A strong showing in spring practice put Phillip Butterfield in position to challenge Ryan Aplin for the Red Wolves' starting quarterback job.
The winner should have his arm warmed up. Arkansas State brought in Hugh Freeze as offensive coordinator, and Freeze brought his up-tempo, no-huddle version of the spread with him from Lambuth, an NAIA school where he was the head coach.
Chances are good that the Red Wolves will be much more aggressive through the air in 2010. One harbinger: there were 56 passes attempted during the spring game.
No matter the mode by which they move the ball, the Wolves need to become more productive. ASU ranked in the bottom half of the Football Bowl Subdivision last season in every major offensive statistical category. Along the way, the Wolves went 4-8 and previous offensive coordinator Doug Ruse was let go.
The Wolves will spend preseason practice installing the remainder of Freeze's offense, and learning to work at the frenetic pace preferred by the new coordinator.
The biggest question is whether the quarterback will be Aplin, a redshirt sophomore who earned a battlefield promotion in 2009 when Corey Leonard got hurt, or Butterfield, the top prospect in Roberts' 2009 recruiting class.
The preseason Sun Belt Conference coaches poll picked Arkansas State to finish third behind Middle Tennessee and Troy. To live up to that billing, much less mount a challenge for the league title, the Wolves will have to replace key personnel from last season's team like Leonard and running back Reggie Arnold-both four-year starters-and star defensive end Alex Carrington.
• DT Bryan Hall was named the defensive player of the year on the preseason All-Sun Belt team. Hall becomes the third Arkansas State player to receive that preseason honor in the past four years. A second-team all-conference choice last season, Hall registered 30 tackles with nine stops for loss and has started every game for the past two seasons.
• Arkansas State brings back 10 players with starting experience on a defense that led the conference in points allowed and yardage allowed last season.
• The system used by new offensive coordinator Hugh Freeze does not use a fullback. Instead, the fullbacks on the roster now practice with the tight ends. Those guys will play a hybrid tight end/H-back role.
Spotlight On September: Before the calendar turns to October, the Wolves will have a good idea how they stack up against the Sun Belt. Arkansas State opens conference play Sept. 11 against a Louisiana-Lafayette team with aspirations of making a leap this season, then travels to take on defending Sun Belt champion Troy on Sept. 25. Add the Sept. 4 season opener at Auburn to the list, and ASU plays three of its first four games on the road. All four of the Red Wolves' games in September will be televised.
Keys To Success: Three fifth-year seniors anchor a veteran offensive line. Ten different guys got starts up front last season due to injury. If healthy, tackles Newton and Delano Moore, guards Drew Hilton and Sifa Etu and center Tom Castilaw comprise one of the most formidable lines in the league. The linebacking corps should be the strength of the defense. Davis, last season's leading tackler, is the anchor of that group.
Areas Of Concern: The system run by Freeze is quite complex and can take more than a year to fully grasp. Head coach Steve Roberts, meanwhile, faces a rather strong need to win now. The Red Wolves have to find a way to replace departed star RB Reggie Arnold; look for Derek Lawson and Jermaine Robertson to take a committee approach to replace the 4,000-yard rusher. Freshmen Sir Gregory Thornton and Frankie Jackson are options here as well.
Quote To Note: "It's a very, very demanding system from a physical standpoint and from a reaction and quick-thinking standpoint. But I was pleased with our progress throughout the spring."-coach Steve Roberts, describing the offense installed by Freeze.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Head Coach: Steve Roberts, 9th year, 41-55.
Most Important Player: LT Delano Moore-The giant fourth-year junior will take a big role on this year's team. He'll be protecting the blind side of who wins the quarterback job. Sifa Etu, last year's left tackle, will slide inside to guard this season.
Breakout Star: MLB Nick Nelms-As a true freshman, Nelms didn't log a start until the 2009 finale against Western Kentucky and made a game-changing interception that he returned 43 yards to set up the winning touchdown. He had a strong spring and looks to be the man in the middle this season.
Newcomer To Watch: DE Brandon Joiner-The junior college transfer began his collegiate career at Texas A&M but got dismissed without playing a down for the Aggies after an arrest on aggravated robbery charges. Joiner had 40 tackles and eight sacks last season at Navarro College in Texas, enrolled early at Arkansas State and impressed the coaching staff during spring practice.
Projected Starting Lineup:
Offense-QB Ryan Aplin/Phillip Butterfield, RB Derek Lawson, WR Taylor Stockemer, WR Dwayne Frampton, WR Allen Muse, TE Kedric Murry, LT Delano Moore, LG Drew Hilton, C Tom Castilaw, RG Sifa Etu, RT Derek Newton.
Defense-DE Jeremy Gibson/Brandon Joiner, DT Bryan Hall, NG Dorvus Woods, DE Justin Robertson, SLB Demario Davis, MLB Nick Nelms, WLB Javon McKinnon, CB Darron Edwards, CB Walter Moody, SS Kelcie McCray, FS M.D. Jennings.
• Hugh Freeze actually was the second offensive coordinator hired by head coach Steve Roberts after Doug Ruse was fired. Arkansas State first hired Clay Helton, but he left to join Lane Kiffin's staff at Southern California. Freeze, who had only just been appointed the offensive coordinator at San Jose State, took the job at ASU in part because it was closer to his family.
• That wasn't the only sudden change on the coaching staff. ASU had to replace its defensive line coach in the middle of spring practice when Kevin Peoples left for Arkansas to become the Razorbacks' director of high school operations. Adam Federle, who previously had been a graduate assistant, replaced Peoples.
• Twenty-two returning Arkansas State players underwent surgeries in the past year. Many of those individuals had to sit out spring practice while rehabilitating. The group included returning QB Ryan Aplin, OL Tom Castilaw, OL Drew Hilton, OL Eric Allen and FS M.D. Jennings.
• C Brian Evans, the top healthy player at his position heading into spring practice, gave up football because of chronic knee problems.
• OG Dominic Padrta is petitioning the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility.
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