Nebraska will start the 2009 season against three different Sun Belt team on their non conference schedule. After playing Florida Atlantic in week one, the Huskers will take an Arkansas State team that went 6-6 in 2008.
The Red Wolves season was highlighted last year with a victory over Texas A&M in College Station. With 14 starters in returning in 2009, ASU has high hopes to take home the Sun Belt Conference title this year.
Head coach Steve Roberts team will be led by veteran quarterback Corey Leonard and potential first round draft pick defensive end Alex Carrington who had 10 ½ sacks and 19 tackles for loss in 2008.
HuskersIllustarted.com caught up with Arkansas State play-by-play man Matt Stolz to get his thoughts and perspective on the Red Wolves coming out of spring practice.
Breakdown the team this spring. What would you say really stood out to you over the four weeks of practice?
"I think the No. 1 thing that everybody is excited about right now are the seniors and the amount of players that are coming back from a team that was pretty good last year. It was a 6-6 team last year, and at the same time I think people were really excited off the bat last year with the win over Texas A&M in the opening week and obviously that generated a lot of excitement about last year.
"I think people though were a little disappointed with the way things finished off. They certainly wanted to go to a bowl game last year, but at the same time I think there's a lot of expectations for this year. We've got a senior quarterback in Corey Leonard that has had an outstanding three years at Arkansas State. By the time he's finished next year, he'll virtually hold every record in the book at Arkansas State as far as passing and total yards. We've got a running in Reggie Arnold who's on pace to break the career record for rushing yards at Arkansas State as well.
"As far as the spring goes, the thing that everybody is probably most excited about is there were no big injuries and everybody was healthy. This was the first spring in a long time that we could say that around here."
How good is Alex Carrington at defensive end? He's 6-foot-5, 285 pounds and had 10 ½ sacks last season. That's pretty impressive on paper.
"He is a man on that defensive line. The scouts are drooling over him and I think he's a guy that will be drafted next year in the top two rounds. He was the Sun Belt player of the year last year defensively and he can just completely dominate a football game on the defensive side of the ball. He did that several times last year. You mentioned the 10 ½ sacks and certainly that led the Sun Belt Conference.
"It's not just him though on the defensive line. That's certainly the strength of this team this year. The four starters on the defensive line—Alex Carrington, Stanley Wakwe, Khari Mays and Bryan Hall are a very good front four. There is a lot of depth there on their defensive line."
Does Arkansas State pretty much do all their recruiting in the Southeast?
"We get a lot of guys from of course here in Arkansas, quite a few guys from Tennessee, Texas and Louisiana. Regionally we try to keep it pretty close. We've got some guys from Alabama and Georgia as well.
With the amount of starters Arkansas State returns, the expectations are obviously pretty high. Are people talking Sun Belt title out there this spring?
"That was a big goal last year and the last game of the season we played Troy at Troy head-to-head and the winner was going to win the Sun Belt and go to the New Orleans Bowl. Troy was able to do that last year, but certainly with the expectations with the amount of seniors we have this year coming back, the expectations are high, especially with guys like Leonard and Arnold leading the way. You combine those guys with the defensive line, I think this has a chance to be a very good year.
"The major obstacle for this team is the schedule. It doesn't set up very well for us, with 12 games being on the schedule—seven being on the road and three of them being Nebraska, Iowa and Louisville. If you are going to have a winning record, that really makes things tough. They know that's a major challenge, but obviously there's still a lot of excitement. The expectation level is still pretty high."
What is the biggest question this team still must answer based on what you saw this spring?
"The biggest question is the offensive line. There are a lot of guys to replace on the offensive line. I think without a doubt that is the biggest question mark right now. However, they have been able to plug guys in pretty well. They did that last year. Going back the last four or five years, offensive line has been the biggest question mark going into the season and we've been able to have pretty solid offensive line play the last few years."
How pleased are people with the job Coach Roberts has done there?
"They are trilled. When Coach Roberts took over, it was seven years ago and Arkansas State was ranked 119 out of 119 Division I-A football programs. They just were not a very good football program at that time. At that time, they were still a pretty young Division I football program, they moved to Division I in 1991.
"Since he has taken over, he's won a Sun Belt Conference title back in 2005, and three of the last four years the team has been bowl eligible. We've had six win seasons three of the last four years. I think he has raised the expectations that much to where people are expecting success now, and that's something that really hasn't happened before Coach Roberts came here. He's just done wonders since the time he's been here."
You guys won at Texas A&M last year and have played in a lot of big venues before. With that said, how battle tested is this team?
"These guys have played in some really big time atmospheres. I think what helped with A&M is we went into Texas the year before and we lost 21-13 in 2007. We had a very bad call on an onside kick ruling which would've given us the ball down 8 with a minute to go in their territory. It was something. Even though we lost, it gave our guys a lot of confidence and that was one reason why our guys weren't intimidated when they went into A&M last season. They played at Alabama last year and kept it pretty respectable there too. Going into places like Nebraska and Iowa this year won't be nearly as overwhelming as maybe five years ago."
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