When Arkansas State University begins its season Sept. 4 hosting the University of Central Arkansas, the Red Wolves will have more than 50 new faces on their roster. With transfers, freshmen from the Class of 2021 and walk-ons, ASU has been transformed under first-year Coach Butch Jones.
"Roster management has been at the forefront of building the program," Jones said. "I've been really pleased and really impressed with our current team. The way they've embraced our newcomers and our culture -- our mentality, our capacity for work."
The Red Wolves are under the leadership of Jones and his staff after a 4-7 finish during Blake Anderson's seventh and final season in Jonesboro. With a bevy of newcomers and 15 returning starters, ASU was selected to finish second in the Sun Belt Conference's West Division after suffering its first losing season since 2010.
Jones, 53, was hired to replace Anderson in December. Since his arrival, the Red Wolves have bulked up in the weight room and developed under Jones' "4th and 1" program, a curriculum centered on personal growth.
"It feels like a whole new program in a positive way," redshirt junior offensive lineman Andre Harris said. "We're all here for the same goal. We all went 4-7 last year. We don't want to do that again."
Under center, redshirt junior Layne Hatcher is no longer tethered to platoon partner Logan Bonner -- who followed Anderson to Utah State -- but his status as the Red Wolves' starting quarterback remains unclear.
The passer from Pulaski Academy split duties with Bonner in 2020 and threw for 2,058 yards with 19 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He again faces competition in the ASU quarterback room, primarily from Florida State transfer James Blackman, who threw 43 touchdowns in 31 games from 2017-20 with the Seminoles. Also in the fold are Mississippi State transfer Allan Walters, and freshmen Wyatt Begeal and Carson Taumoepeau.
At Sun Belt Football Media Day on July 22, Jones explained his expectations for his starting quarterback.
"It comes down to winning football and that means consistency in performance," Jones said. "It's [going to be] the individual who can manage the game. At the quarterback position, you don't have to win the game. We have enough talented players around them. They just have to manage the game and get us in the right situation and not make catastrophic mistakes."
The Red Wolves lost 2020 leading rusher Jamal Jones to graduation, but return senior Marcel Murray and sophomore Lincoln Pare.
An injury limited Murray to five games last fall, when he rushed for 158 yards on 47 carries. Pare finished as ASU's second-leading rusher with 450 yards and a touchdown in nine games. The Red Wolves' stable of running backs also includes junior Isaiah Azubuike and transfer Alan Lamar (Yale).
Sophomore wide receiver Corey Rucker broke out with a 310-yard, four-touchdown performance against Louisiana-Monroe last season, and he figures to become a more prominent fixture in the ASU offense after the departure of Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Jonathan Adams.
Second-leading receiver Brandon Bowling also followed Anderson to Utah State, but senior Dahu Green returns after catching 32 passes for 542 yards and 5 scores. Sophomore Jeff Foreman and transfers Te'Vailance Hunt (TCU), Khyheem Waleed (Boise State) and Akeem Hayes (Kentucky) provide depth. Senior Reed Tyler returns at tight end after recording 22 catches for 265 yards and a touchdown in 2020.
"Everyone talks about balance," Jones said. "We want to be able to throw the football. That's where we've had some success. We've got to run the ball so we can run some run-action, play-action. Change the launch points."
With defensive coordinator Rob Harley in charge, ASU has transitioned to a four-down scheme, adding bodies and pressure at the line of scrimmage. The scheme change has increased roles for defensive linemen such as junior T.W. Ayers, and seniors Terry Hampton and Vidal Scott. Junior transfers Thurman Geathers (Louisville) and Joe Ozougwu (North Texas) also could help.
At linebacker, the Red Wolves will lean on seniors Caleb Bonner and Jeffmario Brown. Junior Anthony Switzler and senior Antonio Fletcher will anchor the secondary in a defense that expects to play differently in 2021.
"We're coming out with a new level of physicality and intensity," Ayers said. "We've really been emphasizing getting 11 guys to the ball and playing an extremely fast and physical style of defense. We're really bringing the pressure and making it hard on opposing offenses."