JONESBORO -- So much is different these days with the Arkansas State University football program.
Set aside the program's impressive new north end zone facility that has opened up -- which is equipped with a new locker room, weight room, training area, players' lounge and plenty other modern amenities -- or all of the loge box renovations and two constructed waterfalls inside Centennial Bank Stadium over the past few years, or simply the elevated brand and general football investment.
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Aug. 31 SMU 6 p.m.
Sept. 7 at UNLV 9 p.m.
Sept. 14 at Georgia 11 a.m.
Sept. 21 Southern Illinois 6 p.m.
Sept. 28 at Troy* 5 p.m.
Oct. 5 at Georgia State* 2:30 p.m.
Oct. 17 Louisiana-Lafayette* 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 26 Texas State* 6 p.m.
Nov. 2 at Louisiana-Monroe* 4 p.m.
Nov. 16 Coastal Carolina* 2 p.m.
Nov. 23 Georgia Southern* 2 p.m.
Nov. 29 at South Alabama* TBA
*Sun Belt Conference game
DATE OPPONENT RESULT
Sept. 1 Southeast Missouri State W, 48-21
Sept. 8 at Alabama L, 57-7
Sept. 15 at Tulsa W, 29-20
Sept. 22 UNLV W, 27-20
Sept. 29 at Georgia Southern* L, 28-21
Oct. 9 Appalachian State* L, 35-9
Oct. 18 Georgia State* W, 51-35
Oct. 27 at Louisiana-Lafayette* L, 47-43
Nov. 3 South Alabama* W, 38-14
Nov. 10 at Coastal Carolina* W, 44-16
Nov. 17 Louisiana-Monroe* W, 31-17
Nov. 24 at Texas State* W, 33-7
Dec. 29 vs. Nevada (Arizona Bowl) L, 16-13 (OT)
*Sun Belt Conference game
Take this entire offseason, for example. How does seven new assistant coaches on the staff -- including an offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator -- sound?
"Well, it's not that typical that you have that many staff changes in one year," ASU Coach Blake Anderson said last month at Sun Belt media day in New Orleans. "It just kind of all happened."
Then digest the unfortunate reality that Anderson is currently away from the team after the death of his wife, Wendy, on Monday evening. She had battled breast cancer since April 2017.
Before her death, ASU had announced that Blake Anderson was taking a leave of absence, and first-year defensive coordinator and linebackers coach David Duggan -- who Anderson had named the assistant head coach at the start of fall camp as a precaution for that very reason -- took over as the interim head coach. Anderson missed two previous practices during camp.
"One good thing about Blake and I is we share the same values," Duggan said during camp before Anderson took leave. "It's the same message. I'm just an extension of his message, and all the coaches are an extension of his message.
"Our message to Coach A is, 'Hey, we got this, Coach.' "
Some of Anderson's previous assistants left for other jobs, while others were fired. Anderson also needed a new offensive play-caller after relinquishing that role.
The only assistant coach who's been with Anderson at ASU since the beginning nearly six years ago is Allen Johnson. Even he has a new responsibility on staff this season, switching from coaching the safeties to cornerbacks.
"[The program] has changed tremendously," Johnson said. "Over the years, it's gotten bigger and bigger, and I think that's a testament to the new facilities, the excitement our support staff helps with and stuff like that. It's been really good."
First-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Keith Heckendorf could have been in that exclusive assistants club with Johnson had he decided to stay in Jonesboro longer than a month back in 2014.
Heckendorf was hired to be ASU's tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator on Anderson's first staff, but he left soon after to return to North Carolina to coach quarterbacks under Larry Fedora.
"My stay here is six times longer than it was the first time," Heckendorf said with a grin. "It feels great to be back. The unique thing about having been here for a short period of time when Coach Anderson first got here is I can appreciate how much this place has changed because I saw what it was and I see where it is now.
"I don't think people really realize how far it's come in a short period of time. Just what they've been able to do here in terms of growing this place has been phenomenal."
All of that change and growth, though, has led to greater expectations. After they claimed back-to-back Sun Belt Conference championships in 2015-16, the Red Wolves have fallen short of the league title in each of the past two seasons.
ASU finished 8-5 overall and 5-3 in the Sun Belt last year, which included a 16-13 overtime loss to Nevada in the Arizona Bowl.
Since then, the Red Wolves have had a number of key departures, including quarterback Justice Hansen, a three-year starter; running back Warren Wand; wide receiver Justin McInnis; offensive linemen Lanard Bonner and Marvis Brown; defensive ends Ronheen Bingham and Griffin Riggs; and defensive backs Justin Clifton and Brandon Byner.
But ASU has 13 returning starters and is loaded with talented playmakers, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The Red Wolves return three of their four leading receivers from 2018 -- seniors Kirk Merritt, Omar Bayless and junior Jonathan Adams -- as well as their leading rusher in sophomore Marcel Murray. Senior receiver Dahu Green is also back healthy from injury.
A big focus this offseason has been on the offensive line, which returns three starters but has to replace a left tackle. ASU ranked 111th nationally in red-zone offense last season. Anderson has stressed that the offensive line has to get better at moving the line of scrimmage to improve that metric.
"Our red-zone offense last year, it did cost us some football games," junior center Jacob Still said. "When we got back in January, the O-line kind of took it upon ourselves that when we get in the red zone, we got to be able to get the ball in the end zone. It's more of a mentality when you get down there, to just put your hand in the dirt and move them. We shouldn't have to rely on anything other than running the ball in there."
How far ASU goes in 2019 will depend largely on redshirt junior quarterback Logan Bonner, who is expected to be the starter after sitting behind Hansen the past three seasons.
"You can't play in this system that we play in without it being critical," Anderson said of the quarterback position. "We chose this system a long time ago -- you live and die with the quarterback play. We know that. Those guys choose to come be a part of it, knowing that's the level of pressure."
Bonner has been steady throughout fall camp, and Anderson has been pleased with his progress as he prepares for his new starting role.
"He's got command of the offense," Anderson. "He obviously understands what we're doing."
On the defensive side, Duggan has an explosive group with playmakers everywhere, including a defensive line stacked with senior Kevin Thurmon and juniors Forrest Merrill and William Bradley-King, all of whom can get in the backfield.
"I think our D-line in general is one of the best in the country," Anderson said.
Said senior cornerback B.J. Edmonds: "Those guys are nasty. ... They're super aggressive."
Two of the Red Wolves' top three leading tacklers from last year -- junior linebacker Tajhea Chambers and senior defensive back Darreon Jackson -- return, as well as key secondary pieces in Edmonds and junior Jerry Jacobs, who combined for seven interceptions in 2018.
On paper, ASU, which was picked to finish second in the Sun Belt West division in the preseason coaches poll, has the makings of a team that should contend for the Sun Belt title, but there's always much more that goes into actually winning it. The Red Wolves know that well and found it out the hard way last season.
Asked at the start of fall camp whether ASU can get back over the hump and claim another Sun Belt championship, Anderson gave a resounding "absolutely."
"We need to stay healthy, but talent wise, yeah, we're as talented as anybody in the league at some positions, [even] more talented," Anderson said. "The spots that we're inexperienced, I feel good about what we've recruited. We need to eliminate a few mistakes that cost us [in] some close losses in one-possession games. We need to keep our head on straight and focus on the here and now.
"But I absolutely think we can [win it]. That's exactly what I expect us to do."
Sports on 08/25/2019
Print Headline: Things look different for Red Wolves