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King: Expectations change for Red Wolves

LITTLE ROCK — Identified by an Arkansas State University insider as a realist about Red Wolves’ football, David Kenley had completed his brief assessment of the 2013 season when Michael Crump wandered up and proclaimed himself to be the realist in the group.

Contradicting a profile obtained in advance, Crump was not wearing rose colored glasses. Hanging out in the War Memorial Stadium pressbox, waiting on ASU first-year coach Brian Harsin to address a group of Red Wolves enthusiasts, Kenley reacted to Crump’s proclamation by rolling his eyes.

Believing that ASU fans have every reason to expect more victories than Arkansas supporters, I had asked a former co-worker to line up a couple of ASU grads who have a good grasp of expectations in Jonesboro. For sure, a total of 20 victories the past two seasons has altered perceptions of ASU’s place in the world of college football. Well aware that the Southeastern Conference and the Sun Belt are apples and oranges, we’re simply talking about the Red Wolves winning more games than the Razorbacks — the first time in memory that such a scenario makes sense in August.

Talking to Crump and Kenley separately, their outlooks are very similar, rooted in returning linemen and a confidence that the Red Wolves’ overall talent is at least equal to that of the other contenders in the Sun Belt Conference — a position preferable to a blind belief in a coaching staff.

Both believe Harsin will produce 2013 a third straight successful season, following Hugh Freeze in 2011 and Gus Malzahn in 2012. Both suffered with ASU for years; older fans for much longer.

A regular in the Division I-AA playoffs in the mid-80s, ASU moved up to Division I in 1992 and went 2-9. From there through 2010, the best ASU did were six-win seasons under Steve Roberts in 2006 and 2008.

In those days, Crump would have been happy with the occasional 7-5. No more. Seven, he said, would be a bit of a letdown.

“I’m not expecting to win 10 games,” he said, “but it wouldn’t be a surprise.”

ASU naysayers cite the departure of quarterback Ryan Aplin, but the optimistic take is that the offensive line and the running backs will produce a running game that will lighten the burden on the quarterback.

Standing at a podium, back to the pressbox glass with the field far below, Harsin delivered his message clearly, emphasizing buying tickets and using them. Smoothly, he handed off a question about facilities and explained that a decision about the starting quarterback would be shared in private with the players before it is announced. His declarations rang true except for the one lauding the rap skills of defensive coordinator John Thompson, a holdover from the previous staff.

Harsin told the group that the 20 wins the past two years have nothing to do with 2013 except that “it gets harder because the bulls-eye gets larger.” Brick by brick — underlined with a brick in the locker of each player — is the team motto and reacting to “sudden change” has been an emphasis throughout practice.

Asked to define a successful season, he answered with a crowd-pleasing “win every game,” but added that no coach looks at his schedule and says this or that is an optimal number of victories.

Regurgitating info gained from conversations, ASU, Troy, Western Kentucky, Louisiana-Monroe, and Louisiana-Lafayette are all contenders in the Sun Belt and Bobby Petrino might have the best schedule in his first year at Western with home games against three of the other four contenders.

ASU is better than Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Idaho, but will have a difficult time winning at Auburn or Missouri, even though both are expected to be in the lower echelon of the SEC. That leaves a Sept. 21 trip to Memphis as a swing game.

Optimists and realists should be happy with 8-4.

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Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.

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