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Replacing Rolland-Jones

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Despite having only started two games, Ronheen Bingham is already one of the Sun Belt's best players.

“At the end of the day, we're going to show up. We're going to turn a lot of heads this season.”
~Ronheen Bingham

Ronheen Bingham’s arrival to college football was accompanied by little fanfare. Just a two-star prospect, the first couple of years of his career were spent at Hutchinson Community College, in Kansas.

Granted, a handful of eventual NFL players had spent some time with the Blue Dragons, including Markus Golden, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Alvin Kamara, but Golden was the only one of the three to have enrolled there as a freshman.

As a sophomore at the junior college, Bingham earned first team all-conference honors, and caught the eye of a handful of FBS coaches, after posting 85 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, and six sacks.

“Coach (Brian) Early came to watch me play and he saw something in me,” Bingham recalled. “I believed in the things that he was saying.”

At that point, still underrated as 247’s #12 JUCO outside linebacker, the South Carolina-native chose the Red Wolves over a host of schools including Colorado, Bowling Green, and Utah State.

“I just felt like it was family oriented,” he explained. “When I took my visit I felt like I could see myself playing here, and also just how Coach Early trains us to be with our technique. He said if I do what I'm supposed to do then I could come in and have an immediate impact, so I just had to work hard and be able to produce how he wanted me to.”

Early’s bet paid dividends right away. Despite not starting but two contests, he compiled 8 tackles for loss and five sacks. However, the advanced metrics paint a more clear picture of just how efficient he truly was in moderately limited snaps. According to Pro Football Focus, during the 2017 regular season, his 26 total quarterback pressures on just 125 pass rush snaps gave him the fourth highest productivity score in the country, among draft-eligible edge defenders.

Factor in his 10.5% allowed success rate (plays that constitute a ‘win’ for the offense, -22% marginal efficiency (the expected success rate per play, based on down, distance, and field position), and -.2 marginal explosiveness, and it’s easy to see how a player with just two starts to his name can already be considered one of the Sun Belt’s best players.

Even by the raw metrics, he and superstar Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, together, combined for more sacks than 20 entire FBS defenses.

Rolland-Jones, though, has since wrapped up his illustrious career, leaving behind 64.5 career tackles for loss, and 42 sacks, which was just half a sack shy of tying Terrell Suggs for the all-time record.

For most teams, that sort of departure would be catastrophic, but given the potential that Bingham flashed, the expectation is more like ‘next man up’.

Still, it can’t have hurt to have shared a meeting room and practice field with one of the great college football players in recent memory for a full season. Now, their relationship is more than that of fellow competitors or even teammates. In some ways it is Bingham that will carry on Rolland-Jones’ legacy.

“He (Rolland-Jones) calls me all the time and checks up on me to make sure that I'm staying focused,” Bingham said. “I learned a lot from him this year from pass rushing drills, using my hands and bull rushing -- things like that, so it was just a great opportunity to play with such an awesome player.”

Those are still awfully big shoes to fill.

He simply replied, “I come to work everyday and we have a group of guys that come to work, as well. I try to take what he did and put it towards my game, to really try to elevate my game. I just come to work everyday.”

Even so, Rolland-Jones was far from the only loss that Arkansas State has been forced to absorb. In fact, the defense returns just 56% of its overall production from 2017, which ranks 86th in the nation. There is no metric, though, that measures the loss of leadership. With just a handful of returning starters, only two of whom are seniors, Bingham must shoulder a much greater leadership burden, especially in the front seven.

Fortunately for Joe Cauthen and company, he has taken it in stride.

“I feel like I adapted pretty quickly as soon as the season ended, teaching those guys, just letting them know that we have to be on our A-game these days, because last season wasn't acceptable. I lead by example more than anything,” Bingham began.

Over the past few years, Arkansas State has become a juggernaut in the conference. Titles are the expectation, and that is clearly not lost on him.

“We need to have a way better season than last year,” he continued. “We have the talent and the work ethic to do more than what a lot of people give us credit for, but that's neither here nor there. I feel like I just need to be more of a leader and just continue to pound and pound into those guys that it's bigger than all of us and we just have to keep working.”

He’s right. Arkansas State has a real opportunity to make a statement, not just in league play, but nationally. A one loss season is on the table. Few teams in the country can match their offensive firepower, but the defense will be the difference between good and great.

“I feel like we are pretty much slept on this season because we lost a lot of guys, a lot of great teammates from last year like Kyle Wilson, Ja’Von, and Dee Liner, but this new group came in ready to work,” assured Bingham.

Regardless, for the program that has finished in the top two in the Sun Belt in tackles for loss each of the last four years, and the top two in sacks all but one year during that stretch, everything starts up front. In a passing league like this, especially, Bingham is fully aware of how important his role is.

“If you can affect the quarterback long enough, you can change the whole game. We are pretty big on this thing called triple H: hits, hands, and hurries to try to affect the quarterback as much as possible,” the senior remarked.

Perhaps most importantly, he also knows that he can’t do it alone.

“William Bradley-King will be a great asset to the team this year,” Bingham told. “He has put in so much work. You’ve got guys like (Dajon) Emory and Griffin Riggs who are also coming up.

Those guys that have been here know that I look up to them and we work together to try to make sure that this D-line is in full effect.”

“At the end of the day, we're going to show up. We're going to turn a lot of heads this season.”

It can’t be easy trying to replace one of the greatest players in recent college football memory -- especially when his departure is accompanied by that of eight other key contributors.

The fact that it is not even close to the top of the list of concerns with the Red Wolves’ defense is truly a testament to what this JUCO transfer brings to the table.

With Justin Clifton headlining the secondary, and Bingham spearheading the defensive front, it would be a mistake to overlook the group in Jonesboro.

Under-recruited, underrated, and underestimated his entire career, it’s now Ronheen Bingham’s turn to be that difference between good and great.

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