Before a reporter could finish a question centering on the Arkansas State football program “being on the rise” last year under departed head coach Gus Malzahn, A-State athletic director Terry Mohajir interjected, “They still are.”
That was the theme Wednesday as the Red Wolves football program was honored for its 2012 successes at the state Capitol. Then Mohajir, new ASU football coach Bryan Harsin and more of the A-State brass met reporters and a few well-wishers at War Memorial Stadium.
The stadium event was geared mainly for Harsin, who was making his first visit to Little Rock after taking over for Malzahn in December, to discuss his new coaching staff and prep the central Arkansas media on his program in this interlude between the Feb. 6 National Signing Day and the start of spring practice on Monday, March 11.
ASU will practice three days a week, with a week off for the university’s spring break, and will conclude drills with its annual spring game on Friday evening, April 19, in Jonesboro.
By then, Harsin hopes to have a better breakdown of the Red Wolves quarterback situation. Five players are vying to replace Ryan Aplin, the two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year who led ASU to back-to-back bowl games and Sun Belt championships.
Before Harsin and the ASU contingent left War Memorial Stadium for a dinner at the Governor’s Mansion with ASU graduate Mike Beebe, the new coach told us that Pulaski Academy product Fredi Knighten, a rising sophomore, was very much in the mix at quarterback. “I really like Fredi a lot,” the new coach, who was quarterback coach at Boise State and most recently at Texas, said of the 2011 Landers Award winner.
Harsin said at least three of his 20 signees (16 new signees along with four mid-term enrollees) from the latest recruiting class will play immediately. “You’d like to redshirt them all, but we’ll have to see what our needs are and where we need the most help.”
The new coach said he was able to judge where ASU’s most pressing needs were in the quick run-up to National Signing Day, thanks to watching the team prepare for the GoDaddy.com Bowl matchup with Kent State, which the Red Wolves won 17-14.
“We’re real excited about the signing class and we feel we filled our needs in those areas,” he said.
Skilled positions are in good shape in returning talent and depth, as are both lines, he said. ASU primarily was looking for depth at defensive back in the signing class.
A handful of ASU’s players will be tackling a spring session under their fourth coach in four years, and all are quite used to a coaching change every year now. Malzahn left in December for Auburn, paving the way for Harsin to be hired from Texas, where he served as offensive coordinator. Malzahn had replaced Hugh Freeze, who was head coach for one 10-win season before being hired away by Ole Miss. Freeze was the offensive coordinator for one season under Steve Roberts, who was let go after nine seasons in November 2010.
The recent hiring of Anthony Tucker away from Idaho State as wide receivers coach completed Harsin’s staff. The ASU coaching staff is a blend of young up-and-comers such as Eliah Drinkwitz, the running backs coach who Harsin said he was determined to keep from Malzahn’s staff, to old hands like John Thompson, the Forrest City native who was last season’s defensive coordinator and turned a unit with loads of question marks into one of the best defenses around by season’s end.
Thompson was among the coaches and players on hand at the state Capitol Wednesday, along with running back David Oku, tight end Darion Griswold, linebacker Qushaun Lee and receiver J.D. McKissic.
Harsin noted that offensive line coach Brad Bedell still looks like he could play with his NFL physique. “We brought him in to recruit guys who look like him,” Harsin said with a chuckle.
Malzahn’s efforts to take his program out to all areas of the state last spring, and to recruit Arkansas high schools heavily, will be maintained, Harsin insisted.
But playing a game in Little Rock still may be a ways off. When it was announced during Malzahn’s one season in Jonesboro that UAPB was contracted for the 2013 opener, it was believed the teams would play at War Memorial Stadium, though that apparently only reached discussion stage in Jonesboro (UAPB officials believed the game would be played in Little Rock, we’re told). That opener will be played in Jonesboro, however.
“I didn’t want his first game to be away from home,” Mohajir said Wednesday.
ASU has announced a home-and-home series with Missouri of the SEC, with a game in Columbia, Mo., on Sept. 28 this year and a return match in 2015.
“Its important that we build a base in Jonesboro,” the athletic director said, adding that a game with an name team such as Missouri “will allow us to have fans want to come from Little Rock to Jonesboro.”
None of that discounts the possibility of playing in Little Rock, he said. Ideally, ASU would like to have a six-game schedule of home games, Mohajir said.
“You can schedule a home-and-home with someone and the next day they’re in your conference,” he noted of the swirling landscape of conference realignment.
The Sun Belt is experiencing some of that, losing Middle Tennessee and Florida International to Conference-USA, with Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic also in position to receive invitations from C-USA down the road.
Mohajir and ASU are paying close attention.
“That’s one of our blueprints for success, scheduling and being in the right conference,” he said. “We have to look at what is the best situation for us to be successful and to able to play in a BSC bowl game … we’re looking at everything, evaluating on a daily basis.”
New agreements with the BCS will allow programs from the non-BCS conferences, such as Conference-USA and the Sun Belt, qualify for BCS bowls starting in 2014. BCS rankings allowed Northern Illinois of the non-BCS Mid-American Conference to play in the Orange Bowl in January. ASU, whose officials were a bit disappointed in having to return to Mobile for a second year in a row for a bowl game, defeated MAC runner-up Kent State there in January.