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Harsin looks to continue success at Arkansas State

Thursday - 8/15/2013, 6:08pm  ET

AP Sports Writer

Bryan Harsin knows a thing or two about dealing with change, having gone through four head coaches during his time as a player at Boise State.

Harsin has relied heavily on that experience since being hired last December as the head coach at Arkansas State, where he's the school's fourth head coach in as many seasons.

The Red Wolves haven't gone through head coaches because of a lack of success. In fact, it's been largely the exact opposite case at the school -- which has risen from one-time afterthought in the Sun Belt Conference to back-to-back league champion the last two seasons.

Two years ago, it was Hugh Freeze who left after one season for Mississippi. Last year, Gus Malzahn followed Freeze to the Southeastern Conference, taking over at Auburn.

Enter Harsin, the former Texas co-offensive coordinator whose coaching roots go deep at the school Malzahn held up as the model for what he wanted Arkansas State to be -- Boise State. The 36-year-old takes over a team that's 20-6 the last two seasons, one that hopes to remain among the Sun Belt's best this season despite the graduation of two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year Ryan Aplin.

Quarterback questions and all, Harsin likes what he's seen so far from the Red Wolves -- who return four starters on the offensive line and feature first-team All-Sun Belt David Oku in the backfield. Harsin believes it's his job to add to, not completely rebuild, an Arkansas State team that enters the season on an eight-game winning streak.

"Our job as coaches was to get in here and implement our philosophy and our plan on the schemes we're going to run, and the values we're going to have in our program," Harsin said. "But to do in a way that went along with what they've done. ... We've taken the approach to be a part of it, and hopefully be a good addition the helps them continue building the tradition that this group of guys have built."

Five things to watch as Arkansas State looks to remain on top of the Sun Belt:

1. UNDER CENTER: Aplin was the unquestioned leader the last two seasons for the Red Wolves, who won last season's Bowl over Kent State. Harsin has yet to name a starter this preseason, with senior Phillip Butterfield and Utah State transfer Adam Kennedy leading the way. Fredi Knighten is also in the mix, and Harsin hopes to narrow down the field after a scrimmage this weekend.

2. OKU'S TIME: David Oku arrived at Arkansas State last year as a former top recruit who underperformed at Tennessee. The senior lived up to expectations last season, rushing for 1,061 yards and 16 touchdowns for the Red Wolves. After yet another coaching change -- Harsin marks Oku's fourth coach in four seasons -- the running back has high hopes for this season. "We're hungry for more," he said. "Our goals are a lot higher, and we expect to be one of the best now. People are holding us to a high standard now, and we're holding ourselves to that standard also."

3. FAMILIAR FACE: The Red Wolves open the season at home against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Things get interesting in the second week, however, with a trip to Auburn and Malzahn. The game marks one of two SEC teams Arkansas State faces this season, with the other coming against Missouri.

4. IDENTITY CRISIS: Arkansas State was well known under both Freeze and Malzahn for its up-tempo offense, and it was a method for success. Harsin has done his best to mix the old with the new this season, keeping former Malzahn assistant Eli Drinkwitz on staff as a co-offensive coordinator along with Bush Hamdan. The one area Harsin expects to carry over from his days with Boise State is to bring a physical style of play, on both sides of the ball. "It takes a little bit of time to transition from one identity to the next, especially when you've had success," Harsin said. "The biggest thing for us is we don't want a whole lot of comparisons to coaches they've had or guys I've coached. Let's make no excuses for what we're doing; this is who we are."

5. GETTING DEFENSIVE: Harsin likes what he's seen so far from Arkansas State's defensive line, led by preseason All-Sun Belt pick Ryan Carrethers. Rocky Hayes has also performed well exclusively at cornerback after seeing time on offense last year, and linebackers Qushaun Lee and Kyle Coleman anchor the middle of the defense. Harsin's theory on defense is a simple one: "I just want guys that hunt in packs and get to the ball," he said.

Predicted finish in the Sun Belt: Third.

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