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OAYP Sun Belt Preview: Arkansas State

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Jim Johnson breaks down the 2019 Arkansas State Red Wolves using his OAYP advanced metric.

It’s August and college football is just around the corner. To get ready for the Sun Belt season, I’ll be previewing each of the league’s teams through the prism of my OAYP advanced metric. In short, the formula takes each program’s opponent adjusted performance from 2018 and combines that score with the individual player scores that we have released throughout the offseason, in order to make it predictive.

These will be released in alphabetical order, so Arkansas State is up next.

Below you’ll find the team’s projected starting lineup, plus some key contributors, with each qualifying returnee’s marginal OAYP score, and Sun Belt position ranking. The players with OAYP scores and rankings listed are full qualifiers. Players with OAYP scores but not rankings listed were second tier qualifiers, but not meet the full qualifying threshold. Players with neither listed did not meet any qualifying threshold.

However, whereas the prior marginal OAYP rankings reflected each player’s number only relative to the Sun Belt, these scores are relative to Southern Pigskin’s entire coverage area -- so the ACC and SEC, as well. This should more accurately reflect a given player’s efficiency and value since the sample size now includes over 600 players, so especially strong or weak groups in any particular league won’t skew the rankings anymore.

Blake Anderson is back atop the program, but he’ll be joined this season by a new defensive coordinator and offensive staff. The Red Wolves failed to win at least a share of the league for just the second time since 2011 a season ago, so this is a program looking to prove that it’s still the class of the Sun Belt.

OFFENSE

2018 Offensive OAYP (Rank): -0.43 (5)
2019 Projected Offensive OAYP (Rank): -0.24 (5)
QB Ranking: 7
RB Ranking: 6
WR/TE Ranking: 1
OL Ranking: 6

According to OAYP, Arkansas State projects to have the best group of pass catchers in the Sun Belt. Though, surprisingly, the team’s and the league’s top returning receiver, Kirk Merritt, is scored well below average by OAYP. Admittedly, the metric has done a dicey job of evaluating slot receivers. The formula likes high yard per target averages and touchdown rates, both of which are good things, but there’s also plenty of value in reliable, efficient high volume targets like Merritt. Maybe next year I’ll separate primary slot guys into their own category, but for now this is what we’re left with. So, with that in mind, A-State’s receiving corps might be even better than OAYP thinks. Omar Bayless is a super steady #2 that was even more efficient than Merritt last year, and just needs to get into the end zone more to make the jump into the next tier of Sun Belt receivers. Meanwhile, the hyper explosive Jonathan Adams appears to be a potential breakout star, posting a >1.0 marginal OAYP, albeit on a secondary qualifying sample size. The real reason, though, that OAYP has this group as the best in the conference is tight end Javonis Isaac. After an up and down sophomore campaign in which Isaac missed three games, and produced sporadically but with flashes of dominance, 2019 could see him breakout out like Blake Mack did his junior year. Arkansas State’s offense may not be all that stylistically different, even with all of the coaching changes, but having to replace Justice Hansen behind center is a tall task. Then again, what can make a new quarterback’s life easier better than a big vertical threat at tight end, like Isaac, who led the Red Wolves last year in yards per catch, yards per target, success rate, marginal efficiency and explosiveness, and returns more touchdowns than any of their pass catchers, save Kirk Merritt?

And as far as that new quarterback, we don’t have nearly enough information to draw any meaningful conclusions, but if Hansen even rubbed off on him a little bit, he’ll be just fine with all those weapons.

The running game could also be better than OAYP thinks. A number of Sun Belt ball carriers felt pretty slept on by the formula, and Marcel Murray was one of them. He hasn’t flashed any truly elite traits, at least not yet, but he’s extremely well rounded, with no discernible weaknesses. It would be nice to see him work a little better between the tackles, but his ability as a pass catcher out of the backfield should also help to assuage any concerns about the new signal caller.

The offensive line is where there are some concerns. Subpar protection will obviously be magnified by a first year starter at quarterback, too, so there’s a world in which Arkansas State’s passing game goes south in a hurry. Even last year, the pass protection was not nearly as good as the run blocking, which was among the best in college football. Center Jacob Still is the only one with a positive marginal OAYP score, and even he is ranked as only the fifth best player in the league at the position. This offense has been right around 50-50 run-pass the last two years. It might be time to get back to running the ball like some Arkansas State teams of yesteryear.

