
"There is no doubt we're excited about it," ASU coach Steve Roberts said. "We understand the challenge that we have going into Auburn in the SEC and nationally ranked team and the challenges that in itself presents, especially being an opening ball game. There is no doubt our kids are excited about it."
Putting in a no-huddle, up-tempo offense similar to the one used by Auburn, Arkansas State will build around an offensive front that returns 10 players who started games last season. The strength of the line is in the middle with three-year letterman Tom Castilaw (6-3, 280, Sr.) back along with fellow fifth-year senior Drew Hilton (6-4, 305) and senior Sifa Etu (6-1, 295) at the guard positions. At tackle junior Delano Moore (6-5, 305) mans the left side while Derek Newton (6-5, 305, Sr.) may be the most talented of the group.
After averaging 22.7 points and 328 yards per game last season, the Red Wolves will have to replace their leading passer, rusher and receiver heading into 2010. Running the show for ASU will be sophomore Ryan Aplin (6-1, 205). He is both the leading returning rusher and passer for the Red Wolves and could provide a spark to the offense this season. Last year he completed 77-118 passes with three touchdowns and six interceptions. He also added 253 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. Leading the ground game is junior Derek Lawson (5-11, 210) along with powerful Jermaine Robertson (5-11, 230).
At the wide receiver positions Arkansas State has to replace leading receiver Brandon Thompkins but there are several good candidates including leading returning receiver Taylor Stockemer (6-4, 210, So.). As a redshirt freshman he caught 16 passes for 347 yards and a touchdown. He's joined outside by big Allen Muse (6-4, 215, So.) while speedsters Lucious Henderson (5-10, 185, Sr.) and Dwayne Frampton (5-9, 180, Jr.) round out the receiving corps.
Trying to get the offense moving in the right direction and at a faster pace, Roberts said the Red Wolves will do some things very similar to what Auburn does on the field. Having a familiarity with the offense is something he said could help his defense prepare for the game, but he added with Gus Malzahn on Auburn's sidelines there is no doubt there will be some surprises.
Coach Steve Roberts
"There are a lot of similarities and some differences as well," Roberts said. "There are some of the same formations and same motions and probably the same plays. There are also some things that we do that we have not seen on film from them in 2009 that they might be doing now. Coach (Gus) Malzahn is a tremendous coordinator and a great football coach. He'll have them prepared. There is always a wrinkle in each gameplan that you haven't seen before."
Defensively, Arkansas State loses the Sun Belt Player of the Year on that side of the ball after they allowed 23 points and 340 yards of total offense per game last season. Allowing 218 yards per contest through the air, one of the focuses this preseason has been on finding a more consistent pass rush. With Alex Carrington gone after his nine sacks and 14 1/2 tackles for a loss last year, the job won't be easy this time around.
Up front tackles Dorvus Woods (6-3, 265) and Bryan Hall (6-2, 290) as well as end Jeremy Gibson (6-5, 250) return after the trio combined for seven sacks and 16 tackles for a loss last season. Rounding out the front four is expected to be 6-2, 250 Justin Robertson.
Perhaps the most valuable defensive player for ASU is returning strong side linebacker Demario Davis. Leading the team with 80 tackles last season and adding three sacks, the junior is a physical presence for the Red Wolves. Javon McKinnon (6-0, 230) mans the weak side while Nick Helms (5-11, 225, So.) calls the signals from his middle linebacker spot.
In the secondary Kelcie McCray is back after the 6-2, 185-pounder led the team with four interceptions as a sophomore. He will team with senior safety M.D. Jennings (6-0, 185) and senior cornerback Walt Moody (6-0, 185) as well as junior corner Darron Edwards (5-11, 175) to make it tougher for opponents to move the football through the air.
Special teams could be a big concern for the Red Wolves this season, especially early, as they must replace their leading punter, kicker, punt returner, kickoff returner and kickoff specialist. That's a load of duties to fill for any team and could be worth watching Saturday night to see how Brandon Parker and Neely Sullivent handle the kicking chores.
Kickoff for the contest is scheduled for 6 p.m. CDT and the game can be seen live on Fox Sports Net.