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ASU: Tight team means better team

by Erick Taylor | August 5, 2023 at 2:19 a.m.
Ethan Hassler

JONESBORO -- There may be a few things that Arkansas State University's football team will have to brush up on before taking the field Sept. 2 against Oklahoma for its season-opener, but camaraderie isn't expected to be one of them.

The Red Wolves insist there's plenty of that entrenched on this year's team.

"Our connectivity has really been amazing," defensive lineman Ethan Hassler said during ASU's annual media day Friday at the Centennial Bank Athletics Operations Center. "Just getting to know everybody on the team, getting to know everybody's story. ... It's been a great thing for us."

That team affinity was on display throughout the event as the Red Wolves took a breather of sorts during the early portion of the day to take photos and speak with media members before congregating for a team meeting later in the afternoon.

However, connectivity was a popular term permeating throughout the center's auditorium, and Hassler wasn't the only one using it.

Red Wolves Coach Butch Jones, offensive coordinator Keith Heckendorf and defensive coordinator Rob Harley all talked about how the comradeship has been one of the driving forces behind the team during the offseason following its 3-9 season. All three are banking on that closeness to help ASU return to its winning ways this season in what's expected to be a competitive Sun Belt Conference.

"We have great character in our football program," said Jones, who's entering his third season with the Red Wolves. "We also have competitive character, and we really stress the connectivity. We've got a group of people that really like each other.

"One of the foundations of teams is trust, and I think they trust each other. They like playing with each other, they like being on the field, they like being off the field. But I think it's that connection that we spend an inward amount of time on fostering that in the offseason and even throughout the course of training camp."

Training camp for ASU officially opened Tuesday for player report day, and the first practice took place Wednesday when the team worked out for more than two hours.

According to Hassler, those sessions are just a portion of what he said has been brewing for quite some time.

Jones mentioned last month during the Sun Belt Conference media day that the culture at ASU is much different than it was in his first two seasons, and every player who spoke Friday alluded to that shift. Many of them also acknowledged how that turn has been received favorably by everyone in the program.

"Just going into the locker room feels different now," said Hassler, who had 26 tackles with three sacks a year ago and is the team's lone returning starter along the defensive front. "It's not a lot complaining or anything. Everybody just wants to put their head down and work, and that's what we need to take the next step."

The step-by-step process for the Red Wolves is one that was strategic. Recruiting, both through the high school ranks as well as the transfer portal, has allowed ASU to build quality depth. That in turn has made for intriguing position battles that could last for the duration of fall camp.

"We're doing more of what we call two-spot than we ever have," Jones said. "We had not been able to do that, so what that means is we have the same drill going on two separate fields. When we're doing pass shell, 7-on-7, we actually have two of those going.

"So you've got to have four groups that can go if we go to a team period. You have to have that depth to be able to practice that way, and what that does is it gives your younger players those reps you learn through repetition. You can only sit in meetings for so long."

Heckendorf seconded Jones' assessment of the team's depth. He's sure to have options at the skill spots, starting at quarterback, where transfer J.T. Shrout, redshirt freshman Jaxon Daily and true freshmen Jaylen Raynor, Christian Hunt and Will Prichard will vie for the starting job.

"We're in a way different place in practice 1 and practice 2 in Year 3 than what we were in Year 1," Heckendorf said. "And that's encouraging. That's fun to see because you can then dive into the details even more, and you can take the level of teaching from what to do and get into more of how to do it. More importantly, get into why you're doing it."

All of that is being applied to get ASU ready to hit the road to face the Sooners on the first weekend in September.

"I can't wait," offensive lineman Jacob Bayer said. "We've got more depth now, and we're all putting the work in. We're all on one accord, all playing for each other. So we're making sure we're doing the things necessary to put us in the best position to go out, compete and win games."

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