DEFENSE

2018 Defensive OAYP: 0.36 (2)
2019 Projected Defensive OAYP: 0.31 (3)
EDGE Ranking: 3
DL Ranking: 1
LB Ranking: 5
CB Ranking: 3
S Ranking: 3

Arkansas State is going to be S-T-O-U-T up the gut. Forrest Merrill is arguably more impactful for Arkansas State on a down to down basis, but OAYP is, in part, a sort of playmaker index for defensive players, and Kevin Thurmon was nothing if not a playmaker in 2018. These two have a mutually beneficial relationship, to be sure. Merrill is a cement block of a man at nose guard who eats double teams for breakfast, and still managed to put up 14 run stuffs, which was third on the team only behind Thurmon and Ronheen Bingham. Thurmon, meanwhile, took advantage of the attention that Merrill draws to rack up 15.5 stuffs, more tackles for loss than any Sun Belt returnee, and the most total QB pressures of any returning interior defender in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

Though Bingham is gone, the defense should have yet another threatening edge presence, as well. William Bradley-King has some big shoes to fill as A-State has boasted the inarguable best edge rusher in the conference for each of the past three seasons: Ja’Von Rolland-Jones in 2016 and 2017, and then Bingham last year. In some ways, though, it’s easy to see him successfully carrying on their legacy. It wasn’t all that surprising when Bingham broke out in 2018, since Joe Cauthen had done such a good job getting him rotational reps the year prior. Cauthen is gone, but he left behind similar experience for Bradley-King. With the best returning interior D-line duo in the league, Bradley-King is simply the next man up.

Behind that group, Tajhea Chambers leads the linebacking corps after finishing with 76 tackles, 7.5 for a loss, 12 run stuffs, a fumble recovery that he took back 34 yards to paydirt, and the second highest coverage grade among returning SBC linebackers. After missing most of 2017, he now has a full season of upper echelon play under his belt, and the potential is there for a Bryan London-esque final two years to his career. This is purportedly the weakest link of the defense, which speaks volumes about how good the unit could ultimately be.

The only returning cornerback in the league that allowed a lower passer rating on throws into his coverage than Georgia Southern star Kindle Vildor did last year is Jerry Jacobs, with a 47.1 passer rating allowed. He also returns the second most passes defended, behind Vildor, and tied him for the lead in picks, among returnees. I don’t necessarily feel like OAYP underrated his partner Jeremy Smith, because it is a really strong year for the position, both in the conference and nationally, but, in any case, those two could break through and rival even the units in Statesboro and San Marcos.

At safety, Darreon Jackson was a tackling machine in 2018, totaling 15 more than any other returning defensive back in the conference. With Edmonds holding it down on the backend, he and Justin Clifton were free to roam closer to the line of scrimmage and it paid off. Jackson ended up with 6.5 tackles for loss, a pair of sacks, and 9 run stuffs. This attacking style of play from their defensive backs also helped Arkansas State to rank in the national top ten in passes of 10+ yards allowed. Almost a hybrid linebacker a lot of the time, Jackson needs to improve in coverage to crack into the next tier of Sun Belt safeties, but don’t be surprised if that happens this season.

There are questions that need answering at almost every level of the defense, as well as for new coordinator David Duggan, but there are also legitimate all-conference caliber players at every level of the defense. Those guys are too good to let this unit flounder, but answering those questions will be the difference between it being good and great.

POSITION GROUP RANKINGS

1. Pass Catchers
2. Defensive Line
3. Safeties
4. Edge Defenders
5. Cornerbacks
6. Linebackers
7. Running Backs
8. Offensive Line
9. Quarterback

TOP 100 PLAYERS

These are the athletes listed in my annual preseason ranking of the 100 best players in the Sun Belt, which combines my personal opinion and the eye test with the OAYP metric.

12. DL Forrest Merrill
24. EDGE William Bradley-King
28. WR Kirk Merritt
29. CB Jerry Jacobs
34. RB Marcel Murray
36. DL Kevin Thurmon
39. TE Javonis Isaac
42. S BJ Edmonds
45. S Darreon Jackson
65. LB Tajhea Chambers
68. WR Omar Bayless
78. P Cody Grace
79. C Jacob Still
89. OG Andre Harris Jr.
94. OT Nour Eddine-Seidnaly
95. CB Jeremy Smith

CONFERENCE SCHEDULE

Home field advantage could play an integral role in the success or failure of Arkansas State in 2019. For example, while Troy would be a small favorite over the Red Wolves on a neutral field, if that game was in Jonesboro, Arkansas State would actually be the small favorite, using The Action Network’s adjustments, which have been factored into all of these games, throughout the previews. Per that study, Arkansas State actually has the biggest home field advantage in the Sun Belt and the third biggest in college football. So, with half of their conference schedule projected to be decided by less than a score, the A-State faithful ought to hope that holds true in their favor. Georgia Southern, too, would be favored on a neutral site, but that game is actually in Jonesboro, pushing the Red Wolves into the green. Louisiana is another one that, while Arkansas State would be picked to win by on a neutral field, home field advantage pushes it to almost a touchdown line. As long as this team takes care of business at home, and in the division, as OAYP thinks it will, they should find themselves competing for a Sun Belt title when it’s all said and done.

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