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Stars Shine for Arkansas State

By Jim Johnson
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Stars are stars for a reason. Sometimes you just have to let those guys cook.

Football is a team sport. Depth is imperative to maintain to success over the rigors of a season. Oftentimes, it is the role players, the unheralded complementary pieces, that are difference between a good and a great team, a contender and a pretender, a win and a loss.

However, stars are stars for a reason. Sometimes you just have to let those guys cook.

In the 31-17 win over ULM, all of Arkansas State’s big names ate.

In my annual predictive ranking of the Sun Belt’s Top 100 players, Justice Hansen was slotted third. Currently leading the league in passing touchdowns for the second consecutive season, the preseason Offensive Player of the Year outdueled Caleb Evans, arguably his closest competitor for the title of ‘best QB in the league’, completing 21/27 attempts for 246 yards and three touchdowns.

Wideout Kirk Merritt was on the receiving end of the bulk of that production. A JUCO-transfer who began his collegiate career at Oregon, before transferring to Texas A&M and then East Mississippi, Merritt was not included in the Top 100. Yet, he has clearly broken up as one of the top targets in the conference, currently ranked first in receptions and in the top three in yards. He torched ULM’s secondary for 89 yards and a pair of scores on six grabs, one of which was 49-yarder that went the distance.

The other burgeoning standout for the Red Wolves that was not included in the ranking is freshman running back Marcel Murray. His promise was readily apparent early on, despite limited touches. I highlighted his efficiency in a piece around the midpoint of the season that was actually more so about Louisiana’s Trey Ragas. The truth of it was, his numbers were so noteworthy that I couldn’t help but point out the young ball carrier’s potential. Since then his sample size has grown, but nothing else has really changed, and according to Pro Football Focus, he has actually graded out as the top freshman running back in the country, to date. It was just another day at the office versus the Warhawks, averaging 5.5 yards per carry on his highest workload yet.

Defensively, too, while it takes a village to contain Caleb Evans, the names you know were the names you heard most often in this one.

Ronheen Bingham, ranked #13 in the Top 100, has stepped in admirably for one of the truly great college football players in recent memory, Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, leading the team in tackles for loss, sacks, and run stuffs. Today, he racked up another seven tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and two sacks, only adding to his already bonkers numbers. At this point, he’s only extending his lead over the rest of the conference in each of the latter two categories.

And of course, ranked #4 in the preseason Top 100, defensive back Justin Clifton recorded a pass breakup and two interceptions, one of which he returned 43 yards to paydirt. It’s easy to overlook Clifton’s impact occasionally because of the standard that he has set for himself with his own play throughout his career. This was a sort of “Forgot About Dre” game for the best safety in the league.

Now fully back in the the thick of the race to the inaugural Sun Belt Championship Game, the Red Wolves’ stars are leading the way.

They’ll need a little help next week from the team they just beat, not to mention having to take care of their own business, but A-State is peaking at the right time. With three consecutive blowout wins under their belt, this looks like a totally different team than the one that lost three of four from late September through October.

A big reason for that is the play from their headliners. Depth is great. Contributions from role players are necessary. But, like all the great teams, success trickles from the top down.

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