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Red Wolves look to surpass 2020 Sun Belt powers

by Eli Lederman | August 1, 2021 at 8:36 a.m.
Arkansas State quarterback Layne Hatcher (3) dives for extra yardage between Central Arkansas linebackers Dre Matthews (45) and Darin Davenport (24) during the second quarter of the Red Wolves' 50-27 win on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro. More photos at Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

The Sun Belt Conference kicked off its football season with football media day July 22, with all 10 Sun Belt programs represented in New Orleans.

Coaches and players from each team spoke at the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, with the renewed sense of hope as another football season approaches.

Arkansas State University enters 2021 under the leadership of first-year Coach Butch Jones -- one of three new head coaches across the league -- after a 4-7 finish in Blake Anderson's final season.

Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State and Louisiana-Lafayette have targets on their backs after preseason Sun Belt voting appointed them favorites to win their divisions. But there's plenty of other teams, including the Red Wolves, who would love to play spoiler and maybe even more.

Here's a look at how the Sun Belt is shaping up ahead of the 2021 campaign:



Coach Jamey Chadwell (19-17 entering fourth season with Coastal Carolina)

2020 record 11-1, 8-0 Sun Belt

Preseason prediction Tied for first

Key returners QB Grayson McCall, WR Jaivon Heiligh, TE Isaiah Likely, DL C.J. Brewer, LB Jeffrey Gunter, CB D'Jordan Strong

Key departureS DE Tarron Jackson, RB CJ Marable

What they're saying

"Before last year, we were picked to finish last in the conference, and that's motivation enough to go out there every day and compete and work hard so you can win each game. This year is a little different story because of the success we had. People have a target on us and you might call that pressure."

-- Linebacker Silas Kelly

"Most people think we won last year because of covid, like it was a fluke. That's out there, and our players hear that. You still think the only reason we won was because of this or because of that. Our players hear those things and it just adds fuel. We've still got something to prove."

-- Coach Jamey Chadwell

Chalk talk The Chanticleers enter as the reigning Sun Belt East Division champions, but they did not get to compete for a Sun Belt championship against Louisiana-Lafayette in the conference championship game due to an outbreak of covid-19 within the Chanticleers' program. ... Sophomore quarterback Grayson McCall returns after earning conference player of the year honors after throwing for 2,488 yards and 26 touchdowns, and rushing for 569 yards and 7 touchdowns. ... The departure of running back CJ Marable marks the most significant loss to the offense. Reese White and Shemari Jones -- who combined for 900 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground last season -- are expected to step into his place. ... Five defensive players earned preseason honors from a defense that returns 10 of 11 starters.


Coach Shawn Clark (10-3 entering second fulls season with Appalachian State)

2020 record 9-3, 6-2 Sun Belt

Preseason prediction Tied for first

Key Returners WR Corey Sutton, RB Camerun Peoples, DE Demetrius Taylor, DE Caleb Spurlin, DB Kaiden Smith

Key Departures QB Zac Thomas, CB Shemar Jean-Charles

What they're saying

"Last year, we missed a whole summer of summer workouts, and I think that's what makes us different in some ways, that our offseason program is very tough. Brad Bielaniec, our strength and conditioning coach, has been able to have our players all summer with no hiccups. Just the way they look, the way they're working, I think good things are ahead for us this summer."

-- Coach Shawn Clark

"The transition has been great. You guys will be able to see all the hard work I've put in. The motivation behind it? I love my teammates, and I love Appalachian State."

-- O-lineman Baer Hunter on replacing three starters on the line

Chalk talk The Mountaineers are tasked with replacing quarterback Zac Thomas, who went 32-6 in 38 starts from 2018-20. Former Clemson and Duke passer Chase Brice, who threw for 2,170 yards while committing 22 turnovers last season, is Thomas' expected replacement. ... Baer Hunter and Cooper Hodges represent the Mountaineers' two returning starters on an offensive line that helped the Mountaineers finish sixth in the nation in rushing yards per game (264.9). ... Preseason first-team defense selections D'Marco Jackson and Demetrius Taylor headline a defense with its top seven tacklers returning.


