JONESBORO, Ark. (AStateRedWolves.com) – The Arkansas State football team continued its march through spring practice Wednesday afternoon, suiting up in full pads for its ninth workout that was highlighted by several strong special teams periods as well as continued progress on both sides of the ball.
The Red Wolves began the practice with several special teams periods that A-State head coach Bryan Harsin believed set a good tone for the remainder of the day.
"This was a very solid special teams day," Harsin said. "Coach (Kent) Riddle had some fun and competitive drills in place working kickoff, kickoff return, punt and punt return. There were some great one-one-one battles where guys were competing, and we're making it a point to look at guys in those situations. We want to evaluate how they handle all of that, whether they are covering a kick or taking on blocking responsibilities."
In addition to his duties as assistant head coach and tight ends coach, Riddle is also serving as the Red Wolves' special teams coordinator. A-State must replace its primary punters from a year ago in Neely Sullivent and Ryan Wilbourn, but return All-Sun Belt Conference kicker Brian Davis, starting deep snapper Cade Oliver and all its players that saw action in the return game.
"I like what we're doing on special teams," continued Harsin. "We're stressing a lot more individual work while also getting into schemes, and we're trying to get guys to learn what really needs to happen in that aspect of the game. The players will understand the concepts, but the key is being able to adjust to all the other factors that come into play after the ball is snapped."
Davis was a second team All-Sun Belt choice, a Lou Groza Award semifinalist and became the first player in ASU history to record over 100 points by kicking (104) in a season last year. He finished the year with 17 field goals made that tied the third most ever by an A-State player, and Harsin said his role could expand this year.
"Brian had an outstanding season last year, and he has carried that over into our spring camp," Harsin said. "He's done some punting for us too, and he's a well-rounded football player capable of doing that as well. I like his mentality. He has the right demeanor out there in practice, so I'm pleased with how he's performing."
Harsin also addressed the Red Wolves return game, saying the coaching staff is looking at several players to fill roles as punt and kickoff returners. Among the players receiving time fielding kicks are sophomore defensive backs Rocky Hayes and TeDarius Turner, sophomore wide receivers J.D. McKissic and Derek Keaton and senior running back David Oku.
Hayes comes back in 2013 as the team's return leader, recording a team-high nine punts and 20 kick returns last season. He was responsible for a long punt return of 22 yards and also recorded a season-best 36 yard kick return. McKissic, Keaton, Oku, Frankie Jackson, Andrew Tryon, Michael Gordon and Fredi Knighten all had at least one return last year.
In addition to the special teams work, a full-contact period was held in the middle of the workout that focused on red zone situations. Outside of its scrimmages, today was the first day the Red Wolves included a "live" period during the course of a practice.
"We wanted to put our guys in game-type situations down in the red zone," said Harsin. "The offense did a nice job in the red zone moving the ball down to the goal line. Our defense swelled up again on the goal line to keep them out of the end zone a couple of times. So, the defense is doing well with their goal line defense and our offense needs to a better job punching it in down there. We're challenging them to do that -- we just have to keep working those situations."
The practice ended with a team period, where the offense was able to pick up some big plays and the defense also forced some turnovers.
"Our offense hit some explosive plays and was able to string together some positive plays, so you could see the pace pick up some and what can happen when we start rolling on offense," Harsin said. "The defense did a nice job competing as well and got some turnovers, so I think they are opportunistic right now with they way they are getting guys around the ball. The offense still has to eliminate some of those turnovers, but we were also taking better care of the football today. Our defense is continuing to improve, and our offense had a more consistent day."