For those of you who don't know much about Arkansas State or the Sun Belt Conference, know this: The Red Wolves have a new coach running the show and the energy surrounding the team is big as ever.
Hugh Freeze ascends from offensive coordinator to head coach this season, replacing Steve Roberts who was dismissed following a 4-8 2010 season. Freeze understands the excitement building around the program, mainly because the team returns all of its offensive starting skill position players that helped the Red Wolves average 30 points and 403.4 yards of offense per game last season, while bringing in former Arkansas and Georgia Tech coordinator Dave Wommack to call the defense.
"It has been a whirlwind of an experience with all of the A-State nation. We are very thrilled with all of the excitement here," Freeze said during the SBC Media Days. "Comes with that a burden I carry because I don't want to let these kids down or this staff. This is a tough conference and anyone can win any day. We share the excitement with the fans as a staff and players."
The media and coaches were not as sold on ASU as the local fan base is though, voting the Red Wolves fifth out of nine teams, though they did receive one first place vote after finishing 4-4 in conference games last season.
The offense does return seven starters including the reigning first-team All-Sun Belt quarterback in Ryan Aplin, but only bring back one starter along the offensive line, senior center Tom Castilaw, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility and returns to anchor the middle. Senior Dwayne Frampton along with juniors Allen Muse and Taylor Stockemer return at receiver for the Red Wolves. Tight end Kedric Murray and tailback Derek Lawson also return as starters from last years to help ASU's balanced attack that was able to garner 149.1 yards a game on the ground in 2010 and 254.3 through the air.
The Red Wolves welcome back seven other starters on the defense that ranked 105th in the country last season, allowing 30.8 points and 437.1 yards per game. This season the defense is swapping to the 4-3-5 scheme employed by Wommack that features four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs, usually two safeties, two corners and a nickel. Back are senior strong safety Kelcie McCray, the team's leading returning tackler with 79 stops and two interceptions and senior linebacker Demario Davis who also had two interceptions to go along with 63 tackles.
"We can't wait to get started. Our upperclassmen and guys that have been through spring ball share that same feeling," Freeze said. "We've enjoyed our summer camps and time with recruits that came to campus but certainly getting ready to get started with our family like the other teams in the Sun Belt will be doing shortly here in August."
• Arkansas State may have one of the most experienced core group of receivers in the country in 2011. Senior preseason all-conference selection Dwayne Frampton led the team in receptions and yards in 2010 with 69 catches and 738 yards followed by the two juniors in Allen Muse (42 catches, 635 yards) and Taylor Stockemer (34 catches, 560 yards). Freeze is hoping his receivers will put up even bigger numbers in the second year of his offense.
"Last year we got 75 percent of the stuff we will do installed and had good success with that," Freeze said. "We did some good things but it wasn't great success. I thought we left a lot of points out there."
• Prior to his arrival at Arkansas State, Freeze coached two seasons at Lambuth University, compiling a 20-5 record over the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Before that he was the interim head coach at the University of Mississippi in November of 2007 and was an assistant coach on the Rebels staff from 2005-2007. He was named the Rebels recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach before the 2006 season after originally serving as Assistant Athletic Director of Football External Affairs upon his arrival in Oxford. He coached receivers in 2007.
Before coaching at Ole Miss, Freeze was the head coach of Briarcrest High School in Tennessee where he compiled a 99-23 record and two state championships. He was the coach of current Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher, who was portrayed in the blockbuster movie The Blindside.
"I kind of like that. That is something that hopefully will stick with me for a long time," Freeze said of his portrayed part of the movie. "I hope it's not the only thing I'm known for but I do hope it sticks with me. Glad to help with success in Michael Oher."
Spotlight On September: Arkansas State starts with a bang traveling to the University of Illinois on Sept. 3 where it will play the Fighting Illini inside Memorial Stadium. Last season the Red Wolves opened up at Auburn, the eventual National Champion. ASU also has a Sept. 17 visit to Blacksburg, Va. where they will take on Virginia Tech in Lane Stadium.
