Arkansas State will kick off the 2019 season Saturday at 6 p.m. against the SMU Mustangs at Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro.

The Red Wolves have endured a trying week due to the death of head coach Blake Anderson’ wife Wendy, but interim head coach David Duggan said that the team has responded as well as they could over the past week.

“It has been a challenging time here in the last week or so,” said Duggan. “We have had a tremendous amount of support from our administration, our coaching staff, and most of all we have had a tremendous amount of support from our players.”

“We have talked about keeping things going in the same direction and delivering Coach Anderson’s message of now. There will be no excuses, we will be serving others, and we will work. We will try to move forward. I know it is hard, but we have a job to do and Coach Anderson would want us to be that way. The players have done a tremendous job and we are looking forward to this Saturday against SMU.”

The Mustangs will feature several new players who are eligible after transferring in from other schools to include quarterback Shane Buechele who transferred in from Texas. Duggan said the Red Wolf defense is preparing for some of the new players for the Mustangs.

“We are trying to do as much as we can with researching what kind of a throwing motion he has and what kind of quarterback that he is,” Duggan said. “We are obviously studying what SMU has done in the past, but that is the challenge of game one for everybody. You don’t know exactly what they have done over the spring and summer, so hopefully you have some base rules that apply to what they are trying to do with their offense. We have tried to research them as much as possible, and we will be prepared on Saturday.”

The Mustangs struggled with third down conversions in 2018, and Duggan said the mission of the Red Wolf defense is to keep their offense off of the field as much as possible.

“That is the number one mission to try to get them into third down,” Duggan said. “As a defensive staff the more times you can get teams into third down the better chance you have of being successful. If we try to eliminate the chunk plays on first and second down and if you get them into third down, you increase your chances of stopping that drive. The message is the same with every opponent. You have to get off of the field on third down. Hopefully we are prepared and our team is going to be efficient enough to do that.”

SMU is not the only team breaking in a new quarterback. The Red Wolves will start redshirt junior Logan Bonner on Saturday. Duggan said the A-State staff believes Bonner is ready to go, and has to accomplish a few key things in order to be successful on Saturday.

“I think he just has to play within the scheme and not try to do too much, take what is given to him, don’t force anything, and just lead by example,” said Duggan. “He is in charge of the offense and if he is under control and feels like the is the leader the guys are going to respond to him. The big thing is no turnovers and just trying to manage the game. The first game is always about mistakes and turnovers, and that is the message we are preaching to him. We are trying to make it user friendly on Saturday not completely knowing what we are getting from out opponent, so we just have to go out and execute.”

“I can’t say enough positive things about Logan Bonner. We’ll look to him no matter the situation. He’s the leader of this team. That’s what you need from your quarterback,” said Arkansas State offensive coordinator Keith Heckendorf. “You see transfer quarterbacks all over the country right now. (Bonner) is a guy who has waited his turn for three years and been a great team player. Everyone is excited to see him get the opportunity to lead this football team.”

Though it was speculated throughout the offseason, Bonner was officially announced as the starting quarterback when the depth chart was released Monday morning. He will have enormous shoes to fill as Sun Belt Player of the Year Justice Hansen’s heir, but, according to Heckendorf, the Red Wolves don’t need another Hansen to be successful.

Bonner is a gifted athlete with great arm strength and on-field awareness, though Heckendorf noted he “has a little gunslinger in him” as well.

“The message for (Bonner) and all the quarterbacks is that they don’t have to do anything special. Play within the system and manage the offense,” Heckendorf said. “They’ve got a lot of help around them. All they have to do is get the ball to the playmakers.”

Duggan also noted what his message has been to the team since he was named interim head coach last week when Blake Anderson took a leave of absence.

“It has been a challenging week, but when Blake first notified us he was stepping away I had to first come to grips that I had to do it my way,” Duggan said. “Blake’s message and my message are the same, but we have some different verbage. Blake is obviously a little more of an eloquent speaker than I am, but the message was we’ve been prepared for this and we have known there was a possibility of this happening. Our Athletic Director Terry Mohajir, Blake, and myself have been sitting down periodically during the summer preparing for it. We got the worst news of the day, and we were praying that it wouldn’t happen, but we had the message that he was going to take his leave of absence at that time and we started to implement our plan to try to make changes as minimal as possible for the players. I thought that was the most important thing for the consistency to stay the same with the daily schedules and the practices.”

Duggan noted that defensive line coach Ed Pinkham will serve as interim defensive coordinator until Blake Anderson returns, and he can assume the role once again.

“We have done a little bit of stuff on the defensive side of the ball to compensate for me,” Duggan continued. “With me leaving at certain times for practice and being pulled out of the office. It is the type of situation where we have a plan in place. We have an unbelievable staff here. I believe things happen for a reason. I have a defensive line who is a defensive coordinator that I have worked for. Ed Pinkham has 30-something years of defensive coordinator experience, so when I have to leave we speak the same language. We break the game down the same way with the same terminology, so they are comfortable when I have to leave.”