JONESBORO -- The emotions have begun to subside. The businesslike mentality of moving on and preparing for the next opponent has set in.
But the simple fact remains: Blake Anderson is back as coach of the Arkansas State University football team, and Red Wolves players and coaches needed it.
For the first time since his wife, Wendy, died of cancer Aug. 19 and since he took his leave of absence, Anderson formally addressed the media Monday inside the Red Wolves' new Centennial Bank Athletics Operations Center behind the north end zone, roughly 36 hours removed from Anderson's unexpected, rejuvenating return to coaching and a dominating 26-point victory over UNLV in Las Vegas.
"It's good to be back. Excited to be back. Appreciate the time that I had away. It was needed, obviously," Anderson said. "I'd like to say thank you to the fans and just people across the country. The support has been unbelievable. Just so many people have reached out -- the fan base, the community, the coaching community. It's been what's really lifted us and our spirits and carried us through the toughest time in our life.
"We're still in the healing process. That's gonna go on for a while. There'll be days that are harder than others. There's good days as well. Just appreciate your patience and respect as we just kind of figure out what a new normal looks like. I thought it was time."
His last-minute trip to Las Vegas on Saturday was a surprise to the entire team. No one knew he was coming. A copy of the team's game plan sheet for UNLV wasn't even printed out for Anderson.
But when he showed up at the team's pregame meeting at the hotel prior to leaving for Sam Boyd Stadium, there was not only exuberance but a huge sense of relief.
"It was a pretty exciting time for our whole football team. They were energized, they were excited to have him back, and it was an emotional moment, and I think that carried over to the game," said defensive coordinator David Duggan, who served as interim coach in Anderson's absence. "It made my life a lot easier on the sideline, not having to worry about time management decisions and all that. I could just focus on calling the defensive game. I was probably one of the happiest people to see him come back."
Anderson admitted that his energy was "spent" Sunday.
With an emotional weekend behind them, the Red Wolves must turn their attention to this Saturday. The biggest test ASU will face all season awaits in Athens, Ga., against No. 3 Georgia. The Bulldogs are a team with College Football Playoff aspirations. To them, Arkansas State is a small blip before the meat of their SEC schedule.
"We got a lot of challenges ahead of us in this particular game," Anderson said. "I think even moving on in the season, there's just things that we got still a lot to learn. Me having been away like I've been, I got to get to know these guys again kind of for the first time, and that's what I'm gonna really work hard to do in the coming weeks."
Anderson may feel like he has to reconnect with his players after nearly a three-week absence, but he wasn't completely out of touch with his team prior to this past weekend's return in Las Vegas. While on his leave of absence, Anderson studied game film and talked with his coordinators.
After missing the season-opening loss to SMU in Jonesboro, what he saw Saturday in Las Vegas was a dominant performance. Many of his questions heading into the season appear to have clear answers.
The Red Wolves (1-1) have a reliable quarterback in junior Logan Bonner, who has thrown for 608 yards, 6 touchdowns, 1 interception and completed 62.1% of his passes. Senior wide receiver Omar Bayless has been on the receiving end of 281 of those yards and five of those touchdowns.
The starting left tackle position appears to have been solidified with sophomore Jarrett Horst, who offensive coordinator Keith Heckendorf said Monday had "seven or eight" knockdowns against UNLV. ASU's offense, which Anderson gave up control of as the play-caller and handed the reins over to Heckendorf during the offseason, has passed the eye test so far.
"[Logan] obviously understands our system, and Keith does a great job preparing him," Anderson said. "The system hasn't changed dramatically -- some subtle changes that we were gonna make, and Keith's brought some personality of his own to the offense.
"But we knew that that side of the ball had veteran guys. If Logan could step in and play like a veteran, which nobody knew if that was gonna happen or not, we would have a chance to be pretty good, and if we could solidify that left tackle spot. I think Logan's playing really well, and I think Jarrett Horst is playing really well, and that's allowing those other pieces that we all knew were talented to perform at a high level."
Two of those key pieces are on the mend. Senior wide receiver Dahu Green remains day-to-day with a knee injury, and sophomore running back Marcel Murray is also day-to-day with an ankle injury.
Anderson said Monday the defense still has some "growing up" to do. That was especially felt in the opener against SMU. At UNLV on Saturday, the Red Wolves forced an interception on the game's opening drive -- this one a pick-six -- for the second consecutive week, while also recording 6 sacks and limiting UNLV to 300 yards and 17 points.
Against Georgia, Anderson will put his team up against one of the top programs in all of college football.
"We're gonna play one of the best teams in the country," Anderson said. "It's gonna take a perfect game for us."
Sports on 09/10/2019
Print Headline: Anderson's back as Georgia awaits