MONROE, La. — Quarterback is an evolving position at Arkansas State.
If all goes according to plan, Louisiana-Monroe will have more to account for than what the Red Wolves have previously shown behind center.
ASU enters the ninth week of the season with a quarterback whose role is changing by the game, series and down. Senior Adam Kennedy and sophomore Fredi Knighten will try to lead the Red Wolves to their fourth straight victory over Louisiana-Monroe when they meet this evening in a key Sun Belt Conference matchup.
Kickoff is 6 p.m. at Malone Stadium.
First-year Arkansas State coach Bryan Harsin said the responsibilities of his quarterback are changing as the season goes on, including for tonight’s game.
“We’re still a work in progress in my opinion in a lot of areas and we’ve got to continue to have that mindset,” Harsin said.
Arkansas State (4-4 overall, 2-1 Sun Belt) moved in a new direction with Kennedy last week in a 17-16 victory at South Alabama.
Kennedy ran a season-high 16 times for 65 yards and scored a touchdown, many on designed keepers while other times on the read zone option. It was the first time Kennedy had been used in such a manner since the second week of the season at Auburn.
What the Red Wolves found was a defense unprepared to stop a running quarterback. And, until someone accounts for keeping Kennedy in check, they plan on running him more.
Harsin said the decision to let Kennedy take off and run was a major reason the Red Wolves got their first win on the road and remain in the Sun Belt race.
“He opened up another dimension for us and Adam is a guy that we know can run,” Harsin said. “We’ll continue to utilize him that way, that’s not going to stop. We’re going to ride that as long as we can.”
Kennedy has been a more-than-adequate replacement for former quarterback and two-time SBC Player of the Year Ryan Aplin.
For the season, Kennedy is 164-of-240 passing (68.3 percent) for 1,799 yards and seven touchdowns. He ranks third on the team in rushing with 252 yards and two TDs.
While Kennedy has stood behind center most of the season, the quarterback position is evolving in other ways, too. In the win at South Alabama, Knighten had his role expanded beyond anything all year.
Knighten engineered two different series from first play to last. It was the first time Knighten had been used at quarterback for an extended period of snaps.
Harsin said Knighten had practiced better than anytime all year and earned the playing time. He believes putting Knighten in for a full series rather than a play or two makes it less predictable for what he might do.
Knighten has been primarily used as a running quarterback, but when used as a full-time quarterback, the belief is defenses won’t be able to zero in on the run.
“There’s no quarterback controversy,” Harsin said. “It was predetermined that Fredi had the third series. No matter what, it could have been the best drive we’d ever had, and we were going to come back with Adam the fourth series. That’s part of the game plan. … That helps us with Fredi because he’s not always doing the same things. He’s playing quarterback, period. We may run with him a little more, but he’s playing quarterback.”
While Arkansas State is progressing with its quarterback situation, Louisiana-Monroe is back to winning with the return of its quarterback from injury.
Senior Kolton Browning was thought to be out for the season with a muscle tear that caused him to miss two games in October. But Browning has made an explosive return, leading the Warhawks to a pair of high-scoring victories over Georgia State and Troy.
Since coming back, Browning has passed for 578 yards and nine touchdowns.
The Red Wolves know Browning, the preseason SBC Player of the Year, will present many challenges both as a runner and passer. They’d like to make him a pocket passer, but they know that’s not his style.
“I’d rather him just sit there and make him throw it at me, rather than letting him get out of the pocket and make his own type of plays,” ASU cornerback Rocky Hayes said. “But he’s going to get out of the pocket because that’s what he does. We’ll be ready for it.”
Arkansas State has won three straight over the Warhawks, including a 45-23 victory last year in Jonesboro.
In his time at ULM, Browning has never played in a victory over ASU. He started against the Red Wolves in losses as a freshman and sophomore, but missed last year’s game with an injury.
ULM coach Todd Berry said Browning is the type of player who is motivated by such circumstances.
“I think that any time he has missed an opponent, just based on past history, he’s tended to want to go out and play well,” Berry said. “He feels cheated out the last opportunity so I think there’s a little bit more impetus toward that.”
And as far as the difference Browning has made the last couple of weeks? Worlds.
“His impact on us is huge because the whole offense is kind of built around our quarterback,” Berry said.
Arkansas State’s defense has increasingly played better the last few weeks.
The Red Wolves limited South Alabama to 371 yards and 16 points after a strong showing in a 23-7 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette. They also had a solid first half before allowing Idaho to move the ball in the second half of their game.
ASU safety Sterling Young said he’s encouraged by the defense’s play recently.
“I feel like we collectively just played one of our better games, you know, limiting total yards,” Young said. “I think in that aspect we did do good at being able to stop the run and also we gave up a couple of big plays, but we were able to bounce back.”
Louisiana-Monroe and Arkansas State reside second and third, respectively, in the Sun Belt standings.
The Warhawks (5-4, 3-1) are a half-game back of first-place ULL and need one win to become bowl eligible. ULM still has a shot at the Sun Belt title by winning its final three games, including the season finale at UL Lafayette.
Arkansas State has not won two games in a row all season and is a full game back of ULL in the standings. ASU needs to finish with four wins over the next four weeks to have a chance at a third straight Sun Belt title.
The Red Wolves don’t feel there’s any margin for error left this season.
“We don’t say it in those terms, but that’s the bottom line, we have to win,” Harsin said. “I think it’s more of a must-win just for our team to show that we’re making progress in what we’re trying to accomplish. But there’s no doubt about it, we need to win if we want any shot of having the chance to win our conference.”