AUBURN, Ala. — Before traveling to Auburn to cover this weekend’s game, Matthew Roberson, the Arkansas State beat writer for The Jonesboro Sun in Jonesboro, Ark., took time to answer five questions about the Red Wolves.
Ryan Black: What have Arkansas State fans thought of all the coaching turnover the last few seasons? Do they view it with a sense of pride, knowing the nation's top conference felt two of their coaches (Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn) were the men to lead their programs? Or are they getting tired of welcoming a new coach seemingly every year?
Matthew Roberson: First, I'm not sure I understand your question. Isn't the Big Ten the nation's top conference? Ahhhh, just kidding.
Seriously, though, Arkansas State fans in general have been really torn about having their past two coaches bolt for the riches of the SEC. They understand the dynamics and business side of football, but for a program that has taken 20 years to reach any kind of significant relevance, losing its head coach two straight years has been very difficult to swallow.
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It's also different with how fans feel about Coach Freeze and Coach Malzahn. When Freeze left, many were disappointed but they understood and seemed to be more forgiving. When Ole Miss started winning last year, you heard more and more people take pride in the fact Freeze was ASU's coach, and people seemed to genuinely be excited for Freeze and the Rebels' success.
That probably won't be said about Coach Malzahn this year even if Auburn has success. ASU fans are bitter about his departure, not at Auburn but at Malzahn himself. The reason being that Malzahn made many statements claiming his loyalty to the school, the state of Arkansas and building something special at ASU only to bolt for The Plains less than two days after the season was over.
It's my guess that when Ole Miss and Auburn meet this season, Arkansas State supporters will be rooting for the Rebels.
Again, it's nothing personal for ASU fans with Auburn, but it is very personal for them with Malzahn.
Black: Keeping in line with the previous question, what are your thoughts on new head coach Bryan Harsin? How do his philosophies on offense/ defense compare to what Freeze and Malzahn ran? Also, how different is his personality on a day-to-day basis in relation to those two? More loose and fun? Buttoned-down and serious? Somewhere in-between?
Roberson: I wasn't sure what to think of Coach Harsin when he was first hired. Sure, I knew about the Boise State stuff and the calls he made in that infamous Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma, but I had never met him, talked to him and didn't have much feel for who he is or the type of football coach he is.
In the eight months that he's been here, I can say that I have enjoyed getting to know him and I do believe he'll turn out to be a good hire. He communicates extremely well, gives detailed answers to questions and appears to have a solid football knowledge and idea of what he wants to do with this program. He's pretty down to earth at times but always carries a level of professionalism with him. He'll crack a smile and joke, but he's a serious person and you can tell he's very serious about what he's doing.
Harsin's philosophy seems to differ somewhat from Freeze and Malzahn, departing from the hurry-up tempo to a team that can operate at any tempo at any time. He also seems to embrace a power running game more than the previous coaches. But, from the limited opportunities I've had to watch his team practice and play, it seems that he has also adopted some of the spread offense philosophies that Freeze and Malzahn used. It's more of a hybrid offense that is developing around the personnel that's here.
Over time, I believe he'll recruit a different type of athlete here and play a more conservative power football style. As far as his personality, I'd say he's in-between. He's not always business, but he is business a lot of the time. Still, he understands the importance of developing friendships and relationships with his players and the community. The players seem to have really embraced him, which makes me believe he is a player's coach.
Black: Aside from receiver J.D. McKissic and running back David Oku, who else will the Tigers have to be aware of Saturday if they want to slow the Red Wolves down offensively?
Roberson: All eyes should be on quarterback Adam Kennedy. He'll be the key to Arkansas State's success. I would expect Auburn to put seven or eight defenders in the box to stop the run and control the short passing game. That will force Coach Harsin to call on Kennedy to throw some medium and deep passes.
Kennedy is still a bit of an unknown at ASU. He replaces the two-time Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year in Ryan Aplin after transfering from Utah State and winning the starting job through an open competition in fall camp. Kennedy is one of those one-year transfers who had already graduated and was immediately eligible to play this season. He had some success at Utah State but his role here has been limited so far. I believe how he plays, how he handles himself and the crowd and the situation, will be key for ASU on Saturday night.
Black: Fill in the blank (and explain why): The defensive most valuable player for Arkansas State on Saturday will be _________.
Roberson: Qushan Lee is a hard-nosed linebacker that is the key to the ASU defense. He has a natural instinct for finding the football and blowing up plays whether it be the run or the pass. He's only 5-foot-11 but his 225 pounds are solid as a rock. If you ever got into a bar fight, he'd be a great wingman to have as some backup.
Lee was the Most Valuable Player of the GoDaddy.com Bowl last year, a crowning achievement during a sophomore season in which he really emerged as a playmaker.
There is one other player whom I must mention, though. I gotta add in here defensive end Ryan Carrethers. He's a fifth-year senior with a monstrous frame at 6-foot-2 and 330 pounds. He can pose all kinds of problems with his size and strength and is considered by many a lock for the NFL. Last week, Carrethers had eight tackles and 1 1/2 sacks in limited playing time.
If Lee isn't the guy for ASU this Saturday, I'm betting there's a very good chance that Carrethers is.
Black: How high are the expectations for the Red Wolves this season? Winning 20 games over the past two seasons, one would think they are pretty lofty, no?
Roberson: Expectations are high but they are somewhat tempered. After so much success the past two years, many fans are unsure of how long this run can go. Obviously, some believe it will continue with another 10 wins, bowl game and a top 25 ranking while others are more cautious and are hoping for seven or eight wins.
I think the biggest thing right now is people here just don't want to see the program suddenly go backward or show signs of unraveling. So much success has created higher expectations and that's a good thing. It's been enjoyable for me to watch, but so many years of disappointment are still fresh in most people's memories.
In general, the majority of fans I've talked to are hoping for an eight-win season and a bowl. I think they'd be happy with that. They seem to be a little reserved in their expectations, but still very excited about the season and the possibilities. However, anything less than seven wins would be a major disappointment.
In my preseason prediction, I forecast seven wins but I can see this team getting to eight with good quarterback play from Kennedy. There's a lot of talent on this team — some of it because of Malzahn — and the schedule isn't that difficult, so I just can't see Arkansas State regressing much. The loss of Aplin makes me believe there's probably one or two less wins out there, making nine or 10 wins unattainable.