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ASU looks to replace key cogs

by Eli Lederman | March 18, 2021 at 2:30 a.m.

JONESBORO -- From the arrival of new Coach Butch Jones to the introduction of recently named Athletic Director Tom Bowen, change has been common at Arkansas State University since the conclusion of the 2020 football season.

That turnover extends to the Red Wolves' offense.

ASU enters 2021 missing five starters from an offense that finished No. 14 in the nation with 489.7 yards per game. Those departures include 2020's top pass catcher Jonathan Adams and last season's leading rusher Jamal Jones, leaving Jones and offensive coordinator Keith Heckendorf searching this spring for new offensive cogs.

"We're starting from ground zero in figuring out who our playmakers are," Jones said. "Who are going to be the individuals that we need to get the football to? That will continue to be evaluated as the spring goes on. But I think we have a lot of capable individuals."

Junior quarterback Layne Hatcher is among ASU's few proven offensive returners after he threw 19 touchdowns while splitting starting duties with Logan Bonner, who joined former coach Blake Anderson at Utah State in the offseason. Hatcher stands as one of only three quarterbacks on the Red Wolves' spring roster.

He enters 2021 as the likely starter despite the expected arrival of Florida State transfer James Blackman in the fall.

"I feel really great about where we are," he said. "I'm not worried about the guys we lost. There's nothing you can do about it, so you can't worry about it. I'm really confident in the guys we have."

Hatcher and ASU will be without Adams and his 79 receptions from a year ago, as well as second-leading receiver Brandon Bowling, who caught seven touchdowns in 2020 before tranferring to Utah State.

Impact returners at the position are senior Dahu Green, who caught 32 passes for 542 yards last fall, and a pair poised to rise into larger roles in sophomore Corey Rucker and junior Jeff Foreman. The duo flashed their potential in the season finale against Louisana-Monroe, when Rucker caught 9 passes for 310 yards and 4 touchdowns. Foreman went for 144 yards and two scores of his own.

The Red Wolves will require each to step up in the passing game in 2021 in a receivers group that could be further strengthened by transfers in sophomore Khyheem Walled (Boise State) and junior Te'Vailance Hunt (TCU).

"We still have a lot to get better at," Foreman said. "It's a very special group. We have a lot of talent that's come in, and we have to keep up the tradition of Receiver U at Arkansas State."

Senior tight end Tyler Reed remains after hauling in 22 passes for 265 yards in 2020. He's joined by freshman Seydou Traore, the 6-4 tight end from London who arrived at ASU this offseason with raw talent.

"We're excited to see what Seydou can do," Jones said. "He's kind of sipping through a fire hose right now."

Jones emphasized the importance of the Red Wolves' running game Tuesday with sophomore Lincoln Pare and senior Marcel Murray expected to carry the load. Pare rushed for 450 yards and a touchdown as a freshman last fall before his season was cut short by a dislocated elbow, and leg and ankle injuries limited Murray's junior season to only five games and 47 carries.

Both have received early recognition from Jones during spring camp, with the 53-year-old coach saying that he's beginning to see the same Murray who ran for 860 and 820 yards, respectively, when healthy in 2018 and 2019. Each running back has already been limited by injury in spring camp, posing questions about durability and offering chances for senior transfer Alan Lamar (Yale) and junior Isaiah Azubuike.

"The big thing right now is we're fighting the durability issue [at running back]," Jones said. "It's an opportunity for others to get those quality reps."

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