Coach Shawn Elliott (22-25, entering fifth season at Georgia State)

2020 record 6-4, 4-4 Sun Belt

Preseason prediction Third

Key returners QB Cornelious Brown, RB Destin Coates, DE Hardrick Willis, DT Dontae Wilson, DE Jeffery Clark

Key departures LB Jordan Strachan, LB Victor Hayward, LB Trajan Stephens-McQueen

What they're saying

"We have a great group of seniors. A great group of leaders that I think are putting us in position to excel on the field. When you think about our spring practice and how comfortable everything was, I don't think I've ever experienced a spring practice like we had. It was like I was the head coach, but I could let our players lead our football team."

-- Coach Shawn Elliott

"We want to work on stopping the run. If we can stop the run, then we can get into passing situations and that's when we get after the quarterback and we're able to have the success that we had last year getting sacks. We led the conference in sacks. We're going to stop the run and get to the quarterback."

-- D-lineman Dontae Wilson

Chalk talk Georgia State's nonconference schedule begins with a home opener against Army and includes Power 5 meetings with North Carolina and Auburn. ... Sophomore Cornelius Brown returns at quarterback after throwing for 2,408 yards and 17 touchdowns while running in 7 more. Leading rushers Destin Coates and Tucker Gregg, and top receivers Sam Pinckney and Cornelius McCoy also return. ... The departures of Jordan Strachan (9.5 sacks), Victor Heyward (34 tackles) and Trajan Stephens-McQueen (8 tackles for loss) leave Georgia State missing three of its top seven tacklers from 2020. Top tackler Blake Carroll (73 tackles) will anchor the Panthers' linebackers.


Coach Chad Lunsford (27-18 entering fifth season at Georgia Southern)

2020 record 8-5, 4-4 Sun Belt

Preseason prediction Fourth

Key returners RB J.D. King, RB Logan Wright, WR Khaleb Hood, LB Randy Wade, CB Derrick Canteen

Key departures QB Shai Werts, DL Raymond Johnson, LB Rashad Byrd, LB Reynard Ellis

What they're saying

"Justin [Tomlin] would start for us if we play tomorrow, but I am looking forward to a great competition in training camp because I think guys like Sam Kenerson -- who was a freshman for us last year and did not play but maybe two plays last year -- is a guy that can be a game-changer for us with his ability."

-- Coach Chad Lunsford on the Eagles' quarterback competition

"They seem to just keep popping up everywhere. You see them on social media and you can tell they're doing a great job in recruiting and their players are building a great culture. Arkansas State has always been a really good football team. I expect no different."

-- Lunsford on Arkansas State under first-year Coach Butch Jones

Chalk talk The Eagles are tasked with replacing four-year starting quarterback Shai Werts after his transfer to Louisville. Junior Justin Tomlin -- with four career starts -- is the front runner for the position, with Georgia Tech transfer passer James Graham moving to wide receiver. ... Georgia Southern returns four of its five starting offensive linemen to pave the way for running backs J.D. King and Logan Wright, a duo that combined for 1,227 yards and 9 touchdowns last season. ... The Eagles' defense lost Raymond Johnson (14.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks), leading tackler Rashad Byrd and third-leading tackler Reynard Ellis. Georgia Southern has patched its holes at linebacker with transfers Andrew Johnson (Oregon) and Khadry Jackson (North Carolina). ... Sophomore defensive back Derrick Canteen is coming off a five-interception season.


Coach Chip Lindsey (10-13 entering third season at Troy)

2020 record 5-6, 3-5 Sun Belt

Preseason prediction Fifth

Key returners WR Kaylon Gieger, OL Austin Stidham, LB Carlton Martial, LB Jayden Mcdonald, LB K.J. Robertson

Key departures None

What they're saying

"It was a toss-up between both of them [during spring practice]. Both of them looked good. It's just a battle for it. I'm excited to see who wins."

-- LB Carlton Martial on the QB battle

"Our team motto this year is 'Our Time.' I've had two recruiting classes of my own now, and we feel like we've filled some holes and created more depth than we've ever had, especially up front."

