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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas State freshman running back Marcel Murray quickly moved from the third-string backfield to being a starter for the Red Wolves. After rushing for 793 yards and seven touchdowns, he was named the Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year.

The binder sits in an easy-to-grab spot and rests just to the right of Blake Anderson's computer.

Arkansas State University's coach rolls his chair away from his main desk and scoots toward the record-keeper of the Red Wolves' football program.

The binder holds an empirical explanation to the Red Wolves' short-handed roster issue that -- if all things go perfectly -- is years away from being fixed and began because of frequent coaching turnover (five in five years from 2010-14).

The binder contains the answers.

Its listings explain why ASU's current coach met with 12 walk-ons in quiet one-on-one meetings to surprise them with scholarships this fall. Purposely, the event featured little fanfare. It was so the Red Wolves could boost a low scholarship number from 72 into the 80s without drawing unwanted attention.

The numbers tell Anderson how he inherited 54 scholarship players for a roster that can hold 85 when he was hired Dec. 19, 2013.

They outline ASU and Anderson's strategic recruiting approach: Constructing classes in a 60-40 split between high school prospects and fewer, but enough, ready-now transfers to keep afloat the Red Wolves' norm of fielding a championship-level football team.

Five years into Anderson's tenure, a roster rebuild is well underway.

Few, however, see inside the binder, so ASU's roster formula is untold.

"People don't understand," Anderson said. 'He's been here five years, why isn't it fixed?' ... Unless we bite the bullet and take all high school [recruits] for the next 4-5 years in a row, we'd have to understand that may mean a couple years where we only win 5-6 games and we're all OK with it.

"I'm not OK with it. [ASU Athletic Director] Terry [Mohajir] is not OK with it. The fanbase is not OK with it. We're doing, in my opinion, a tremendous balancing act."

Never saw campus

ASU's coaching tree has birthed well-documented success, both briefly in Jonesboro and eventually elsewhere.

Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss), Gus Malzahn (Auburn) and Bryan Harsin (Boise State) all left ASU for Power 5 jobs after one career-springing season in Jonesboro.

Freeze won 10 games in 2011. Malzahn won 10 in 2012. Harsin, when ASU's roster construction began to really crumble, won eight in 2013 and departed from ASU before the GoDaddy Bowl, prompting Anderson's hiring.

The issue? To win, the three stockpiled talented transfers who had limited eligibility. The transfers helped ASU in the short-term. The school won consecutive Sun Belt Conference titles under Freeze, Malzahn and Harsin.

The future damage unknown, the one-year, win-now plan was a raging success with a crippling side-effect.

"In the course of three of four transitional recruiting classes, there were a lot of guys on paper that were signed," Anderson said. "But when you went back and looked, a lot of those guys never made it to campus. Either they didn't make it academically. Or they got here and left. I don't know. They just never played a down here. They weren't on the roster."

About 75 signed scholarship players from 2010-14 never played a down at Arkansas State.

In four seasons following four coaching changes and strapped to a recruiting cap at 25 players per signing class, a chunk of ASU's signees were wasted.

"They just weren't here," Anderson said.

Anderson had two months from his hiring in December to signing day in February 2014 to glue together a class absent of stable talent. With time pressed against his staff, it was not the ideal roster foundation he wanted to build upon as ASU's new coach.

"We got midway through the first season and I realized we were really bad and we're really thin," he said. "We need help ... Where are all of our guys?"

The transfer route

Even to Anderson, given his first roster being extremely constricted, finishing 7-6 in 2014 was a delightful surprise.

Given a roster with 54 scholarship players, Anderson dipped into what has handcuffed ASU rosters in recent years. Transfers.

"At that point, we've got to fix the problem," Anderson said. "But we've got to win, too."

Proven junior college transfers like defensive back Cody Brown and defensive lineman Waylon Roberson, eventually two All-Sun Belt Conference players, had their eligibility expire after the 2016 season.

The roster ditch was being dug deeper.

"We added those guys to what we had," Anderson said. "We won nine games and a championship [in 2015]. Then we won eight games and a championship [in 2016].

"Herein lies the problem: That made us really junior and senior heavy. What we inherited graduated out. What we brought in graduated out."

The height of Anderson's success through his first five years was ASU's two championships in 2015 and 2016. Those, however, caused the same mess Anderson had to clean up when he took the job.

After the two titles, nearly 30 scholarship players departed from ASU, which hasn't had a losing season since 4-8 under Steve Roberts in 2010, as their eligibility ran dry.

Rinse and repeat.

"We ended up having 28 or 29 guys [leave]," Anderson said. "Now, we won two championships. So that's part of it. But they all went out the door at the same time. Then we had to come back to square one. Now it's a second rebuilding process. We don't want that big, mass exodus again. We want it to be easier to swallow."

Rebuilding things

In five seasons, following a disciplined system, ASU's roster has grown from 54 players on scholarship to 72 in 2018.

There's a fix to the roster issue available at any moment for the Red Wolves: Take all high school recruits and very few transfers for the next 3-5 years. Lose now, stabilize the roster, build depth and win later.

They refuse to take it.

Arkansas State is committed to a slower rebuild. This way, Anderson said, it allows the Red Wolves to remain in contention atop the Sun Belt while steadying a roster destructed by coaching turnover.

ASU has two 2018 examples of the reboot taking shape.

Kirk Merritt, a first-year junior transfer wideout from East Mississippi Community College after playing a year at Oregon, was named the Sun Belt's Newcomer of the Year after leading the conference with 939 receiving yards. True freshman running back Marcel Murray, who ascended from ASU's third string to first early in the season, was named the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year.

One transfer. One true freshman. Both contributed at high levels and helped steer ASU to an 8-4 season, a four-game winning streak to end the regular season and a trip to Tucson, Ariz., for the Arizona Bowl on Dec. 29.

"Had we not had injuries this year, I think we would've won 10 games," Anderson said. "We had 19 guys go down from a 72-man roster. We just couldn't sustain it. We have some great athletes ... but literally, there was no depth and no experience. It got us in a couple of games that we could've very much won."

Of ASU's 72 scholarship players this season, 19 were injured. The Red Wolves had 30 first-year players (including 17 freshman and eight walk-ons) take their first NCAA Division I snaps in 2018, Anderson said.

"Our goal is always to compete for the conference championship," Mohajir said. "We fell short of that goal. Considering the injuries and the way we started the conference and how we ended it, I would say it taught our guys a lot. It taught our coaches a lot. It taught our administration a lot, to continue to grind through things. I think they finished strong."

The plan to cure the roster is to not sign transfers with less than 2-3 years of eligibility, take swings on hidden true freshman gems, like Murray, a two-star prospect, and to grab the rare, can't-miss transfers like Merritt in order to give the team a chance to win immediately.

That way, in possibly 4-5 years time, the number of scholarship players will rise 3-5 players per season and slowly swell from 72 to a comfortable resting spot in the 80s, Anderson said.

"Eventually," Anderson said, "we'll be beyond this problem."

Photo by Thomas Metthe
Wide receiver Kirk Merritt has 75 receptions for 939 yards and 7 touchdowns for Arkansas State this season, and was named the Sun Belt Conference Newcomer of the Year.
Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson walks the sidelines during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Alabama, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Sports on 12/14/2018

Print Headline: Playing the right cards: ASU dealing with annual roster shuffling

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