Ohio State will host the Arkansas State Red Wolves in Columbus this week, for what is sure to be... an official football game. I am not sure what else to say folks, other than good luck to the 2019 Camellia Bowl winners. Under new head coach Butch Jones, the Red Wolves finished 2-10 last season, and were generally considered to be one of the worst teams in the FBS. However, they did kick off their 2022 campaign with a 58-3 drubbing of Grambling.
You may remember Jones as the man who once inherited Brian Kelly’s players at Cincinnati, and parlayed that into the Tennessee job. He has since been fired from UT, and spent time at Alabama as on over-qualified intern, before accepting the A-State job in 2021. His first squad struggled with a below-average offense and one of the worst defenses in the country last year — which has unfortunately become the norm for them. They are likely coming in as a sacrificial lamb, but this game against the Buckeyes should give them valuable experience and a national stage for their best players.
One of those players is sixth-year quarterback James Blackman. The crafty vet spent four years in the ACC at Florida State – where he was a 12-game starter as a true freshman – before making his way to the Sun Belt and joining the Red Wolves in 2021. He started five out of six games last season, missing the final six due to injury. On the right day, in the right moment, Blackman comes across as a skilled passer. But he has struggled to put it all together on a consistent basis. Inconsistencies aside, he is this week’s Offensive Player to Watch.
Once considered the No. 7 pro style QB in his recruiting class, Blackman found himself in a tough situation at Florida State. The team had already began a descent into mediocrity, and there were few high-end talents in his supporting cast. He was then thrust unexpectedly into a starting role due to the injury of Deondre Francois. After that, it seemed like he was destined to fail in Tallahassee. How Jimbo Fisher got away with lighting the match that ultimately torched the house, we may never know... But Blackman was not bad as a wet-behind-the-ears QB in 2017. He threw 19 TD and helped lead the team to a bowl game, even after Fisher’s resignation.
Blackman appeared in just four games in 2018, eventually redshirting the season. However, one of those games was a 421-yard, four-touchdown performance against North Carolina State, where he was able to show off some of his natural passing ability. He then re-entered the lineup (as a captain) in 2019, making 12 appearances and starting 10 games for the Noles. He enjoyed a few more 300-yard, multi-TD games against the likes of Boise State and Boston College, but ultimately ended the season with a stinker in the Sun Bowl (1 TD, 4 INT against Arizona State). After making four more appearances in 2020, Blackman finally made the decision to move on from his odd FSU journey, and is now hoping for one last run with the Red Wolves.
The tall, lanky QB passed for more than 300 yards in three of his five starts in 2021, but only completed 59.6 percent of his passes. It was a Jekyll & Hyde season for the most part, which ended in disappointment for both he and the team. But he looked good in his team’s opener, completing 75 percent of his passes for 210 yards and two scores. Now the Red Wolves will attempt to score points on a new Buckeye defense, although it would be the shock of the century if A-State were able to keep up in the slightest.
While Blackman does possess an above-average arm, harnessing its accuracy has been a challenge from time to time. As a true freshman, he completed 58.2 percent of his passes. Typical first-year stuff, so I think we can give him a pass for that one. He then hovered around 64 percent in 2018 and 2019, but dropped down to a career-worst 56.6 in 2020. The numbers were not much better in 2021 (59.6), leaving him with a 60.3 career mark. However, there were signs that he may have turned a corner in his first season with the Red Wolves.
Blackman began the year with a pedestrian 16-of-26 passing performance against Central Arkansas, before lighting up Memphis to the tune of 306 yards and 4 TDs. He also completed 19-of-28 passes in that game, good for a 67.9 completion percentage. However, a road game at Washington severely impacted his season totals, and skewed the perception of just how accurate Blackman was as a passer. In that game, he only completed 16 of his 38 passes, which equates to 42.1 percent.
It was a dreadful performance, but if removed from the equation, his completion percentage improves to 63.3 for the season. This is not to say Blackman will be any better against Ohio State than he was Washington, but it does show that he can sling it with accuracy on occasion. He completed 15-of-20 passes in the Wolves’ opener, albeit against inferior competition.
The A-State signal caller adds very little with his legs, and I’m not entirely surprised, given that he is 6-foot-5, 190 pounds. Blackman is slight in frame, but does appear more athletic than the rushing stats would have you believe — as evidenced by his two rushing TD last weekend. He can move well in the pocket and extend plays, which he will need to do against the bigger, faster OSU defense. He also does not have a strong ground game to back him up (four rushing TD as a team in 2021), so much will be on his shoulders come Saturday.
This matchup is the first ever between Arkansas State and Ohio State, and it is difficult to predict any sort of success for the Red Wolves. That won’t stop Blackman from giving it his all, and attempting to hook up with the diminutive Champ Flemings (5-foot-5, 145(!) with 122 yards in A-State’s opener). If he re-captures the magic he had against NC State in 2018 or Memphis last season, there is always a chance he could give the Buckeyes a few fits. I’m just not banking on it.