DENTON, Texas — Growing pains. Tweaks and adjustments. A work in progress.
First-year Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn has used a handful of ways to describe his young football team this season. Now riding a three-game winning streak, including the most impressive victory of the year last week, Malzahn is beginning to see the fruits of his labor.
It’s a team that is confident and developing the kind of chemistry that wins championships. Malzahn just isn’t ready to say it, at least, not until Arkansas State proves it once more.
“At this point, it’s about putting two solid games back-to-back, that’s been our focus,” Malzahn said. “This time of year, we should be improving. We’ve challenged our guys to improve … We just want to put two solid games back-to-back is our goal right now.”
Arkansas State (5-3 overall, 3-1 Sun Belt Conference) will attempt to package its two best games of the season together when it visits North Texas (3-5, 2-2) this afternoon. The Red Wolves and Mean Green kickoff at 4 p.m. at Apogee Stadium.
After losing their Sun Belt opener to Western Kentucky, the Red Wolves have reeled off three straight to climb back into contention. From the first game of the season prior to last week’s win at Louisiana-Lafayette, it had been a bit of a bumpy ride.
ASU was blown out at Oregon and Nebraska, and struggled in wins over Memphis and South Alabama. Western Kentucky stunned the Red Wolves at home, blanking them 26-0 in the second half.
But that was all part of a process of getting to where they are today. It was players learning the system, adjusting to a higher level of competition, and forming bonds.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys playing, a lot of young talent,” freshman running back Rock Hayes said. “For all of us and all of that, it was going to take a little time for us to come together. We’ve finally gotten to that point to where we’re finally all working together. We’re like a machine out there now.”
Hayes should know. He is just one of the many adaptations Malzahn has employed since the season began.
Hayes was switched from defense to offense after the first game and has since contributed some of the most explosive plays of the year. He had an electrifying 57-yard touchdown run at Louisiana-Lafayette.
Some ASU players have emerged through work in practice while early-season injuries forced the Red Wolves to adjust their starting lineup and find new faces.
Freshmen receiver J.D. McKissic is among the Sun Belt leaders in receptions while freshman center Bryce Giddens has started seven straight games without any issues. The recent return of junior right guard Cliff Mitchell and senior receiver Taylor Stockemer have the team all together and healthy.
“As an offense, we feel really comfortable where we’re at,” ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin said. “I think guys really have a sense of how the offense works as a whole now. Last week was something that really kind of clicked. We kind of came together as one.”
Defensively, Arkansas State has made changes and learned on the go, too.
Senior tackle Ronnell Wright worked his way into a starting spot while junior Eddie Porter moved from linebacker to end a few weeks ago. In the secondary, freshman cornerback Artez Brown and freshman strong safety Chris Humes have started each of the last three games.
Just like the offense, Arkansas State’s defense is starting to grasp the concepts that can sometimes only be gained through experience. After a few speed bumps and potholes, the Red Wolves believe they’re meshing.
“We’re a young team, it’s a first-year defense, and I’m a new guy. So, just working together, you had to go through that kind of stuff to get where you want to be,” Humes said.
According to a data base compiled by FBS sports information directors, ASU ranks No. 9 nationally for players making their first career start with 15. Arkansas State has started eight true freshman, which is also one of the higher totals across the country.
For the freshmen, just being accepted is an important part of team development.
“No doubt, we have momentum and chemistry,” Humes added. “The guys treat me like a little brother, just bringing me up through the system.”
A new coach, staff and system, along with household changes might never mesh in some situations. But everything came together when the Red Wolves amassed over 500 yards and whipped UL-Lafayette 50-27.
It is the gradual progression and successeight weeks in that is feeding the team’s belief in itself now.
“I think a lot of the guys are confident, and a lot of the younger guys are confident now,” defensive end Tim Starson said. “They’re finally getting a taste of everything. Going down to Lafayette and getting that win was huge. It’s hard not to have high spirits right now.”
Arkansas State has plenty of motivation heading into this afternoon.
The Red Wolves have won seven straight over North Texas (3-5, 2-2) and can reach bowl eligibility with a win. A victory would also set up a showdown with Sun Belt leader Louisiana-Monroe next Thursday. ULM holds a one-game lead over Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee State in the standings.
All of those things are weighing on the Red Wolves’ minds.
“There is a sense of urgency,” Aplin said. “This is a really big game and (getting bowl eligible) is just something else that lights the fire. Using that as motivation is a really big key. It’s something we got a taste of last year and it’s something we want to be back in.”
After throttling UL-Lafayette, Malzahn is beginning to believe his team is coming around. He’s not convinced, though, and wants a little more proof.
“The key is we’ve got be consistent,” Malzahn said. “You’ve got to put a second game together before you can really put your stamp of approval on it. But, boy, I was very encouraged with our last outing.”