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Score one for defense

Salty unit strength this year

By Troy Schulte

This article was published July 31, 2014 at 3:41 a.m.

The hiring of Coach Blake Anderson in December continued a trend at Arkansas State of hiring coaches who are known for putting up big numbers on offense, but a defense stocked with experienced players could be the strength of Anderson’s first Red Wolves team.

JONESBORO -- Joe Cauthen has always been involved with defense, but he understands that college football values yards and points over tackles and sacks these days.

"It's what everybody wants," said Cauthen, Arkansas State's defensive coordinator. "It's pretty. It's glamorous."

Cauthen's new employer has played as big a role as anyone when it comes to putting the spotlight on offense.

Cauthen was hired in December by Blake Anderson, ASU's fourth head coach in as many years. Anderson's hiring continued a trend at ASU of hiring head coaches whose expertise lies on offense. First there was Hugh Freeze in 2011, followed by Gus Malzahn in 2012 and Bryan Harsin last year. Each built their team around high-scoring offenses.

Anderson isn't any different, having come to ASU after serving two seasons as offensive coordinator at North Carolina, but the strength of his first ASU team will be its defense.

ASU opens fall practice at 8:35 a.m. today with a different identity than it has had in recent years. There are questions on offense about depth, but the defense is stocked with experienced players who have been lauded in the preseason.

"Our defense is our heartbeat," said cornerback Rocky Hayes, who played on offense as a freshman under Malzahn before moving to defense last year.

Hayes might be the most shining example of ASU's depth in the defensive back seven. He had a team-best three interceptions last season, tied for the team lead with 10 pass breakups and was named to the league's first-team defense during the preseason.

But Hayes, Cauthen points out, won't even begin today's practice first on the depth chart. Those spots are taken by Andrew Tryon and Artez Brown.

Defensive end Chris Stone, linebacker Qushaun Lee and safety Sterling Young also were named to the preseason first-team defense, while tackle Dexter Blackmon and Brown were named to the second team. Linebacker Xavier Woodson, nickel back Frankie Jackson, Tryon and safeties Chris Humes and Money Hunter also have started games.

Then there is linebacker A.J. Turner, who started six games as a freshman at Arkansas in 2012 before transferring to ASU. He will likely start if he earns academic eligibility this summer.

"We need those guys to play like veterans and experienced players," Anderson said. "Yeah, there's a lot of bodies over there that have more reps than what you have on offense. The pressure is on them to stand up."

Depth questions still linger on a line that is inexperienced behind Stone and Blackmon, but the rest is a group that players said can be counted on to win games.

ASU ranked in the middle of the pack last season in most defensive categories. The Red Wolves were third in the eight-team Sun Belt in scoring defense (26.2 points per game), third in pass defense (232.9 yards per game), but sixth against the run (180.8) and fifth in total defense (413.8).

"It was good," Lee said of last year's defense. "But there's a lot of things we can fix to be great."

The experience should help close that gap, but what could help even more is that the Red Wolves are running essentially the same defense that they ran under former defensive coordinator John Thompson. Cauthen and three of his assistants may be in their first year at ASU, but his 4-2-5 scheme is almost identical to what was run the past two years.

The only real difference is in semantics. For example, a Cover 2 under Thompson was called "Cloud" but now it's called "Vegas," and the hybrid linebacker/defensive back position Jackson plays is now simply called "Nickel" instead of "Wolf."

"You don't have to erase your brain, from what you learned to something new," Jackson said. "Everybody is still playing fast instead of thinking about what they're used to doing from last season."

Jackson and Hayes noted that they are playing a bit closer to the line of scrimmage, too. Jackson said he is eager at the thought of more blitzing. Stone, who had three sacks last year, said he slimmed down in an effort to provide a better pass rush off the edge.

Still, Cauthen remain cautious until he sees his new players in action. He is concerned that the unit struggled to stop the run last year and is still young across the defensive line, no matter how much experience he has at linebacker and in the secondary.

"I haven't seen these guys in battle. I haven't been a part of them," Cauthen said. "You've got to stop the run. If you can't stop the run, they're never going to throw the ball."

Sports on 07/31/2014

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