(Part 3 of a 12-part Sun Belt Conference football preview series)
Arkansas State's hopes hinge on an all-new offensive line.
Entering his fourth year as head coach, Blake Anderson must replace six offensive and seven defensive starters along with both kickers.
A-State (8-5, 7-1) went 0-4 out of the gates, but won eight of its last nine to capture a share of the Sun Belt Conference championship along with Appalachian State. It marked the fifth time in six years for the Red Wolves to win or share the league title. Appearing in their sixth consecutive bowl game, A-State took care of Central Florida 31-13 in the Cure Bowl.
Withstanding a decline of 12.7 points per game, A-State ranked fourth in the conference in scoring (27.3), ninth in rushing (137.2 yards per game), sixth in passing (242.2 ypg) and seventh in total yardage (379.4 ypg).
A-State will rely on an experienced core of skill players to carry the offense while the line develops.
Junior quarterback Justice Hansen is back to direct the offense. In his first year as a starter, the Oklahoma transfer completed 197-of-340 passes for 2,719 yards with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Anderson also welcomes back the team's top two running backs in senior Warren Wand (200 carries, 879 yards, 7 TDs; 24 receptions, 279 yards, 3 TDs) and junior Johnston White (105-472-5).
Senior tight end Blake Mack (34 receptions, 652 yards, 3 TDs) returns along with senior wide receivers Dijon Paschal (22-308-3) and Chris Murray (22-327-1). Sophomore Christian Booker (19-194) moves into the starting lineup. Junior Kendrick Edwards, who caught four passes for 70 yards and a touchdown while playing in 11 games at Arkansas as a true freshman, is another possible target for Hansen.
Obviously, the biggest question mark is up front following the departure of all five starters, including first-team All-Sun Belt Conference left tackle Jemar Clark. With two career starts, sophomore right guard Troy Elliott is the most experienced of the 19 offensive linemen in camp. Senior Jaypee Philbert, a graduate transfer from Iowa State, is the projected starter at right tackle.
A-State also suffered substantial personnel losses losses on defense after leading the nation with 9.6 stops per game in the backfield and ranking No. 6 in sacks with 3.1 per game. In addition, the Red Wolves ranked second in the conference in points allowed (21.5 ppg), fourth in rushing (143.4 ypg), fourth in passing (219.5 ypg) and second in total yardage (362.8 ypg).
Among the seven missing starters are a pair of first-team All-Sun Belt performers, end Chris Odom (53 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks) and free safety Money Hunter (80 tackles, 1 INT).
Senior defensive end Ja'Von Rolland-Jones (57, 20.5 TFL, 13.5 sacks), the reigning Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year and three-time All-Conference selection, gives the unit a strong foundation. A-State's all-time sacks leader (30.5), Rolland-Jones is chasing the NCAA FBS all-time record of 44 held by Terrell Suggs of Arizona State from 2000-02.
Senior tackle Dee Liner (34 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks), who began his college career at Alabama, complements Rolland-Jones on the front four.
Senior Kyle Wilson (79 tackles, 15.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 9 quarterback hurries) and nickel back Justin Clifton (87 tackles, 8 TFL, 2 INTs) are the lone incumbents on the back seven. Senior Blaise Taylor (35 tackles, 3 INTs, 9 pass breakups) moves into a starting role at cornerback. A trio of transfers — sophomore Darreon Jackson (Boise State) and juniors Jefferie Gibson (Clemson) and Michael Johnson (Mt. San Antonio Community College) — will man the safeties.
Both kickers are new.
Taylor, the school's career punt return leader, averaged 7.8 yards on 29 tries, with one touchdown.
A-State opens the season at Nebraska on Saturday Sept. 2, before hosting the Miami Hurricanes in Jonesboro on Sept. 9.
2017 ARKANSAS STATE SCHEDULE
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 2 at Nebraska 7 p.m.
Sept. 9 Miami (Fla.) 2:30 p.m.
Sept. 16 Arkansas-Pine Bluff 6 p.m.
Sept. 23 at SMU 6 p.m.
Oct. 4 (Wed.) at Georgia Southern* 7 p.m.
Oct. 14 Coastal Carolina* (HC) TBA
Oct. 19 (Thurs) Louisiana-Lafayette* 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 28 at New Mexico State* TBA
Nov. 11 at South Alabama* TBA
Nov. 18 Texas State* TBA
Nov. 25 at ULM* TBA
Dec. 2 at Troy* TBA