-- Coach Chip Lindsey

Chalk talk Troy enters fall camp with an open competition at quarterback with junior Gunnar Watson and Missouri transfer Taylor Powell (Fayetteville) expected to battle it out. Watson led the conference in accuracy by completing 70.1% of his passes in 2020, throwing for 2,141 yards and 16 touchdowns with 7 interceptions. Powell appeared in nine games in two seasons at Missouri. ... Five starting offensive linemen -- including 2020 first-team all-conference left tackle Austin Stidham -- return to an offense that finished ninth in the Sun Belt in rushing yards. ... The strength of the Troy defense lies with its linebackers, led by Carlton Martial, Jayden McDonald and K.J. Robertson, the Trojans' top-three tacklers last season.



Coach Billy Napier (28-11, entering fourth season at Louisiana-Lafayette)

2020 record 10-1, 7-1 Sun Belt

Preseason prediction First

Key returners QB Levi Lewis, WR Jalen Williams, WR Kyren Lacy, DL Tayland Humphrey, DE Zi'Yon Hill

Key departures RB Elijah Mitchell, RB Tray Ragas, LB Joe Dillon

What they're saying

"It's critical that we take a good look in the mirror and remember where we came from. I think when you've got veteran players, that's the benefit of that. We just want to be consistent, dominant. We want to win at a high level. Last year we came back at halftime I don't know how many times. We want to be able to dominate the whole game and run the table."

-- Coach Billy Napier

"I would probably say I ignored it. But after a while, we realized there was nothing we can do about it. Now we're going into fall camp ready to dominate. We fell short. But it's on to the next year, so it's time to conquer this year."

-- DE Zi'Yon Hill on missing the Sun Belt championship game in 2020

Chalk talk Louisiana-Lafayette did not get to compete in the 2020 Sun Belt championship game due to an outbreak of covid-19 within the Coastal Carolina program. ... Fifth-year quarterback Levi Lewis holds a record of 24-4. He threw for 2,274 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. ... The departures of running backs Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas leave a void to be filled by sophomore Chris Smith, who racked up 1,137 all-purpose yards last fall. ... The Ragin' Cajuns' top three pass catcher return in Jalen Williams, Kyren Lacy and Peter LeBlanc. They also added a pair of Power 5 receivers with Texas A&M's Jacob Kibodi and TCU's John Stephens Jr. ... The offensive line returns all five starters who have 107 starts and 7,200 snaps among them. ... Louisiana-Lafayette brings back all but one player (Joe Dillon) from a defense that allowed the fewest yards per play in the Sun Belt.


Coach Butch Jones (first season at Arkansas State)

2020 record 4-7, 2-6 Sun Belt

Preseason prediction Second

Key returners QB Layne Hatcher, OL Andre Harris, DL Terry Hampton, LB Caleb Bonner, DB Antonio Fletcher

Key departures WR Jonathan Adams, QB Logan Bonner, DL Forrest Merrill, LB Justin Rice

What they're saying

"I think from a competitive component, you look at every position group and we feel like we've been able to address the needs. Maybe more so in some places than others. But I think our whole program has more of a competitive edge to it. Some of the players we brought in are elevating the game of the players around them, and vice versa."

-- Coach Butch Jones on improving the Red Wolves' roster

"I think coming off the season we played last year made everybody more willing to accept some change and dive into the whole mindset that Coach Jones has brought to this team. People know the results we want and what it's going to take to get those results."

-- Defensive lineman TW Ayers on the culture change at ASU

Chalk talk The Red Wolves are coming off their first losing season since 2010. ... Under Jones, the ASU roster has been overhauled with 59 newcomers featured on the fall roster. ... With Logan Bonner now at Utah State, Layne Hatcher no longer has a platoon mate under center. Brought in to challenge the junior are Florida State transfer James Blackman, Mississippi State passer Allan Walters and freshman Wyatt Begeal. ... Sophomore wide receiver Corey Rucker will see more opportunities after his breakout 310-yard, 4-TD performance against Louisiana-Monroe in December. ... ASU has shifted to a four-down scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Rob Harley, a formation that will offer increased chances for returning defensive linemen such as TW Ayers, Terry Hampton and Vidal Scott to disrupt the offense.


Coach Kane Wommack (First season at South Alabama)

2020 record 4-7, 3-5 Sun Belt

Preseason prediction Third

Key returners QB Desmond Trotter, WR Jalen Tolbert, DL Nick Mobley, DB Devin Rockette

Key departures WR Kawann Baker, LB Riley Cole

What they're saying

"To know all the resources that have been put into this program and to know that our best days are ahead of us is a really exciting thought. We get to create a new tradition on our campus. We get to accomplish things that have never been done."

