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RED WOLVES REPORT: Quicker start on to-do list

by Mitchell Gladstone | September 9, 2021 at 2:25 a.m.

JONESBORO -- Pinpointing the source of Arkansas State University's first-half offensive issues from Saturday isn't a straightforward task.

The Red Wolves had piled up 214 yards -- good for 5.5 yards per play -- and four of their first six drives made it into Central Arkansas territory, with another ending at their own 49.

Yet when ASU headed into the locker room, the hosts were staring at a 7-6 deficit and had failed to find the end zone.

A 34-point second half covered up some of the flaws, but when the Red Wolves looked back at their Week 1 film, the offensive line was one of several concerns.

"When you throw the ball, [everything] is about keeping the integrity of the pocket," Coach Butch Jones said Tuesday. "There were a number of times where that integrity was compromised, and it's hard to sit back there as a quarterback when you're getting the pocket collapsed."

Although some of the numbers might not suggest it -- quarterback James Blackman completed 13 of 20 passes in the first half for 141 yards -- there was never a time when ASU's starter looked truly comfortable. He was sacked three times in the opening 30 minutes, with just two passes going for 20 yards or more and four drives of three plays or fewer.

Perhaps it was a consequence of the Red Wolves' last-minute offensive line shuffle. Nick Lewis, who transferred in from Kentucky in the offseason and was looking like a potential starter at left tackle, entered the transfer portal Aug. 31.

As a result, only center Ethan Miner and right tackle Robert Holmes played the season opener at the spot they'd practiced most frequently in camp, and right guard Justin Dutton slid into the lineup on short notice.

That's no longer an excuse for a quintet that remains atop the depth chart at their respective spots headed into Week 2.

"It was last minute, so it snuck up on a lot of us," left guard Ivory Scott said of Lewis' departure. "We just have to learn from each other and get comfortable with each other to better our chemistry. It'll take [us] a long way."

The same can be said of the entire offense. Jones' depth chart heading into Saturday's matchup with Memphis remains unchanged, all the way down to the "or" at quarterback.

"In the first half, it was nine out of 11 [guys playing together] or eight out of 11. Very rarely was it 11 out of 11," Jones said. "It was a combination of certain individuals breaking down on certain plays. When we talk about discipline to execute, all [the details] go into one play."

No more nerves

If it wasn't the offensive line that was the biggest factor in a sluggish start, then maybe it was a case of "performance anxiety."

Several ASU players mentioned in the lead-up to Week 1 that they were nervous -- be it because they had a larger role or were trying to make a good first impression on their new head coach.

It was certainly the case for wide receiver Corey Rucker, who wanted to do both.

"I wanted everything to be a big play," Rucker said of a first half in which he caught all three of his targets but managed only 33 yards. "I wanted to set the tone because obviously the last game (the 2020 finale against Louisiana-Monroe) I had a big game and I felt like I wasn't doing as much, so I started to let it get to me a little bit."

Jones mentioned in the postgame news conference Saturday that he didn't like the look he saw in his players' eyes during pregame warmups, adding that he felt like many of them had put "undue stress" on themselves to perform.

The question for the Red Wolves then becomes how to avoid that going forward, especially when they'll have the emotions of a rivalry game running high.

"You don't win the game when you run out of the tunnel," cornerback Jarius Reimonenq said of the advice he'd give to younger players to curb their nervous energy. "You're not going to run out the tunnel, do kickoff and then the final score is already 40-17. It doesn't work like that.

"I know I experienced it, too, just being so anxious to make the big play already and be up 28-0 instead of focusing on the rep at hand."

Who's under center?

When asked Saturday night if Layne Hatcher would be ASU's starting quarterback, Jones declined to name either Hatcher or Blackman as the starter. Instead, he expressed confidence in both players, adding that he wanted to evaluate the game film with the coaching staff first.

The Red Wolves didn't publicly announce a starter Tuesday when Jones met with reporters at his weekly news conference, and the depth chart suggested the same -- for a second straight week, it listed "James Blackman or Layne Hatcher," making quarterback the only undecided spot among ASU's 22 offensive and defensive starters.

"I like the approach of both individuals, which I wouldn't expect anything different," Jones said. "This is probably the best [quarterback competition I've seen] ... so again, we're going to compete this week and see where it goes."

Ignoring snap minimums, Pro Football Focus graded Hatcher as the 13th-best quarterback in Week 1 after his 12-for-12, 150-yard, 4-touchdown outing. Blackman was ranked among the bottom third of quarterbacks who played at least 37 snaps.

Remembering 9/11

ASU is planning several tributes for Saturday's game, which falls on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

There will be a moment of silence pregame and the Sound of the Natural State will honor the victims of 9/11 with its halftime show.

Additionally, there will be in-game recognition for individuals affected by the attacks and one flag will be planted on the south hills of Centennial Bank Stadium for each of the front-line heroes who were killed in the attacks.

Saturday’s game

MEMPHIS AT ARKANSAS STATE

WHEN 6 p.m.

WHERE Centennial Bank Stadium, Jonesboro

RECORDS Memphis 1-0; Arkansas State 1-0

TV None

Print Headline: Quicker start on to-do list

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