It was a bittersweet season for Arkansas State in 2003, one that showed a lot of progress but ended just short of a major milestone yet again. The Indians were 5-5 with two games left but finished with a pair of disappointing losses to North Texas and Middle Tennessee, the latter by a score of 24-14. It led coach Steve Roberts to conclude that the Indians must toughen up if they want to break through in '04.
"We've won 11 games in two years," Roberts said. "But we're still not at the point where we need to be. We were very inconsistent all last year. So all winter we worked on strengthening our mental and physical toughness to improve our ability to compete."
They are going to need it. The Indians have just four home games on a schedule that includes a visit to defending co-national champion LSU.
With an overhauled defense that returns only three starters, things could be tough for Arkansas State. Yet hope lies in the fact that the bulk of the offense returns after a respectable showing in '03. And a recruiting class full of junior college help, as well as some other promising prospects, could fill the gaps just enough to allow the Indians to make some progress.
OffenseThe Indians may just have a quarterback controversy thanks to the arrival of junior college signee Devin Hollins, a former Wisconsin recruit who lit up the West Coast last season for West Los Angeles Community College. It's a situation Roberts welcomes as returning starter Elliot Jacobs, a senior, battles to keep his spot after completing 145-of-273 passes for 1,537 yards and 10 touchdowns last fall.
"Hollins will compete for the job," Roberts said. "Elliot is such a competitor, he'll find a way to contribute to the team, no doubt. It's his position for now."
Chris Easley, who rushed for 475 yards last season, entered the spring atop the Indians' depth chart at tailback, but he tore two knee ligaments on the first day of spring drills. His availability for the fall is unknown. Easley's injury will give Shermar Bracey and Antonio Warren an opportunity to take on larger roles.
Gone is crafty receiver Mike Cox, but everyone else returns at wideout. Jerome Stegall, Chuck Walker, Gary Vincent and Jason Wood combined for 77 catches last year, and all had at least 10 receptions. Help returns at tight end as well with stalwart Mike Brooks bringing back the fiery passion Roberts appreciated in '03.
On the line, it all starts in the middle for Roberts, where Tab Slaughter comes back from an injury-plagued '03 campaign. Steven Gibbs (6-foot-3, 348 pounds) may be massive, but Roberts is also impressed with his mobility.
DefenseOnly three starters return, and an area of strength in '03 becomes perhaps the biggest concern for the upcoming season, as the defensive line must be rebuilt. Gone are standout tackles Jon Bradley and Corey Williams. Luckily, it's not a complete makeover, as athletic end Courtney Todd is back.
Physical linebacker Steven Tookes could shine as the veteran of the defense, and he is expected to lead after recording 90 tackles as a junior. Eddie Walker rotated in much of last season and should grab a starting job.
Graduation severely depleted the secondary, especially with the loss of Jonathan Burke. The Indians will count heavily on hard-tackling Alex Peoples for leadership.
SpecialistsEric Neihouse is still struggling to find consistency on field goal attempts. He was a forgettable 3-of-7 last fall, including 0-of-2 from beyond 30 yards, but is strong on kickoffs. Punter Jarod Little averaged a respectable 39.6 yards on 78 kicks last year.
Final AnalysisThis season will truly be a test of Roberts' last two recruiting classes. The Indians will need many of their young players to emerge if their goal of a breakthrough season is to become a reality.