-- Coach Kane Wommack on taking over at South Alabama

"It provides me with motivation to take things and run with them, and go into the season with the confidence of knowing what I am capable of achieving with those All-American and all-conference honors. That being said, I still have to go out there and get it done, so I have to continue to work for it. I love working and being underrated; it's something that keeps a chip on my shoulder."

-- Wide receiver Jalen Tolbert

Chalk talk Kane Wommack is one of three first-year coaches in the Sun Belt and will seek to lead South Alabama to its first winning season as an FBS program. ... Junior quarterback Desmond Trotter stands as the incumbent, but he will receive a challenge from former South Carolina and Utah quarterback Jake Bentley, who transferred to the Jaguars in January. ... Junior pass catcher Jalen Tolbert caught 64 passes for 1,085 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2020. ... Second-leading tackler Nick Mobley is set to anchor a South Alabama front seven missing All-Sun Belt linebacker Riley Cole.

Texas State

Coach Jake Spavital (5-19 entering third season at Texas State)

2020 record 2-10, 2-6 Sun Belt

Preseason prediction Fourth

Key returners QB Brady McBride, WR Marcell Barbee, OL Russell Baker, OL Dalton Cooper, DL Nico Ezidore, DB Jarron Morris

Key departures WR Jeremiah Haydel, WR Jah'Marae Sheread, LB Hal Vinson, DB Brendon Luper

What they're saying

"There's a lot of optimism and excitement in our program that is based on last year. After we had a limited recruiting class in 2019, we ended up bringing in over 65 guys for the 2020 season. It was pretty difficult at times due to covid while building a team culture, trying to bond and build as a team. The positives were our program got a lot of great, valuable experience while playing in 12 games."

-- Coach Jake Spavital

"I love the culture of this team and the lessons learned [last season]. A lot of it is we can't beat ourselves. We've got to play cleaner football. At the end of the day, we've got to quit the self-inflicted wounds."

-- Spavital

Chalk talk With 17 transfers in tow, the Bobcats enter the fall with eyes on a bounce-back season after a 2-10 finish. ... Quarterbacks Brady McBride and Tyler Vitt each return, joined in the position battle by North Carolina State transfer Ty Evans, who didn't take a single snap in two seasons with the Wolfpack. ... Four starting offensive linemen are back to block for Brock Sturges (532 yards and 5 touchdowns) and Calvin Hill (528 yards and 5 touchdowns). ... All-Sun Belt cornerback Jarron Morris highlights the Bobcats' secondary. He recorded 69 tackles with 11 pass breakups and 4 interceptions in 2020.


Coach Terry Bowden (First season at Louisiana-Monroe)

2020 record 0-10, 0-7 Sun Belt

Preseason prediction Fifth

Key returners WR Perry Carter, OL Garrett Hirsch, DB Austin Hawley, LB Traveion Webster, DB Josh Newton

Key departures TE Josh Pederson, RB Josh Johnson, DL Kevin Pointer, DL Mason Husmann

What they're saying

"With Rhett Rodriguez, he's a portal transfer quarterback coming in for his first year at ULM, trying to win the brotherhood and establish the togetherness that you have to have between returning lettermen and portal transfers to create the synergy, the chemistry and the bonding that you must have to build a successful program. We all have to solve that question. We all have to find a way, at least for this year and the next couple."

-- Coach Terry Bowden on quarterback Rhett Rodriguez

"Being the veteran guy, change is hard. I talk to other veterans all the time and with the way Coach Bowden presented a dream to us, we bought in quickly. He came from very successful programs, so he has a clear vision and paints an image for us. We go back, we look at it, we study it, and we come back to practice and try to do what we learned the day before."

-- Defensive end Ty Shelby

Chalk talk The Warhawks went 0-10 a year ago and have recorded more than six wins in a season just once since 1993. ... Arizona transfer Rhett Rodriguez is expected to claim the starting quarterback job. The son of offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez, the younger Rodriguez threw for 578 yards and 3 touchdowns in 9 appearances across four seasons with the Wildcats. ... Junior wide receiver Perry Carter caught 22 passes for 312 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2020. ... Sophomore LB Traveion Webster led Louisiana-Monroe with 37 solo tackles.

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