Keys To Success: The players are still trying to perfect systems on both sides of the ball, which will take a little more from the defense since the offense installed most of its packages and plays last season and this past spring. Redshirt Junior quarterback Ryan Aplin must show excellent decision making and get the ball into the hands of the teams solid core of receivers. The defensive line, led by seniors Brandon Joiner and Dorvus Woods, must put pressure on opposing quarterbacks to force bad throwing decisions into a Red Wolves secondary that returns three of five starters.
Areas Of Concern: The offensive line will have four new starters, which could spell problems for the skill players if they don't have the blocking and timing to maneuver, especially early in the season. The Red Wolves had trouble stopping the run on defense a year ago allowing 206.9 rushing yards per game but are hoping a new system and some new pieces bring better results.
Quote To Note: "A guy that can really pull you together. One of the things we really talk about is family. That is the character of this team. It's not about individuals it's about coming together as a team. I know coach Freeze has our backs as a coach and we have his backs. That is what coach Freeze has really brought, the family atmosphere."-Arkansas State center Tom Castilaw talking about Hugh Freeze.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Head Coach:Hugh Freeze, first year at Arkansas State, 20-5 overall.
Most Important Player: QB Ryan Aplin-The 6-foot-1, 205 pound redshirt junior must stay healthy behind an inexperienced offensive line. In his first year as a full-time starter in 2010, Aplin threw for almost 3,000 yards and completed 61.5 percent of his passes last season while also rushing for 477 yards, second best on the team.
Breakout Star: RB Frankie Jackson-The 5-foot-9, 185 pound redshirt freshman had to sit out last season due to being academically ineligible. Coaches and players have raved about his abilities since he signed out of Capitol High School in Baton Rouge, La. in 2010. He rushed for 2,545 yards and 34 touchdowns as a high school senior and was ranked the No. 3 running back in the state of Louisiana by ESPN.com and was a three star recruit by Rivals.com. He was rated as the No. 35 overall player in the state of Louisiana and the No. 20 all-purpose back in the nation by Rivals.com and was also recruited by Memphis, Utah and Tulsa.
Newcomer To Watch: WR Joshua Jarboe-The 6-foot-3, 195 pound redshirt junior had 42 receptions for Northeast Mississippi Community College last year. He was a four-star recruit out of high school when he signed with Oklahoma, but never played a down for the Sooners after being dismissed by Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops in August of 2008 for a rap video that surfaced on YouTube. Jarboe then transferred to Troy were he sat out the 2008 season. In 2009 he caught 15 passes for 248 yards for the Trojans. He was dismissed by the Trojans before the 2010 campaign after multiple citations from Troy police.
"The offense isn't going to change from last year other than a few new additions," Freeze said. "Josh Jarboe and Franky Jackson, guys like that we are counting on to make impacts."
• LB coach Tom Allen came to Arkansas State in the spring to reunite with Freeze after the two coached together for two seasons at Lambuth. Allen comes to Arkansas State after spending last season as the defensive coordinator and linebacker coach at Drake, where he led the Bulldogs to an NCAA FCS No. 36 national ranking in total defense. He was part of two Mid-South Conference championships and Lambuth's 2009 squad produced the school's first undefeated regular season (11-0). Nationally, his 2009 defense ranked No. 4 in scoring defense, No. 7 in pass defense and sacks, No. 9 in total defense and No. 12 in third down conversions.
• QB coach and passing game coordinator Grant Heard most recently spent the 2008 and 2009 seasons as the offensive coordinator at Lambuth University, where he coached under Freeze. During the 2008 season, the Eagles offense accumulated 5,861 yards while becoming the No. 1 offense in the nation. The offense amassed 522 points on their way to becoming the third ranked scoring offense in the nation. That year, they also finished the season ranked fourth in the nation in passing efficiency.
• DL coach Chris Kiffin comes to Arkansas State after previous experience with teams such as USC, Nebraska, Mississippi, Idaho and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The younger brother of USC head coach Lane Kiffin and son of USC assistant head coach Monte Kiffin, joins the Red Wolf staff after most recently serving as an administrative assistant for the Trojans defense this past season.