David Oku could have been running for the Tigers.
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn opponent preview. Week two brings Arkansas State to Auburn, a team coached last season by Gus Malzhan. There’s little doubt that the defending Sun Belt Champions will be itching to show their former coach a thing or two! However, new up and coming head coach Brian Harsin will have quite a few holes to fill, as the Red Wolves return just 12 starters from last season.
Prior to traveling to Auburn, Arkansas State tunes up next fall with Arkansas Pine-Bluff at home. After playing at Auburn, it’s a short week for the wolves as they have a Thursday night home game against Troy. Then Arkanas State plays at Memphis, at Missouri, Idaho, Louisiana-Lafayette, at South Alabama, at Louisiana-Monroe, Texas State, Georgia State, and at Bowling Green.
On offense, the Red Wolves return 7 starters, but they’ll be playing in their third new offense in three years. New coach Bryan Harsin was the offensive coordinator at Boise State from 2006-2010, as well as co-offensive coordinator with the Texas Longhorns since then. Harsin favors a multiple, pro-style offense with a thick playbook. Typically, he’s looking for matchup vulnerabilities, and will use an array of formations and unbalanced lines to get them. It’s a steep learning curve for the players, though, as we witnessed at Florida last season, struggling to perform for Boise camp guru Brent Pease.
The Red Wolves were an offensive juggernaut last season, rolling up 466 yards per game, including 206 on the ground. It’s hard to see if any of that will translate to the new offense. 1000-yard rusher David Oku returns for his senior season, but record-setting quarterback Ryan Aplin graduated. Four offensive line starters do return, as well as top receivers J. D. McKissic and Carlos McCants. Our first look at Harsin’s influence on the offense was in last year’s GoDaddy Bowl in Mobile. Kent State held the Red Wolves to just 285 yards in that one, and 17 points. Their previous 7 games they had been averaging 41 points per game. This doesn’t bode well for the Red Wolf offense’s second game of the season against Ellis Johnson’s defense.
Defensively, the Red Wolves return only five starters, and that’s on a unit that gave up 24.4 points per game. One main cog of the defense that does return is senior tackle Ryan Carrethers, who was in on 68 stops last season and was an all-Sun Belt performer. Junior linebacker Qushaun Lee returns after posting 100 tackles in 2012. Two corners with starting experience return as well. A familiar name coaches the Arkansas State defense, John Thompson, who’s had plenty of SEC experience.
The 2012 Red Wolves were decent on special teams and pretty good covering kicks, but struggled punting the football. In 2013, they’ll have to break in a new punter, possibly redshirt freshman Max Coffin. He’s the only guy actually listed as a punter on the current roster. Senior kicker Brian Davis returns, after a 17 for 21 year kicking field goals. Sophomore kick-off specialist Luke Ferguson also is back. The Red Wolves worked on returns this spring, after a lackluster return game in 2012.
Unit Matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Arkansas State offensive line: Auburn will likely go with a tackle rotation of Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Jeffery Whitaker. Dee Ford, Kenneth Carter and Nosa Eguae will be the primary ends. The Tigers have depth beyond those six guys, but none except Ford have distinguished themselves, either. They’ll be going up against a veteran Red Wolf line. Sophomore center Bryce Giddens started 11 games as a true freshman last season, and he’s the lightest member of the line at 265 pounds. Just about everyone else is over 300 pounds, and paved the way for a potent rushing attack in 2012. Expect seniors Steven Hauga, Aaron Williams and Cliff Mitchell to start somewhere on the line. It’s not necessarily worked out who’ll be the fifth starter in the season opener. Considering Auburn’s depth here, it’s Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Arkansas State backs: Auburn’s starting linebackers coming out of spring drills are sophomores Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Neither has a huge amount of game experience, and it’s a concern going into the season. Tennessee transfer David Oku headlines the Red Wolf attack, and he rushed for 1061 yards last season. Sophomore Michael Gordon had a big spring, and led all rushers in the Arkansas State spring game. Advantage: Arkansas State.
Auburn corners vs. Arkansas State receivers: Auburn is surprisingly deep at corner, and will need good play from starters Chris Davis and Jonathan Mincy to slow Arkansas State down. From all indications this spring, Auburn corners are tackling well. With the number of excellent returning wide receivers the Red Wolves have, expect Auburn reserves Jonathan Jones, Joshua Holsey and Ryan White to contribute also. For Arkansas State, sophomore J. D. McKissic is the headliner, having caught 103 balls last season, but he only averaged 9.9 yards per catch. That’s a lot of short throws, and he’s going against a veteran secondary that made a lot of tackles last season. Seniors Carlos McCants and Julian Jones combined for 22 catches last season off the bench. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Arkansas State secondary receivers and quarterback: I’m lumping “star” Justin Garrett in with the safeties, because Arkansas state will likely use a number of three and four receiver sets. This may be another game where one will see both stars on the field, Garrett and Robensen Therezie. Both have the speed to stay with wide receivers, and Therezie does have a cornerback background. Junior free safety Jermaine Whitehead has really come on this spring, so the real question is who will play strong safety. Right now, converted corner Joshua Holsey is atop the Auburn depth chart there, but senior Demetruce McNeal will return this fall and likely make a serious run. David Oku caught 20 balls out of the backfield last season, and sophomore Darion Griswold caught 10 from his tight end spot. That’s not a lot of catches returning from this group, although we might see a lot of McKissic lined up in the slot as a secondary receiver. With Ryan Aplin gone, the quarterback position is wide open. A telling sign is that sophomore Stephen Hogan was moved to quarterback this spring, and had the best of the competition in the spring game. Talk is that Arkansas State is looking at the possibility of a transfer or two coming in next fall, and incoming freshman Cameron Birse will also get a shot. A new, complicated offense, and quarterback issues are not good things to have early in the season! Advantage: Auburn.
