JONESBORO — An infusion of new blood is working its way through Arkansas State's offense. Young blood to be specific.
JONESBORO — An infusion of new blood is working its way through Arkansas State’s offense. Young blood to be specific.
Through four games, Arkansas State has turned to several of its younger, more inexperienced players to play key roles when the Red Wolves have the football. From blocking on the interior of the line to running the football, running routes and making catches or taking snaps behind center, freshmen are contributing in significant ways already in ASU coach Gus Malzahn’s first season.
After a month of fall practices, the new Arkansas State coach decided to test some of his younger players during the Red Wolves’ early part of the schedule.
“We were kind of in an evaluation mode the first two to three games (to see) where we’re at,” Malzahn said on Monday. “Anytime you make a commitment to play a freshman, I mean, if you’re going to play them, you’re going to play them. It gave us some good information the first couple of games, and the guys you saw play the other night, we’re going to play.”
Freshman Bryce Giddens has probably been in the line of fire more than any other player from the 2012 signing class.
Giddens took over at center for senior Eric Allen, who suffered an injury in the opener at Oregon. Giddens, who is from Moultrie, Ga., has started each of the last three games and appears to have taken over the position.
“Bryce has really been a bright spot,” Malzahn said. “He played extremely well the other night, and he’s not playing like a true freshman. He’s doing a good job.”
While Giddens has handled the ball most of any freshman, redshirt freshman J.D. McKissic has probably done the most with it.
McKissic leads Arkansas State with 26 receptions and 249 yards and he’s tied for fourth in the Sun Belt Conference with 6.5 catches a game. McKissic has one touchdown to his credit, a 33-yard scoring play Saturday night against Alcorn State.
Malzahn said the soft-spoken receiver from Phenix City, Ala., has been a major addition to the offense at a critical time. Arkansas State’s depth at receiver has been trimmed severely with injuries and suspensions to four different players since the season began.
“He’s electric in space,” Malzahn said. “I think everybody can see that. We just need to keep trying to find ways to get him the ball in space so he can make some plays in one-on-one situations. He’s really developing into a guy that (quarterback) Ryan (Aplin) feels comfortable with.”
Another big contributor has been freshman Rocky Hayes, who has filled in at a number of positions from receiver to slot to running back.
Hayes has 16 carries for 141 yards, an average of 8.8 yards a carry, despite limited opportunities. Hayes made the switch from defensive back to offense after the Oregon game and has slowly been worked into the Red Wolves’ system.
Malzahn said he wasn’t ready to define what position Hayes will eventually occupy, but he’s definitely going to have the ball in his hands more and more this season. Hayes has also stepped into punt and kick return duties and leads Arkansas State in return yardage.
“Rocky is a guy that can definitely run,” Malzahn said. “He’s been with us (the offense) I guess two weeks now. We’re just trying to fit him in our normal offense; not be just a specialized, token player, but run a normal position. That’s what we’re trying to do with him moving forward.”
Former Pulaski Academy standout Fredi Knighten has also seen his production grow with each week of the season.
Knighten is the Red Wolves’ backup quarterback, but he’s also seen more action with the first unit the last three weeks. Knighten made his first appearance against Memphis, running the offense out of a wildcat scheme, and has appeared in each game since.
Two more freshmen made their first significant contributions over the weekend against Alcorn State.
After playing on special teams the week before, running back Michael Gordon ran the football six times for 35 yards and also had a 7-yard reception. Gordon demonstrated good vision and cutback ability on runs of 10 and 15 yards.
Freshman receiver Derek Keaton got the first catch of his career, turning a short-yardage route into a 33-yard gain by reversing his direction twice on the play. Keaton, who is from Camden, had appeared in the first three games but had not handled the football directly prior to Saturday night.
Malzahn said Gordon had caught his coaches attention on scout team defense during fall camp. They decided to move Gordon to special teams and then finally to the offense most recently.
“We put him in there on special teams and he’s a natural football player as far as that’s concerned,” Malzahn said. “Then we gave him a chance to go with the offense and he picked it up very quick. We really feel like he can help us in a lot of different areas this year.”
Other freshmen who have contributed significantly already this season include specialist Luke Ferguson and defensive back Chris Humes. Ferguson and Humes are both true freshmen.
Malzahn doesn’t have a particular philosophy on playing freshmen, whether to allow them time to get acclimated to the speed of Division I or let them learn on the fly. Instead, it’s a gut-feeling decision with each individual and when they’re ready.
Based on the infusion of so many new faces to the team, it’s clear Malzahn believes Arkansas State has several who are ready now.
“There comes a time you’ve got to just put them out there and let them play,” Malzahn said. “There’s nothing like experience. Some of them, I’m sure their heads are spinning the first game or two. But my experience is that the guys that can handle it, it doesn’t take but a game or two for them to settle in and get confidence.”