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Concerns grow, particularly offensively

by Eli Lederman | April 5, 2021 at 1:56 a.m.

JONESBORO -- Butch Jones walked off the field after Arkansas State University's first scrimmage of spring camp Saturday with three full pages worth of notes and critiques, and that was before the Red Wolves' first-year head coach made it to the film room.

"There's a lot of things we know we need to improve on and improve on immediately," Jones said. "I don't like where we're at right now in terms of our toughness and our mentality. But we have a lot of time to continue to improve on that."

Jones cited tipped passes at the line of scrimmage and defensive communication as highlights, but harped on ASU's shortcomings -- namely, its offense -- following spring practice No. 8, which saw the Red Wolves' first live action under ASU's new coaching staff.

The Red Wolves ran 132 plays across a full-field session and situational red zone, goal line and short yardage segments on the turf at Centennial Bank Stadium. The practice included coordinators Keith Heckendorf (offensive) and Rob Harley (defensive) calling plays from the press box and in-game sideline protocols in a session Jones called "a full dress rehearsal."

ASU will scrimmage again in their 11th spring practice on Saturday ahead of the Red Wolves' Spring Game, set for April 17 at Centennial Bank Stadium.

The offense Jones praised early in the spring instead drew his ire with a sloppy performance. The former Alabama assistant lamented pre-snap penalties, missed blocks down field and turnovers that swung the scrimmage firmly in the direction of the defense. A lack of attention to detail on the offensive side of the ball left Jones frustrated. Redshirt junior quarterback Layne Hatcher was not made available to media post-practice, as scheduled.

"First series we come out and fumble the football," Jones said. "You can't start the game off that way. In the red zone, we couldn't complete a pass. Couldn't protect the quarterback. Couldn't run the ball effectively."

"There's lot of work to do," he continued. "Walking off the field, I was not pleased with the offense."

Conversely, the Red Wolves' defense won at the line of scrimmage and delivered the stand out performance. ASU's shift to the four-down defense under Jones is predicated on creating chaos at the line and collapsing the pocket; the Red Wolves' defense did both and Jones pointed to progress as he saw concepts and instructions stressed in the film room show up on the field.

"We're doing good," senior linebacker Caleb Bonner said. "The next step for us is to start playing team defense. We have a lot of room to improve. We're looking good, but it's not quite yet where we want to be."

After watching his team in action for the first time, Jones again expressed concern over ASU's roster depth. The 53-year old coach inked a class of 14 high school recruits for 2021 and has secured nearly a dozen transfers since his December hiring, but inherited a roster primarily made up of players brought in by former head coach Blake Anderson.

Questions remain for Jones about the "bottom third" of his roster at the halfway of spring camp.

"We have some individuals who I think are at a crossroads, who have to make some decisions in terms of toughness and overall improvement," Jones said. "I know they want to do it."

Additional depth from the outside may still come before the Red Wolves return for fall camp, as Jones indicated he and his staff are remaining active in the recruiting market.

"We're still recruiting," he said. "We could still add to this class, upwards of maybe five individuals if they fit our profile and what we're looking for."

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