First-time starters shine for A-State

Arkansas State defenders, including Justin Rice (18) and Kenneth Harris (3), converge on Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn during Saturday’s game in Manhattan, Kan.

JONESBORO — Arkansas State’s 35-31 victory over Kansas State yielded some unlikely heroes along with the anticipated headliners for the Red Wolves.

Nine players made their first career start for ASU and others shined in unexpected roles on a day when the Red Wolves were without 13 players who were listed first or second on the depth chart.

Lineup changes were common last year as ASU used 39 different starters in an injury-filled season. Now the Red Wolves are dealing with absences related to COVID-19 protocol as well.

“There’s a lot of guys who would love more snaps and love more opportunities,” offensive coordinator Keith Heckendorf said during ASU’s weekly press conference Monday. “At times guys get those snaps and get those opportunities, and they’re not prepared for them. You see that every week. These guys on this team have bought into the team, they put the team first and when they got their opportunities, they were ready for them.”

Redshirt freshman center Ethan Miner, junior tackle Wyatt Luebke and junior receiver Roshauud Paul, a Texas A&M transfer, made their first starts on offense. First-time defensive starters included senior safety Elery Alexander, junior end Vidal Scott, junior linebacker Fred Hervey, sophomore linebacker Jaden Harris, freshman cornerback Taylon Doss and sophomore cornerback Samy Johnson.

Alexander made a game-high nine tackles against Kansas State after being credited with one against Memphis. Harris was not listed on the participation chart in the Memphis boxscore, then made seven tackles against K-State.

Senior linebacker Justin Rice, a Fresno State transfer who joined the Red Wolves during fall camp, moved from outside linebacker to middle linebacker last week and made four tackles, including three behind the line of scrimmage.

“We didn’t miss a beat with Justin, he seemed to be right on point with everything we were asking him to check,” defensive coordinator David Duggan said. “Jaden did the same thing. The one thing they did was they attacked the ball. I said, ‘I don’t care if you make a mistake. Just play hard.’ If you play hard, good things will happen, and across the board defensively, I was really happy with our effort.”

Hervey came up with a sack in the final minute of the game and freshman cornerback Kenneth Harris was credited with two pass breakups, one in the final minute.

Sophomore TW Ayers played defensive end after catching a touchdown pass as a tight end in the opener. Ayers came up with a sack while giving the Red Wolves valuable depth on the defensive line.

Moving forward, Duggan said Ayers figures to have a role on both sides of the ball.

“I know the offense uses him in certain packages, so he’ll continue to do what he’s doing right now, I think, for the entire season,” Duggan said. “They’ll use him in their big package and I know he has meeting time with both sides of the ball, so he’s getting tapped out. He’s doing a great job of trying to catch up with assignments on both sides.”

Heckendorf said Miner developed more confidence as the game progressed and added that Luebke also played well against the Wildcats. Paul was ASU’s second-leading receiver with four catches for 77 yards and a touchdown.

“Last year we went through a similar thing. One game we went in with our fifth-string running back and the kid went in there and did a great job,” Heckendorf said. “Last week we had two offensive linemen make their first start. They did a great job. Wasn’t perfect, but as the game went, you could see their confidence build and that builds depth in our team.”