As I wrote earlier this week, the Arkansas State Red Wolves have their work cut out for them on Saturday just to remain competitive in this matchup with the Buckeyes. There is just no other way to put it, given that the Red Wolves finished 2-10 last year, and were blown out a number of times.
The two marquee games on their 2021 schedule were against Washington and Coastal Carolina, and A-State dropped those contests by a combined score of 104-23. The program has been in a freefall since 2019, which was the last of their nine consecutive winning seasons. Gus Malzahn, Bryan Harsin, and Blake Anderson all found success with the team, but Butch Jones might have one of the steepest hills to climb in all of college football.
The biggest factor in Arkansas State’s lack of recent success has been the play of their defense — and it’s not even close. Since 2018, the Red Wolves have finished no better than 112th (out of 130 teams) in scoring defense. They have also surrendered more than 480 total yards per game to opponents during that time, and done so in a variety of ways. In 2020, the team gave up an average of 314 yards through the air. In 2021, they reduced the aerial assault to 244 yards/game, but saw their defense trampled to the tune of 261 rushing yards (!) per. All told, A-State finished ahead of only one team (Duke) in total yards allowed, while giving up 39 points per game. Their reward for 2022 is Ohio State in Week 2...
But alas, a defensive player will be previewed this week. Especially if he has “super” family ties, shared the field and a locker room with Nick Bosa, once held an offer from the Buckeyes, and is currently coached by a national champion from their ’02 team! That player’s name is Kivon Bennett, and he is this week’s Defensive Player to Watch.
Bennett is in his second season with the Red Wolves, after appearing in 28 games over four years with the Tennessee Volunteers. He was a high three-star recruit out of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Florida, where he played next to Nick Bosa on the team’s defensive line. Bennett graduated one year after Bosa, and chose Tennessee over a number of other schools — including Ohio State, from whom he had received an offer in December of 2015.
The former Volunteer followed in his father’s footsteps, at least when it comes to the conference in which he decided to pursue his college football dream. Kivon’s father is Cornelius Bennett, former No. 2 overall draft pick and five-time Pro Bowler in the NFL. He (the elder Bennett) dominated in the SEC, earning three All-American nods and a Lombardi Award while at Alabama before spending 14 borderline Hall of Fame-worthy years in the league. In addition to being named to five Pro Bowls, Cornelius Bennett was also named First Team All-Pro on three occasions, and played in five Super Bowls! His football acumen was clearly passed down, as Kivon eventually became an accomplished player in his own right.
But the younger Bennett did not find a ton of early success in Knoxville. He appeared in just a handful of games during his first two seasons, not making an impact at all on the defensive line. He then switched to linebacker prior to the 2019 season, and began to find his footing as a college player. In 17 games at his new position, Bennett totaled 49 tackles, 13.5 TFL, and 6.5 sacks for the Volunteers. However, his time at UT came to a quick and premature end in December of 2020. He was dismissed from the team following an arrest on gun and drug charges, for which he later pled guilty to misdemeanor charges.
Fortunately for Bennett, he had an ally of sorts in Butch Jones. The new A-State coach recruited him while at Tennessee, and apparently there was enough of a relationship there that the hybrid defender felt comfortable joining his former coach again with the Red Wolves. Having played multiple roles in the past, Bennett once again found himself on the defensive line. But this time, it worked out well for all parties involved.
He finished last season ranked second in the Sun Belt with 15.5 tackles for loss, and fourth in the conference with eight sacks. For his achievements, Bennett was named Second Team All-Sun Belt, and now seems poised to potentially follow in his father’s NFL footsteps.
Interestingly enough, Bennett’s current defensive coordinator is none other than Rob Harley. The great nephew of legendary Chic Harley, Rob was a former walk-on and member of OSU’s 2002 national championship team. He then spent time coaching linebackers at Michigan State, Florida International, and Pittsburgh before landing his first coordinator job with the Red Wolves in 2020.
Harley apparently had another position change in mind, as Bennett began practicing (once again) with the linebackers during the team’s spring sessions. Although clearly familiar with the position, he was used as more of a pass-rushing specialist in Tennessee’s 3-4 base defense. It could take some time for the sixth-year player to get comfortable playing “traditional” LB, but in the meantime, he is likely to be used in a hybrid role, due to his ability as a pass rusher.
Bennett’s move to LB was likely made out of necessity, given the fact that A-State’s other options were/are woefully undersized. Melique Straker started five games at LB for them last year, at 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, which might be a 21st century record for that position. He could potentially move to defensive back at some point, but Jaden Harris has been entrenched as another starter in the middle. Harris is only listed at 6-foot-1, 215. Finally, Jordan Carmouche is yet another option for the Red Wolves. He began playing college football in 2016... as a running back at Houston. I would say that is less than ideal size and experience for the LB position.
Arkansas State is clearly coming in overmatched, but Bennett is still a guy to watch out for. He has a versatile skillset, solid experience, and most importantly he has shown an ability to get after the quarterback. The Red Wolves might not deploy him as a rusher as often as he is used to, but if gets C.J. Stroud in his sights... watch out. Bennett is clearly the biggest threat to Ohio State’s offense, so I expect him to receive plenty of attention. I will be watching him too to see if he can make things uncomfortable for the Buckeyes, and possibly show off some future NFL potential.