Senior College Football Columnist

Sun Belt preview: Malzahn's challenge with Arkansas State starts under center


Ryan Aplin was named preseason offensive player of the year in the Sun Belt. (US Presswire)  
Ryan Aplin was named preseason offensive player of the year in the Sun Belt. (US Presswire)  
One look around the modest conference space and Gus Malzahn’s challenge at Arkansas State is apparent.

Ryan Aplin is the smallest player in the room. By far, from the looks of it. The room happens to contain the best players in the Sun Belt Conference at the league's media day last month. But the conference’s media guide lies when it says that Arkansas State’s quarterback is 6-foot-1, 205 pounds.

Let the challenge begin.

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"We’re going to ask a lot of him," says Malzahn, the soft-spoken son of Arkansas who has returned to the state, it seems, to take a step down.

That’s the only way to look at Malzahn’s acceptance of the Arkansas State job in December. It was one of the more perplexing hires of the offseason. Not that the 46-year-old isn’t ready. Pursued by Maryland and Vanderbilt after winning a national championship in 2010, Malzahn’s star hadn’t dimmed much a year later. His name came up at North Carolina and Kansas this offseason, among others.

It’s just that few figured he'd be ready at Arkansas State.

The offensive wizard with a national title and Heisman on his resume came to a place with no bowl wins in its major-college history. That is a bit misleading. The Red Wolves have only played in two bowls.

"The first reaction," Aplin said of the moment he realized Malzahn had been hired, "was, 'No way.'"

In terms of the coaching profession, Malzahn is just about off the grid. The Sun Belt is the lowest rated conference in FBS. Its champions have never sniffed a BCS bowl bid. Arkansas State won 10 last year but that was merely the signal for Hugh Freeze to get out while he could. Freeze bolted for Ole Miss where he had been tight ends coach for two years.

While Freeze took a step up, Malzahn seems to have his career in reverse. He turned down a reported $3 million annual salary from Vanderbilt last year. Now he’s the toast of Jonesboro.

"It's the chance that I get to come back home to Arkansas, where I coached 15 years of high school football," Malzahn said. "They won 10 games last year. It's a program you can win at. The fact that I know just about every coach in the state of Arkansas. A lot of them are our best friends."

Yeah, but it's tough for those best friends can’t make job calls for you when you tank in the Sun Belt. That's a distinct possibility in a league where the teams are 2-44 against BCS conference schools the last two seasons. Best friends can’t find you a new Cam Newton, especially when the current quarterback is intimidated by Newton's film.

"Sometimes it’s frustrating to go out to practice after watching [Newton on film] and not to be able to do it," said Aplin, the 2011 Sun Belt player of the year. "I'm trying to get to that point where I can, which is probably not going to happen."

Aplin seems like Malzahn’s kind of quarterback. He threw for almost 3,600 yards and led the team in rushing, finishing 10th in the conference with 588 yards. Best-case scenario, there is enough talent left over for Malzahn to get out after two years. Worst-case: His head coaching career is damaged beyond repair. Being off the grid and losing could do that. Meanwhile, Malzahn is saying all the rights things, advancing idea that Arkansas State could be the next Boise.

"I really feel like we can build something special," the coach said. "I've always been a dreamer. That may sound crazy to a lot of people."

More than crazy. Conventional wisdom holds that Arkansas State was a safety net for Malzahn when a wacky video of his wife Kristi went viral. It didn’t portray her, and by extension her husband, in a flattering light. Whether it was edited by forces unfriendly to Auburn is up for debate in some places, not in Jonesboro.

"It’s edited by a rival fan, I'm sure," said the man who brought Malzahn to Arkansas State.

In 1989, Dean Lee was completing a doctorate degree at Henderson State. Malzahn was one of his students in a class called Scientific Analysis of Motor Movement. The two bonded over the years as Lee went off to an administrative career and Malzahn became a coach.

FIU's Tourek Williams leads the best defense in the Sun Belt. (US Presswire)  
FIU's Tourek Williams leads the best defense in the Sun Belt. (US Presswire)  
Season tickets have skyrocketed (currently estimated at 10,000 in 31,000-seat ASU Stadium). The coaching staff has visited every high school in the state, even the ones that don’t play football. Arkansas governor Mike Beebe, an Arkansas State grad, got involved in wooing Malzahn.

What's more, swapping an outgoing SEC coach for an incoming SEC coach isn’t the worst thing in the world.

"You've got an example of somebody [Freeze] leaving and going to the SEC. That's not all bad. You’ve got so much to sell," Lee said.

Arkansas State hopes Malzahn just might be a long timer. He's home, he's comfortable and he's ready. Or as ready as he'll be facing Oregon in the season opener. That’s the team Malzahn defeated with a few more weapons directing Auburn's offense 19 months ago. He faces the Ducks this time with the smallest guy in the room.

Sooo, can the Arkansas State quarterback win the Heisman?

"I don’t know ... I have no idea," Aplin said, stammering. "I just couldn’t tell you."

