Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - 2008 SEASON IN REVIEW:Under the guidance of head coach Steve Roberts, Arkansas State has churned out consistently competitive teams and 2008 was no exception. The Red Wolves finished the 2008 campaign with a .500 record for the third time in four years and went a respectable 4-3 within the conference.
The highlight of the 2008 season came in the very first week for ASU, as the program notched one of its biggest victories, knocking off Texas A&M, 18-14, in College Station. The triumph snapped the Aggies' 20-game winning streak in home openers and served notice to the rest of the SBC that the Red Wolves were for real. ASU followed that win with a record-setting performance, as it trounced Texas Southern by an 83-10 score. With two impressive victories under their belt, the Red Wolves were finally brought back to reality with a narrow 27-24 loss to Southern Miss.
After three good showings against non-conference opponents, ASU jumped into SBC play and opened up with a sound 31-14 victory over Middle Tennessee. Following a loss to Memphis (29-17), the Red Wolves returned back to league play and scored a 37-29 triumph over UL-Monroe.
The turning point in the season for ASU came in mid-October, as the team was nipped by UL-Lafayette (28-23), beginning a costly three game slide that included losses to Alabama (35-0) and Florida International (22-21). Back-to- back wins over Florida Atlantic (28-14) and North Texas (33-28) kept ASU in the hunt for a bowl game. However, a 35-9 loss at Troy in the regular-season finale prevented the Red Wolves from participating in their first bowl since 2005 and put an end to what was solid campaign.
OFFENSE: The Red Wolves displayed good balance between the run (203.3 ypg) and pass (195.5 ypg) last season and with a majority of their skilled players back in the fold, this could be the best unit in the SBC.
At quarterback, Corey Leonard returns for his final go around after earning second-team all-league honors in 2008. The 6-1, 207-pound gunslinger is a dual threat that threw for 2,346 and ran for 516 more in 2008. He only completed 54 percent of his tosses, so that is an area the Co-Preaseason Offensive Player of the Year must improve upon if ASU is to take the next step.
What should help Leonard improve on his completion percentage is a wide receiver corps that welcomes back its top two pass catchers from 2008. Seniors Brandon Thompkins and Jahbari McLennan tied for the team-lead in catches last season with 32 and they are two of the fastest players on the team.
The passing game is certainly experienced and strong, but so is the ground game, paced by Reggie Arnold. The 5-9, 219-pound senior has posted three straight 1,000-yard campaigns, including rushing for 1,074 yards and seven touchdowns last season. A First-Team all-league choice last year, Arnold has a rare combination of size and blazing speed and will surely give Leonard a run for Player of the Year honors in 2009.
"We've had, I think six out of the seven years, we've had a tailback that's rushed for over 1,000 yards," Roberts said. "Obviously Reggie has three in the last three years and has a chance to be the eighth player in college football history to rush for four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons so that's quite an honor for what he's able to accomplish."
Adding depth to this talented ground game is Derek Lawson, who rumbled for 695 yards and four scores last season. The 5-11, 214-pound sophomore will be ready to spell Arnold when needed and he showed his potential by averaging an incredible 7.2 yards per carry last year.
Along the line is where ASU has some holes to fill, as three starters are gone, including a pair of standout tackles. The Red Wolves have some options to fill those voids, but the line will need to click quickly if the team is to compete for the SBC title.
DEFENSE: ASU boasted one of the league's top defensive units last year and expectations are even higher this season with a majority of the starters back from a squad that limited foes to 23.8 ppg and 339.0 total ypg.
Highlighting this unit is defensive end Alex Carrington, an All-America candidate after being honored as the SBC Defensive Player of the Year in 2008. A simply unstoppable force, Carrington racked up 10.5 sacks and 19 TFLs to pace the league and he also added 53 tackles. The 6-5, 284-pound senior will get plenty of attention from opposing teams, as well as NFL scouts, and he is clearly the most dominant defensive player in the league.
"He has all the things that you look for from a character standpoint and from a talent and physical standpoint," Roberts said. "He's got great size, just over 6-5, 280 pounds. He ran a 4.71 for the pro scouts, which they typically time very stringently. He's got a great burst off the ball."
Tackle Bryan Hall benefited from all the attention paid to Carrington and was able not only to stop the run, but get into the backfield, posting six sacks and 8.5 TFLs. The 6-1, 284-pound junior should be in contention for all-league honors this time around.
The Red Wolves lost their top linebacker from last season, but this group is still deep and talented. Darius Glover, a 6-1, 220-pound junior made 54 tackles last season and he is expected to be the leader and top producer of this unit in 2009.
There is no drop off when it comes to the secondary either, as ASU returns a wealth of experience and talent here. Safety M.D. Jennings not only emerged as a dependable player last season, but he evolved into one of the team's best, racking up 67 stops and three interceptions. The 6-0, 172-pound junior is terrific tackler that is primed for all-league honors in 2009. Fellow safety Evan Van Dolah is also a great talent, possessing terrific athleticism and blazing speed. The 6-2, 213-pound Dolah finished with 52 stops last season and the team expects even more big plays form him this year. Corner Daylan Walker is another player worth mentioning, as the 5-9, 177-pound senior ranked third on the team with 65 stops a year ago. A tough corner, Walker will surely do a good job in shutting down opponents' top threats.
SPECIAL: The Red Wolves will once again have no problem sending their field goal kicker out for attempts thanks to the return of Josh Arauco, who earned First-Team all-conference honors in 2008. Arauco, a finalist for the Lou Groza Award, made 17-of-20 tries is a terrific 2008 season. ASU got very little from its punting unit last season, so the team is defiantly in need of a change. Ryan Wilbourn is set to be the new punter and while not big at 5-10, 157 pounds, he does posses a strong leg.
OUTLOOK: The stage is set for the Red Wolves, as they are clearly one of the favorites to win the SBC with an experienced and star-studded team. ASU's ground attack should be nearly unstoppable, while the defense will surely cause havoc for opposing clubs. The Red Wolves kick off SBC play at home against Troy and if they can win that game, they should be on their way to the SBC crown.
"I'm very excited about our 2009 football season and extremely optimistic about the group of young men that we will be competing with this fall," said Roberts.
By Ralph Lauro, Associate College Football Editor