Punting: Auburn returns senior punter Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can’t be returned. Clark had 70 punts for a 39.8 yard average, but only 5 were returned, for a total of 4 yards. For the Red Wolves, it’s totally up in the air who will punt next season. Kickers Brian Davis and Luke Ferguson are in the mix. In the spring game, each guy punted once. Ferguson for 50 yards and killed inside the 20, Davis for 39, and redshirt freshman Max Coffin for 36. The Red Wolves gave up 6.1 yards per return last season. Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn didn’t score enough to generate many kickoffs in 2012, but when they did, Cody Parkey nailed 33 of 48 of them for touchbacks. Arkansas State used both seniors Luke Ferguson and Brian Davis last season. Ferguson had 11 touchbacks on 46 attempts, and Davis had 7 on 30 attempts. When Parkey wasn’t putting the kickoff in the stands, Auburn gave up only 16.6 yards per return. Arkansas State gave up 19.0. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn’s Cody Parkey was 11 of 14 on field goal attempts, and perfect on his extra points. Brian Davis hit 17 of 21 field goals, but missed 3 extra points. Slight Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Arkansas State defensive line: Auburn’s starting A-Day unit of sophomore Greg Robinson, redshirt freshman Alex Kozan, junior Reese Dismukes, junior Chad Slade, and sophomore Patrick Miller looked dominant. In addition, the 2nd line did well against the starting D-line. For Arkansas State, senior Ryan Carrethers is going to be a force in the middle. Senior Amos Draper will likely start in the tackle rotation as well. Arkansas State is still looking for defensive ends, and a true freshman or two may well end up starting. Senior Eddie Porter can play defensive end, but he’s also needed at linebacker. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Arkansas State linebackers: Auburn finished spring with a trio of dangerous running backs, and more are on the way this fall in the incoming class. Junior Tre Mason is a 1000 yard incumbent, JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne wowed the A-Day crowd with his power and agility, and junior Corey Grant is a threat on the outside. In addition, the Tigers will have bruising senior H-back Jay Prosch paving the way. Expect Eddie Porter to be in the mix, and junior Qushaun Lee certainly will be the most experienced linebacker returning. Who’ll be filling in the other spot or two is still in question. The Gus Malzhan offense is hideously difficult for the defensive front seven to prepare for, and there will be youth galore up front for the Red Wolves. The only saving grace is that they practiced against this offense last season. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Arkansas State corners: Auburn’s starters on the outside post-spring are juniors Jaylon Denson and Trovon Reed, neither of who have done much previously on the field. Backups Sammie Coates and Ricardo Lewis should add an explosive dimension when they sub in. Arkansas State juniors Artez Brown and Andrew Tryon have experience, but neither is very big, which is a problem against the size Auburn will put on the field. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Arkansas State safeties: Auburn has some matchup nightmares as secondary receivers, starting with C. J. Uzomah and Quan Bray. Few safeties can keep up with either in a foot race. If a team puts extra corners in to shut that down, Auburn will run over them. Put in beefier safeties, and those guys will be wide open. The real question is who’ll pull the trigger for the Auburn offense. The QB competition is said to be neck and neck between junior Khiel Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace. Neither distinguished himself on A-Day. The race will become five-headed for a while when the newcomers arrive this fall. Junior Sterling Young is a veteran safety, and a good tackler. He’ll likely be joined by sophomore Chris Humes, who played a good bit as a true freshman last season. Regardless of who plays quarterback in this one, it’s Advantage: Auburn.
Twice in recent years, Arkansas State has come into Auburn and given the Tigers problems. However, neither time were the Red Wolves any threat to win the game, and that likely will be the same in 2013. The 2006 squad held Auburn to 13 first half points, and the 2010 unit gashed Ted Roof’s defense for 26 points. With this being game two, it’s hard to see any other result than Auburn running it up in preparation for the next three, Mississippi State, LSU and Ole Miss.
Prediction: The Tigers run wild on offense, and the defense preys on young Red Wolf quarterbacks. Tigers take this one easily, 59-13.
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