Film can be intimidating.

J. Darin Darst's predicted order of finish:

1. Florida International: After going 8-5 and earning a trip to the St. Petersburg Bowl last season, the Panthers are back for more. Led by a strong defense, which ranked 14th in the nation last year in points allowed (19.5), FIU is the favorite to win the Sun Belt title. Defensive tackle Isame Faciane and defensive end Tourek Williams will provide the pressure up front and safety Jonathan Cyprien leads a strong secondary. On offense, running back Kedrick Rhodes (1,149 yards, 8 TDs) is the workhorse, running behind a solid offensive line.

2. Arkansas State: Preseason player of the year Ryan Aplin (3,588 yards passing, 19 TDs and 588 yards rushing, 10 TDs) returns for his senior season and will be looking for another Sun Belt title. He'll have a very strong receiver core back as Taylor Stockemer (48 catches, 756 yards) and Josh Jarboe (54 catches, 740 yards) returning. While the Red Wolves will have no trouble scoring points, the defense will be key. Cornerback Chaz Scales and safety Don Jones are good, but keep and eye on an inexperienced defensive line.

3. Louisiana-Lafayette: Coming off an 9-4 season, the Ragin' Cajuns will definitely be in the mix for the conference crown again. Quarterback Blaine Gautier (2,958 yards passing 23 TDs) is back for his senior season and will play behind a very experienced offensive line, led by tackle Leonardo Bates. Running back Alonzo Harris is back after rushing for 700 yards, as well as wide receiver Javone Lawson, who led the team with 1,092 yards and eight touchdowns. The defense will be tested as just four starters are back. The secondary is the strength with the return of cornerbacks Melvin White and Jemarlous Moten (who moves over from safety).

4. Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers have alot to be happy about, heading into 2012. Some of their best defensive players are back in defensive end Quanterus Smith (7.5 sacks) and nose tackle Jamarcus Allen (39 tackles). Linebacker Andrew Jackson (109 tackles, 13.5 for loss) also returns, giving Western Kentucky one of the best front sevens in the conference. The biggest question mark will be replacing running back Bobby Rainey. Juniors Keshawn Simpson and Antonio Andrews will likely see most of the work, but they combined for just 176 yards rushing last season.

5. Troy: The Trojans will look to get back into contention for the conference crown after an awful 3-9 season last year. Junior quarterback Corey Robinson (3,411 yards passing, 21 TDs) is back and will have tons of weapons to throw too, including junior Eric Thomas (67 catches, 875 yards). On defense, the Trojans will have to get much better after ranking 110th in total defense, including 100th against the run. Safety Brynden Trawick anchors the secondary after recording a team-leading 123 tackles last year.

6. Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders are my darkhorse team in the conference after going just 2-10 last season. They lost three games by three points or less during the first half of the season before collapsing at the end of the season. There is talent on defense in DE Omar McLendon (54 tackles) and linebackers Craig Allen and Roderic Blunt, but the team must improve on points allowed. On offense Logan Kilgore is back for another season at quarterback after throwing for 2,231 yards and 18 TDs. Center Alex Stuart anchors the offensive line.

7. Louisiana-Monroe: The Warhawks return most of their offense from last season that averaged 24.6 ppg, including quarterback Kolton Browning (2,483 yards passing, 443 yards rushing). Running back Juryss Edwards (667 yards, 11 TDs) and wide receiver Brent Leonard (751 yards receiving) are also back. The defense will be tested, especially with the loss of its top two leading tacklers. The secondary should be pretty good with the return of cornerback Vincent Eddie and safety Isaiah Newsome.

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8. Florida Atlantic: Carl Pelini will have his hands full in his first year as coach trying to figure out how to improve a one-win team last season. The Owls actually have a very good linebacker tandem with Davis Hinds (110 tackles) and Randell Johnson (92 tackles, 9.5 for a loss) returning. Junior cornerback Tony Grimes and senior safety Demetrius Williams are also back to lead the pass defense. But the biggest question marks are on offense, where junior college transfer Melvin German III might end up starting at quarterback. The team also will break in a new starter at running back as Xavier Stinson takes over for Alfred Morris.

9. North Texas: Another team that will have to find a new running back will be the Mean Green. Lance Dunbar is gone after rushing for 1,115 yards and 10 TDs, so the responsibility might fall on freshman Antoinne Jimmerson or senior Jeremy Brown, who has seen limited time. The good news either, they will be running behind one of the better offensive guards in the conference in sophomore Cyril Lemon. On defense, five starters are back, including lineback Zachary Orr, who had 74 tackles last season.

10. South Alabama: The Jaguars are playing its first year in FBS, so don't expect much out of the young program. It does have some players to keep on eye on, including former Virginia Tech linebacker Jake Johnson, who had 83 tackles last season for South Alabama. Safety B.J. Scott, who played at Alabama, could end up being an all-conference member. Another Crimson Tide transfer, Darius McKellar, could end up being one of the better offensive guards in the conference.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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