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Wolves get taste of Jones

by Eli Lederman | March 10, 2021 at 2:47 a.m.

JONESBORO -- Tuesday's spring practice opener at Arkansas State University gave most of the Red Wolves their first taste of what practice is like under first-year Coach Butch Jones, but not junior quarterback Layne Hatcher.

Hatcher, then a walk-on at Alabama, overlapped with Jones during the first of his three years on the coaching staff of the Crimson Tide in 2018, so the first practice of the spring on the turf at Centennial Bank Stadium -- in structure, style and intensity -- felt familiar.

"There are a lot of similarities [to Alabama]," Hatcher said. "Some of the drills he's brought with him and the way practice is laid out is pretty similar.

"There was really good intensity and high energy. I loved practice today."

The Red Wolves returned to the field for the first of 15 spring practices under Jones, who replaced Blake Anderson in December. The 53-year-old head coach identified "efficiency" and dropped passes among the issues for ASU to work on, but he came away pleased with where his team stands.

The Red Wolves will practice without pads once more Thursday before gearing up for practice No. 3 on Saturday.

"Typical first day," Jones said. "A lot of energy. A lot of excitement. I was really pleased.

"Our players knew where they were going. They understood the culture and the expectations in practice. And they were excited. Now the challenge is to continue the momentum into the six practices before we break for spring break."

Hatcher returns this season after splitting time in 2020 with Logan Bonner, who transferred to join Anderson at Utah State. He will not have last season's leading wide receiver Jonathan Adams or lead running back Jamal Jones in 2021 as the Red Wolves lose five offensive starters from a year ago.

One remaining constant is offensive coordinator Keith Heckendorf, who was retained by Jones in January. Hatcher thrived with Heckendorf in charge in 2020, throwing for 2,058 yards and 19 touchdowns in an offense that finished second in the nation in passing yards per game and passing touchdowns. That offense now has input from Jones, a former offensive coordinator himself, and Hatcher expects another potent offense with a few new wrinkles.

"We basically just took what we had and added some things we liked to it, and it's been a really good transition for me," Hatcher said. "I really like the stuff we've added. I think it's going to mesh together really well, and it's really nothing crazy."

ASU enters spring camp thin at the offensive line position with only 17 offensive linemen on the spring roster. That lack of depth will be remedied when the remainder of the Red Wolves' class of 2021 joins the program in the summer.

"The big depth issue is up front in the offensive line," Jones said. "Being able to add a whole other class come June 1st is going to be big for us."

Jones and new defensive coordinator Rob Harley are tasked with turning around an ASU defense that allowed opponents 470.8 yards per game in 2020, the 14th-most among all defenses in the nation. The Red Wolves return their second and third leading tacklers from a year ago in seniors Elery Alexander and Jeffmario Brown, and nine defensive starters are back.

Jones has shifted the defense schematically from a 3-down alignment to a 4-down defense, placing four defensive linemen up front at all times. The change aligns with Jones' stated emphasis of creating "opponent sacks," and tipped balls and activity from the defensive line.

"I think it's them understanding what it takes to play great team defense," Jones said. "It's all 11 working together as one. We need to improve everywhere across the board."


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