Arkansas State defensive coordinator coach John Thompson (left) calls players to the next round of exercises as linebacker Nathan Herrold moves off the field during Aug. 5 practice. (The Jonesboro Sun/Krystin McClellan)
JONESBORO — John Thompson is no stranger to bowl preparations.
Thompson, Arkansas State’s interim head coach for the Jan. 6 GoDaddy.com Bowl, has been a part of nine bowl teams during a college coaching career that began in the early 1980s. He’s coached in New Year’s Day contests, and he’s also worked games played much earlier in the bowl season.
When preparing practice plans leading up to the Red Wolves’ game against 25th-ranked Kent State, Thompson said he took a little bit from everywhere he’s worked.
“I really went back and looked at the games we played well and what we did in those bowl practices,” said Thompson, a veteran defensive assistant who has worked at 10 Football Bowl Subdivision programs. “It goes way back to even Southern Miss and how we played well. I was at some places where we had two different approaches. We played poorly one game and changed our approach and played better the next.
“It’s real important that you keep it light, and we’ve got a long wait time. We have a long time until we play, but we have to get better. We can’t just sit back and wait until game week and say, ‘OK, crank it up.’ There’s no question we were a better football team today than we were yesterday — just a little bit — and that’s all we can do right now.”
The Red Wolves are in the first phase of their bowl preparations. ASU will practice again this morning at 10:30 a.m., take Sunday off, and then practice again from Monday through Thursday.
The team will take a Christmas break from Dec. 21-27, then reassemble in Jonesboro for practices Dec. 28-31. The Red Wolves report to the Mobile, Ala., bowl site on Jan. 1 and continue their preparations up to the 8 p.m. kickoff on Jan. 6.
Practices this week have lasted roughly an hour, and the Red Wolves are playing music as they work on basic fundamentals. Thompson said it’s important for ASU to stay fresh, adding that the bad bowl performances he’s experienced have come when teams became stale.
“In my opinion we put too much game plan in early, and our guys got bored. I’ve made the mistake of thinking, ‘Hey, we’re really ready. We know what to do,’” Thompson said after Friday’s practice. “But I think they lose the respect for the game plan. I think they lose that little edge, that little bite in your stomach when you have to do things in the right way.
“We’ve got to make sure that we keep them on that edge, and I think we’re waiting on some of the game plan and getting to almost game week preparation, because once you get to the bowl site it all has to be in, and there are so many distractions that you’ve got to just hone in. We’ll do most of our (game plan) preparation here, but not until probably after next week.”
Thompson said ASU will “sprinkle in” a little work on the Golden Flashes next week. Today’s practice will include a scrimmage of 30 to 40 plays for Red Wolves who haven’t seen much or any game action this season.
Junior running back David Oku said this week’s atmosphere at practice has been good. Oku was a part of two bowl teams at Tennessee, which went to the Chick-fil-A Bowl and the Music City Bowl during his time there. He said the Red Wolves’ bowl preparations thus far are similar to what he experienced under Lane Kiffin in 2009.
“We’re loose, having fun,” Oku said. “Everybody is flying around, and you’re getting to see the young guys play.”
Sophomore safety Sterling Young said the Red Wolves will be more locked in and focused after their Christmas break, knowing they’ll be closer to game time.
The Red Wolves will have an advantage over the Golden Flashes in bowl experience. ASU is going to the GoDaddy.com Bowl for the second year in a row, while Kent State will appear in a bowl game for the first time since 1972.
“We’re not going to be surprised, thrown off guard. We’re going to be on top of our schedule and make sure everyone gets in on time for curfew,” Young said of the team’s January trip to Mobile. “I think that does give us a little bit of an advantage, but at the same time you have to come out and prepare.”