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A-State’s Overshadowed Defense

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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There aren’t many teams in all of college football that have the guns to withstand and keep pace with that group. The question is, when they come across an opponent that does, whether or not they can get the necessary stops to achieve what they’ve been projected to do.

Arkansas State has, yet again, been picked to win the Sun Belt Conference, in the preseason, and rightfully so. Head Coach Blake Anderson and the Red Wolves seemingly have an offensive juggernaut on their hands, with key starters returning across all fronts from what was arguably one of the best 20 units in the country, on that side of the ball.

There aren’t many teams in all of college football that have the guns to withstand and keep pace with that group. The question is, when they come across an opponent that does, whether or not they can get the necessary stops to achieve what they’ve been projected to do.

Gone are all but a handful of starters from what was a fairly inconsistent group to begin with, including stalwart linebacker Kyle Wilson, playmaking cornerback Blaise Taylor, defensive spearhead Dee Liner, and one of the truly great players in all of recent college football history, Ja’Von Rolland-Jones.

Everything starts up front for Joe Cauthen’s squad, as they try to replicate the sort of defensive line play that ended up with the second highest havoc rate in the nation.

“I don't know that any one guy is going to step in and take over where Rolland-Jones stepped out or where Caleb Caston was,” Anderson prefaced. “We took the approach several years ago to build depth on the defensive line and throw fresh bodies out there. I think the productivity will come from the group. I expect Ronheen Bingham to have a great year. I expect somebody to emerge and have a great year. But, more than anything, the group keeps them fresh, so they don’t have to play too many snaps and that has been a good formula for us the last couple seasons.”

Bingham, indeed, is poised for a breakout year. Just a season ago he posted a top five pass rush productivity ranking among draft eligible edge rushers, even a few spots ahead of Rolland-Jones, among others. With an increased workload, it’s reasonable to expect his efficiency to come back to earth, somewhat, but if he can even remotely maintain the level he was at, he will be one of the best players in the league, if not the country.

Bingham aside, two more defensive linemen allowed a sub-20% success rate, last year: Christian Howard and Hunter Moreton. The latter, especially, going into his sophomore campaign, may be one of those emerging guys that Anderson hinted at.

There may be more questions than answers at linebacker and cornerback, right now, but make no mistake, the secondary is not a total question mark. B.J. Edmonds is  bastion of consistency at safety, and do-it-all defensive back Justin Clifton is in the absolute top tier of SBC talents.

“I think the safety position is deeper and more stable than it was last year, we were really inexperienced. The biggest concern for us is corner. Blaise is gone, Wagner took a lot of snaps at corner as well. The other one is middle linebacker. Kyle Wilson, he’s with the Eagles now, so how do those two positions solidify and calm down? How quickly can we do that?” Anderson asked. “Those are the biggest questions. Now, we have talent in those rooms, we just don't have a lot of experience. We’ve got tremendous experience at safety and the D line is solid, those are the two spots that will have to step up quickly and determine the kind of success we have defensively.”

An apt assessment from one of the best coaches in the league, Arkansas State must absolutely start fast -- Alabama is on the docket, week two, and an even respectable showing could work immediate wonders for both the national perception of the program and the league, at large.

Outside of maybe ULM, Arkansas State’s offense ought to be able to carry it through its division.

However, to live up to the hype that has been placed upon them, once again, it will take a little more.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP