JONESBORO -- Throughout Arkansas State University's preseason camp, Coach Butch Jones has repeatedly said he doesn't want to put a time frame on his quarterback competition.
Come Saturday evening, though, there will only be one quarterback on the field for the Red Wolves.
Jones still wouldn't reveal his Week 1 starter during Tuesday's news conference despite publicizing all 21 other first-teamers through ASU's first depth chart of the season. Redshirt senior James Blackman and redshirt junior Layne Hatcher have split reps up to this point, and Jones believes that having the competition leading into the Red Wolves' opener against the University of Central Arkansas puts his team in a position of strength.
"I've been through a lot in terms of quarterback battles," Jones said. "I've seen the good come from it and I've seen the bad come from it. Whoever doesn't run out for the first series, I know they're going to be disappointed but they're not going to be discouraged, and they're going to keep working."
Since coming to ASU after one season as a walk-on at Alabama in 2018, Hatcher has played a significant role in nearly every game. He replaced Logan Bonner as the starter in Week 2 of the 2019 season, starting every game the rest of that year. Then he split snaps with Bonner last year.
But if it's Blackman who's on the field for the opening series Saturday, then the job is likely his until further notice. Jones said he wants his quarterback to be able to establish "continuity," especially with an offense that appears set at all five starting skill spots.
"One thing I don't like to do is disrupt rhythm," Jones said. "If a young man makes a mistake and you're pulling him out right away, what does that do? That creates hesitancy, and we just want them to relax and perform at a high level."
Into the portal
The Red Wolves' initial two-deep revealed a big shakeup on the offensive line.
Offensive tackle Nick Lewis, who had been working at left tackle early in camp after transferring to ASU from Kentucky this offseason, has entered the transfer portal and is no longer with the Red Wolves.
Lewis' departure prompted three changes to ASU's presumptive first team. Andre Harris Jr. shifted from left guard to left tackle, and Ivory Scott flipped sides, moving from right guard to left guard in Harris' stead.
Redshirt senior Justin Dutton will now slide into Scott's former spot as the Red Wolves' starting right guard. The Guthrie, Okla., native started two games each of the past two seasons.
With Ethan Miner at center and Austin Peay transfer Robert Holmes set at right tackle, ASU can go into game week knowing who will be manning the trenches.
"New positions come with new challenges," Scott said. "We've just handled [all the movement] together. ... We made sure to tell one another what to expect and we're learning off each other going from position to position."
Playing with chip
It's only fitting that four of the Red Wolves' expected defensive first-teamers didn't make a start for ASU last season. Perhaps it's even more appropriate that three of those are newcomers to Jonesboro entirely after transferring in this offseason.
That doesn't make the group any less willing to improve upon one of the worst units in all of FBS last season.
"We're not trying to be good for Arkansas State or good for the Sun Belt. We're trying to be great across the board," said defensive end Kivon Bennett, who will make his Red Wolves debut this weekend after spending the last four years at Tennessee. "Probably, some of the guys weren't used to working this hard [before Jones' arrival], but you've got to understand that we're trying to reach this level of greatness, not just to be an all right football team."
There is familiarity up the middle with Terry Hampton and Vidal Scott manning the two defensive tackle spots and Caleb Bonner behind them at linebacker. But Bonner will have a new partner in Dane Motley, a redshirt sophomore from Alpharetta, Ga., who appeared in only three games a year ago and made just two tackles.
Boston College transfer Denzel Blackwell is also set to make his first career start, holding down the outside cornerback spot opposite Jarius Reimonenq. North Texas transfer Joe Ozougwu will bookend the line along with Bennett.
'It's never about me'
For a decade, Butch Jones found himself in a familiar position come fall Saturdays: coaching a football team.
Three seasons at Central Michigan, three at Cincinnati and then five years at Tennessee -- different spots, yes, but doing the same thing.
Really, it goes all the way back to 1993 when Jones began as offensive coordinator at Wilkes University.
Although he wasn't out of the game the last three seasons -- Jones served as an analyst for Nick Saban at Alabama -- ASU's opener will mark Jones' return to being a head coach.
That isn't something Jones has spent much time thinking about.
"It's never about me," he said. "I've been challenging myself to teach [our players] every single day what elite programs do and how you go about it to become an elite player."
Jones hasn't tried to change much about the way he operates. Rather, he's made it a goal to elevate the standards in Jonesboro.
"People who leave Alabama [make the mistake of trying] to make their next place Alabama," Jones said. "There's only one Alabama. You can't copy and paste a culture.
"What you try to do is take the things your program needs, and every program is different."