JONESBORO — While Arkansas State remains last among Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total defense, the Red Wolves’ recent trend on that side of the ball is more promising.

ASU has held opponents to an average of 418 yards per game over its last three games after surrendering 500-plus in six consecutive games, including three of 600 yards or more. The Red Wolves limited Louisiana-Monroe to 372 total yards Saturday as they broke an eight-game losing streak with a 27-24 victory.

Saturday’s game also saw season highs of six quarterback sacks and 14 tackles for loss for ASU (2-8, 1-5 Sun Belt).

First-year head coach Butch Jones said several factors have led to ASU playing better defense recently.

“First of all, being in our scheme, being in our system, there’s so many things that go into implementing a defensive system,” Jones said Tuesday. “Sometimes it’s understanding how you play plays, how your defense plays, your vernacular, your terminology. These individuals have been through a lot of defensive systems in their time here, so now all of a sudden you come in and they didn’t really have a lot of the football background in terms of how you label formations, how you diagnose different route concepts.”

Jones also pointed to improvement in effort and fundamentals as the Red Wolves adjust to his coaching staff’s expectations.

ASU is last among the 130 FBS teams in total defense, giving up 530.4 yards per game, but that average was above 578 yards until recently. The Red Wolves surrendered an average of 618.7 yards over a six-game period.

Opponents scored 20 touchdowns on plays covering 40 or more yards in ASU’s first seven games. The Red Wolves have allowed one such scoring play in their last three games, a 75-yard run by ULM’s Malik Jackson in the third quarter.

Senior end Joe Ozougwu said ASU has been able to limit such big scoring plays through practice.

“We started something called 11-for-11. In practice, we’ll make sure we have all 11 players do their job that one play,” said Ozougwu, who has 6.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. “If we have 11-for-11 players do their job, it eliminates that. That’s really been a big deal for us.”

Jones said the Red Wolves will be challenged defensively when they visit Georgia State (5-5, 4-2 Sun Belt) on Saturday. The Panthers rolled up huge numbers against ASU in each of the last two meetings. Georgia State had 722 yards of offense in a 52-38 victory over the Red Wolves two years ago, then produced 583 in a 59-52 loss to ASU last year.

“They have basically three running backs back there. The quarterback is pretty mobile,” Ozougwu said. “That’s going to be the most challenging part.”

Murray transferJunior running back Marcel Murray posted a social media message Tuesday announcing his intention to enter the NCAA transfer portal.

Murray rushed for 1,680 yards in his first two seasons with the Red Wolves, earning Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors in 2018, but has been limited to nine games while battling injuries over the last two seasons. He has played in just four games this fall, the limit for a redshirt season, and has 105 yards on 14 carries.

Jones expressed appreciation for Murray’s efforts at ASU.

“He’s been consistent and I have a lot of respect for him, but now it’s about moving forward and I think it’s important that we have players who want to be here, who want to build this program the right way, who want to win and see it through,” Jones said. “I respect everyone’s decisions. Everyone has different things and that’s why the portal is in place, to help them, and I support him and I’ll help him any way I can.”

Blackman returnsJones said junior quarterback James Blackman was returning to the team Tuesday.

Blackman, who has not played since suffering a shoulder injury in the first half against Coastal Carolina, was away from the team last week because of a death in his family, Jones said.

“First and foremost is getting him back here safely and then reassessing where he’s at from a health standpoint with his shoulder and also where he is from a mental standpoint as well,” Jones said. “I think that will be ongoing as the week progresses.”