NCAA Football Preview - Arkansas State Red Wolves

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Updated: 8/18 9:58 am

The season did not get off to a great start for the Red Wolves, as they lost four of their first seven games, but fortunately only one of those setbacks came at the hands of a Sun Belt foe (vs. Louisiana on Oct. 22, 23-7).

ASU picked things up in November with four consecutive wins over South Alabama (17-16), ULM (42-14), Texas State (38-21) and Georgia State (35-33). It had a chance to win the conference title outright in the regular season finale but fell flat at Western Kentucky (34-31), to finish 5-2 in the Sun Belt to split the championship with Louisiana.

For the third straight season, ASU played in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, and for the second consecutive year it came away victorious by downing Ball State, 23-20, to wrap up 8-5 overall.

ASU has become a hot bed for coaching talent, and for the fourth year in a row it will enter the season with a first-year head coach. Hugh Freeze left after the 2011 season for Ole Miss, Gus Malzahn bolted after 2012 for Auburn, and this past offseason Bryan Harsin took the job at Boise State. Now the team will turn to Blake Anderson, who spent the past two seasons as the offensive coordinator for North Carolina.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Although the Red Wolves were stellar offensively a season ago, putting up 29.2 ppg and 407.8 ypg, they will be in for some adjusting with less than half the starters from 2013 returning.

Quarterback Adam Kennedy has moved on, but the team wasn't exactly reliant on high-caliber play at the position anyway -- he completed 69.2 percent of his passes but threw for just 181.8 ypg with 11 touchdowns and six picks. Taking over as the starter will be Fredi Knighten, who saw some action last year with seven scores (five rushing).

While Michael Gordon only had the third-most carries on the team, he emerged as the most explosive rushing option, finishing with 754 yards (6.7 ypc) and 10 touchdowns. With a full-time work load on the horizon, he could emerge into one of the league's best.

The team lost three of its five top pass-catchers but retains the leader in J.D. McKissic (82 receptions, 662 reception, four TDs), a sure-handed wideout who already has 185 catches heading into his junior season.

Tight end Darion Griswold (24 receptions, 312 yards, three TDs) is also back in the mix, as is guard Tyler Greve and center Bryce Giddens.

DEFENSE: ASU's defense was one of the Sun Belt's best both in terms of points allowed per game (26.2 ppg) and takeaways (21), and unlike the offense, the unit welcomes back a strong core with eight returning starters.

"We need (the defense) to play like veterans and experienced players," Anderson said. "There's a lot of bodies over there that have more reps than what (we) have on offense. The pressure is on them to stand up."

The team's most dynamic player occupies the middle, as linebacker Qushaun Lee was named the Preseason Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year after tallying 134 tackles, 6.0 TFL, two forced fumbles and an interception in 2013.

The Red Wolves welcome back all four starters in the secondary. Sterling Young is a hard-hitting safety (80 tackles) and was a game-changer in the takeaway battle as well (three fumble recoveries, two INTs). Chris Humes (55 tackles), Rocky Hayes (46 tackles, three INTs) and Artez Brown (39 tackles, INT) round out arguably the league's best defensive backfield.

Chris Stone (9.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) and Dexter Blackmon (6.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks) generated a solid push up front, but both will attempt to increase their modest sack totals.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Luke Ferguson will take over the place kicking duties for Brian Davis. Paul Jones (41 punts, 38.4-yard average) held the punting job last year but could be beaten out by Ferguson.

In addition to being a high-volume pass-catcher, McKissic pulls double duty as the primary return man. He picked up 774 return yards in 2013, including a 98- yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Idaho.

OUTLOOK: ASU has gone through a unique situation during this decade, as the seniors are experiencing their fourth coach in as many years, but to the program's credit, it has not skipped a beat in remaining one of the conference favorites throughout all the turnover. Anderson brings impressive credentials from UNC and is expected to pick up right where Freeze, Malzahn and Harsin left off.

"I'm ecstatic to be here at Arkansas State," Anderson said. "This program's recent accomplishments are very impressive. There is a great tradition here and the fan base is outstanding, so my family and I are excited to be a part of all the wonderful things happening with Arkansas State."

The Red Wolves will certainly be among the league's best once again in 2014, especially considering their strong defense and explosive offensive playmakers in Gordon and McKissic. Competing with Louisiana is going to a tough task -- the Ragin' Cajuns bring back 18 starters to a team that won nine games a year ago -- but ASU will be in the mix down to the wire and should earn bowl eligibility once again.

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