LINCOLN — Arkansas State has had its chances. Sometimes the Red Wolves have even come close to that breakthrough football victory.
They were competitive with Tennessee (lost 34-19 in 2014) and Missouri (lost 27-20 in 2015) but have absorbed far more blowouts recently in nonconference play against the likes of USC, Oregon and Auburn. Even as champions of the Sun Belt Conference in five of the last six years — Arkansas State is the only FBS program with as many league titles during that span — they still went 0 for 11 against Power Five teams in that stretch.
ASU coach Blake Anderson believes that drought can end Sept. 2 when his team opens at Nebraska. And his conviction stems from what he saw this spring on the Jonesboro campus rather than any perceived Husker flaw.
“It’s a huge opportunity; they’re beatable,” said Anderson, who enters his fourth season. “They’re really good, but if we play our best and we don’t turn the ball over and give ourselves a chance to win, it’s a game that’s winnable. It takes your best effort and you have to have things go your way. But those kinds of games can make a season and change a program.
“We’re looking for that signature win, and playing Nebraska at their place gives you that opportunity.”
Two glaring holes became evident to the coach in spring workouts. One was offensive line, where all five starters are gone following last fall’s 8-5 campaign that culminated with a 31-13 win over Central Florida in the Cure Bowl. And though 6-foot-5, 330-pound juco transfer Lanard Bonner has emerged as the clear-cut left tackle, Anderson said other contributors are far from set.
The secondary is just as fluid after ASU lost its starting safeties and a corner from a unit that ranked fourth in the Sun Belt last year, allowing 219.5 passing yards per game.
“Fall camp’s going to be critical in terms of just developing the safety position and solidifying the defensive backfield,” Anderson said. “We want to be the fastest team in our league, so we rely on team speed. We want speed, No. 1, and athletic ability to play in space and guys that love balling.”
Arkansas State has those qualities in junior quarterback Justice Hansen, once a consensus four-star recruit who signed with Oklahoma in 2014. But after redshirting for a year and finding the depth chart unappealing, he transferred to Butler (Kan.) Community College. Hansen came to Arkansas State and earned the starting job after three games last fall, finishing as a 57.9 percent passer (197 for 340) with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The dual threat also ran for 131 yards and a score.
Redshirt freshman Logan Bonner competed with Hansen throughout the spring, but Anderson said the incumbent gave him plenty of reasons not to make a change.
“Him coming out of the season having played as a backup and then becoming a starter carried a lot of confidence into the spring,” Anderson said. “He can run. He moves the chains with his feet. He can make all the throws — he can be on the left hash and throw to the right-side numbers and vice versa. So there’s not really a spot on the field he can’t get the ball to. He just needed reps and time and I think that’s where you see him progressing every day.”
Hansen has most of his weapons back, led by running back Warren Wand (879 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 200 attempts last year) as well as tight end Blake Mack (34 catches for a team-best 652 yards and three TDs) and wideout Cam Echols-Luper (26 catches for 407 yards and one score).
Arkansas State’s defense ranked 19th nationally a season ago in points allowed per game (21.5) largely by pressuring opposing QBs. Ja’Von Rolland- Jones, the Sun Belt’s reigning player of the year, is back at defensive end after collecting 20.5 tackles for loss as part of ASU’s league-leading 43 sacks.
Fellow senior and one-time Alabama transfer Dee Liner also enjoyed a “phenomenal” spring and was “unblockable” at times, Anderson said. Junior Donovan Ransom is back, too, after helping Arkansas State limit opponents to 143.4 rushing yards per game (34th nationally) in 2016. And senior linebacker Kyle Wilson is the obvious leader of the defense, his coach said, coming off a season as the team’s No. 4 tackler with 79.
Will it be enough to hang with a Nebraska team in the midst of its own transitions? Anderson said he’s excited to find out, though a loss hardly damages what the Red Wolves continue to build.
“It’s one of those games that creates a tremendous challenge, obviously, but also a tremendous opportunity,” Anderson said. “If we can go up there and knock those guys off, it would start us off with a great amount of momentum.”