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More secure in pocket; ASU's Hansen entrenched after this spring

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Photographs by Stephen B. Thornton

Arkansas State University quarterback Justice Hansen is shown in this file photo.

Justice Hansen has practiced throwing this offseason more certain that this year he would hold onto his spot as the starting quarterback at Arkansas State through the summer.

"I kind of feel like a lot of people are looking at me to be the guy," said Hansen, a redshirt junior and former Oklahoma transfer who finished the 2016 season passing for 2,719 yards, 19 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.

Hansen had the No. 1 spot coming out of spring practice last year until Pittsburgh graduate transfer Chad Voytik chose Arkansas State University in May 2016. Three Voytik starts and three losses into the 2016 season, Hansen regained the starting job and helped the Red Wolves earn a share of their second consecutive Sun Belt Conference championship. They also won their third bowl game in five years.

Hansen's performance earned the confidence of ASU Coach Blake Anderson.

"It was his job to lose going into the spring," said Anderson, who is entering his fourth season. "I think Justice has progressed."

Hansen entered the spring with last season's top rusher, junior Warren Wand (950 yards, seven touchdowns), back. Senior running back Johnston White (498 yards, five touchdowns) missed spring practice with a wrist injury. The group found that Anderson was implementing more of the run-pass options he favored while coaching at previous stops.

"Going into the spring, it was going to be a little different," Wand said. "We're emphasizing more pace, more run-pass option. Be ready to either run it or throw it every single play. So we had to get used to that."

The run-pass option offense is a staple of the Sun Belt Conference, according to third-year ASU defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen, which can at times rely on the quarterback run.

Five Sun Belt teams had quarterbacks who rushed for more than 300 yards last season. Hansen rushed for 298 yards, but he said any running role he'd have this season in the option mostly would be extending plays out of the pocket.

"We tweaked a few things here and there," Hansen said.

ASU also had to replace its entire offensive line and top receiver Kendall Sanders (38 catches, 553 yards, 7 touchdowns).

"We had some young guys step up," Wand said of spring practice. "It was actually a pretty good spring for the offensive line. They were willing to put their nose in there, and as a running back, I'm going to follow that every time."

In a projected depth chart provided by ASU, the offensive line will substitute size for the loss of experience. With the additions of Iowa State transfer and right tackle Jaypee Philbert (6-5, 314 pounds) and Tyler (Texas) Junior College transfer and guard Marvis Brown (6-3, 337), the ASU offensive linemen will be an average of 10 pounds larger than last year.

"I think we're closer to finding that five," Anderson said. "But I do think it's going to take the fall camp to solidify who those guys are."

The Red Wolves had to replace most of their defensive backfield, which is expected to be filled by junior college transfers who won't arrive on campus until June.

"You don't know what you actually have until you get those guys here," Cauthen said. "Our first time together won't be until camp starts [in August], and three weeks later, we play Nebraska. We'll try and take full advantage of what we have."

Cauthen helped sign junior college safeties Michael Johnson, who flipped his commitment from Nevada after a visit to Jonesboro; Darreon Jackson; and Jefferie Gibson, who played in 12 games for Clemson as a redshirt freshman during the 2015 season.

They will attempt to fill the void left by All-Sun Belt safety Money Hunter.

Cauthen expects junior college transfer Ronheen Bingham to fill in for the loss of ASU's second-leading pass rusher, All-Sun Belt defensive end Chris Odom. Bingham, a junior, had six sacks in 11 games for Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College last season. Cauthen also named senior Kyle Wilson as the replacement for leading tackler Xavier Woodson-Luster at middle linebacker.

UCA, UAPB update

The football programs at the University of Central Arkansas and University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff both have large personnel gaps to fill.

UCA, which had its first 10-victory season since its outright Soutland Conference championship in 2008, had to replace its two top scorers: running back Antwan Wells (593 yards, 10 touchdowns) and receiver Desmond Smith (893 yards, 8 touchdowns).

The Bears offense scored seven times in its Purple-Gray game April 8, and senior receiver Roman Gordon -- who had 312 yards receiving last season -- caught a 48-yard touchdown pass from returning senior quarterback Hayden Hildebrand.

UCA sophomore running back Carlos Blackman led the Bears in rushing as a true freshman last year, and he scored two touchdowns of 25 and 4 yards in the spring game. Redshirt freshman running back Kierre Crosley ran for a 67-yard score.

UAPB returned most of its offensive playmakers, except 2016 leading scorer and top receiver Willie Young (931 yards, five touchdowns). But the Golden Lions lost their top three tacklers from 2016, including second team All-Southwestern Athletic Conference linebacker Willie Duncan with 120.

Senior defensive end Nick Williams had seven tackles and 2½ sacks in UAPB's spring game May 3, and senior receiver Paris Mack caught 4 passes and 2 touchdowns, including a 51-yard score.

Returning senior quarterback Brandon Duncan missed the scrimmage due to an injury suffered in spring workouts.

UAPB finished 1-10 last season, its fourth consecutive losing season since winning the 2012 SWAC title.

Sports on 05/18/2017

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