Auburn hosts Arkansas State in Week 2, matching up Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn against his former team. To get a read on the Red Wolves at this point in the offseason, we chatted with Troy Schulte, who covers ASU for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
CaM: Obviously, this game took on a lot more meaning when Gus Malzahn left Arkansas State for Auburn. What do ASU fans think of Malzahn? Is there legitimate disdain there? He jumped from a Sun Belt school to an SEC school, which is understandable, but since he's from Arkansas and said he would be at ASU for a while, I could see Red Wolves fans feeling betrayed.
Troy Schulte: Full disclosure, I was not covering ASU when Malzahn left to take the Auburn job, but from what I've gathered so far, many of them were pretty upset and hurt. Some probably still are. I think most of them understood that the jump to Auburn is better in terms of prestige, salary, his own career goals, etc. (Nobody seemed upset when Hugh Freeze left for Ole Miss). But combine the facts that Gus is an Arkansan and spent a year pumping his plan to take ASU to what he called "the next level" and I think many fans felt duped. Bryan Harsin was speaking at a Rotary Club meeting in Little Rock last month and one of the first questions from the crowd was about the Auburn game. So, yeah, I think the fan base is looking forward to Sept. 7.
CaM: What do ASU fans think of new head coach Bryan Harsin?
TS: So far, they love him. But all head coaches are loved until that first loss. For now, they like his pedigree, having spent the last two years at Texas (even if the Longhorns were down) and a decade before that at Boise State. A lot of ASU fans like to think their program can get to what Boise's is -- the term "Boise of the South" was even thrown around by the previous athletic director -- so they were pretty excited to get a coach with such direct ties. He's not 100 percent comfortable with the media just yet, but he's done things so far this spring and summer to make sure he and the new staff is visible. He's been to Little Rock a handful of times and recently held off-campus camps -- the first in school history -- in Little Rock and Texarkana. Now, he just has to win 10 games and get to a bowl game like Freeze and Malzahn did.
CaM: How does John Thompson's defense look?
TS: Thompson lost some key pieces from a defense that was pretty good at times last year, leading the Sun Belt in scoring defense (24.5 points) and finishing third in total defense (383.7). He lost two starters off the defensive line in Tim Starson and Ronnell Wright, linebacker Nathan Herrold and three in the secondary in Don Jones, who was drafted by the Dolphins, Chaz Scales and Cole Lorigan. Defensive tackle Ryan Carrethers is a first-team preseason all-Sun Belt pick by Phil Steele, as is linebacker Qushaun Lee and Thompson really likes Rocky Hayes in his new home at cornerback. The ?Wolf? position ? essentially the nickelback in Thompson's 4-2-5 is the biggest need. Jones manned that spot last year. Sophomore Charleston Girley, filled the spot this spring.
CaM: What will Arkansas State's strengths be in 2013?
TS: Its running game. ASU moved two running backs to defensive back this spring in Rocky Hayes and Frankie Jackson, but I think that speaks to how well Harsin feels about the group. They do lose the running ability of Ryan Aplin (1,756 career rushing yards), but return David Oku (1,061 yards last year), and sophomore Michael Gordon had a heck of a spring practice. Also, four starters return on the offensive line, including three seniors.
CaM: What about the Red Wolves' weaknesses?
TS: I think until you see Adam Kennedy play, the quarterback position is a question mark. He wouldn't be on campus if it wasn't. Kennedy did pretty well in the limited playing time he received at Utah State, winning four consecutive games to end the 2011 season and lead the Aggies to a bowl game. But he hurt his shoulder last year and threw just one pass. If he gets hurt again, none of the six behind him have started a game at the FBS level, and senior Phillip Butterfield's 27 career passes thrown lead the group. Harsin needs Kennedy, who is already on campus, to pick up the offense quickly and avoid injury.
CaM: Finally, do you think Arkansas State will have a shot at pulling the upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium, or will Auburn win comfortably?
TS: I don't know enough about Auburn just yet to make a pick in this game, but I wouldn't think ASU is in line to pull off the upset. At first glance, I think Malzahn's transition on the Plains will be a bit smoother than other first-year coaches, mostly because he's been there and recruited a good chunk of those players. ASU opens at home with FCS-member Arkansas-Pine Bluff, which returns a good portion of a 2012 team that went 10-2 and won the SWAC title for the first time in school history, but don't think it'll provide a proper test heading into the Auburn game. My guess is Kennedy and Co. will still be working out the kinks with the new offense, Auburn's will be a bit further along and the Tigers win comfortably.