JONESBORO — New Arkansas State head football coach Bryan Harsin announced two staff additions Thursday, retaining a key member of the current coaching staff and bringing in another coach he worked with at the University of Texas.
John Thompson will remain ASU’s defensive coordinator, the university announced. Thompson developed one of the Sun Belt Conference’s top defenses during his first year at ASU, and he is serving as interim head coach for the Red Wolves’ Jan. 6 game against Kent State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
Blake Baker, a defensive graduate assistant at Texas from 2010-12, is also joining Harsin’s staff as an assistant coach. Baker will be part of the defensive staff in a role to be announced later.
Thompson and Baker are the first assistant coaches named by Harsin, who announced Jeff Pitman as ASU’s director of strength and conditioning on Wednesday. Pitman worked with Harsin at Boise State and has been on staff at four other universities, most recently Western Carolina.
ASU (9-3) led the Sun Belt Conference in scoring defense and ranked third in total defense this year under Thompson. Four Red Wolves were selected to the All-Sun Belt defense, including first-team honorees in linebacker Nathan Herrold and defensive lineman Ryan Carrethers.
"I am excited about working with one of the top defensive coordinators in the country in John Thompson," Harsin said in a university statement. "He has done an outstanding job with our defense, and this will be a great opportunity for him to continue what he’s already accomplished in molding a championship-caliber defense here at Arkansas State."
Thompson has more than 30 years of experience at the college level, including 26 as a defensive coordinator. Previous stops where he served as defensive coordinator included Arkansas, Ole Miss, Florida, South Carolina, Memphis, Southern Mississippi and Louisiana Tech.
"I’m just excited about getting the opportunity to stay with Coach Harsin and this football team," said Thompson, who is a Forrest City native. "I’m looking forward to good things, getting this bowl game going and working with him and continuing what we’re doing and getting better."
Thompson took over a defense that lost seven starters from 2011, including New York Jets draft choice Demario Davis and two more regulars who signed with NFL teams as free agents. The Red Wolves endured a rough opener at Oregon, where they gave up 605 yards in a 57-34 loss, and they yielded 527 yards at Nebraska.
The turning point defensively came in the season’s fifth game against Western Kentucky, Thompson said, even though the Red Wolves suffered a 26-13 loss.
"I don’t think we really found ourselves until the first half of the Western Kentucky game," Thompson said. "We went into halftime of Western Kentucky knowing we had a chance to be a good defense. We got a hammered a little there in the second half, but we gained confidence in that game.
"One thing that came out of that game was we didn’t like the feeling. We haven’t had that feeling again. As a coach that’s all you can ask, that they go out and keep trying to improve and keep reaching for that. I think we did that just about every game. We got better and better and better, and we’ve got to play better Jan. 6."
ASU closed the regular season with a 45-0 victory over Middle Tennessee State for the Sun Belt championship, a game in which the Red Wolves allowed only 203 total yards. The Red Wolves forced 12 turnovers over their last five games.
Baker worked with Texas’ linebackers and defensive backs as a graduate assistant with the Longhorns. He lettered four seasons at Tulane and was a three-year starter for the Green Wave.
"We are excited to welcome Coach Baker to Arkansas State and our football program," Harsin said in ASU’s announcement. "Not only is he a quality coach with a great knowledge of the game, but he’s also had the opportunity to work under two great defensive coordinators in Will Muschamp and Manny Diaz during his time at Texas. He will bring a great deal of enthusiasm and energy to our coaching staff, and he will make a strong impact in recruiting for us as well."
The Red Wolves were scheduled for their last practice before the Christmas break Thursday morning, but Thompson let them go early after a surprise kicking contest.
"We got out there and we were going to do some special teams, knowing they’ve had seven practices already and it was time to go home," Thompson said. "After we kicked some field goals, we called them up and said, ‘OK, sudden change.’ The sudden change was we let the team pick three offensive linemen and three defensive linemen, and they had the opportunity to kick a 25-yard field goal (to end practice). The wind was against them, too.
"The first five kicks, I was worried about somebody getting hit because they were horrible, not even close. Guys were dodging. Before the kick got to the line of scrimmage, it was missed already. We were getting ready to practice on No. 6 and Chris Stone stepped up and hit it right down the middle."
That was the end of Thursday’s practice.
"Really a lot of fun," Thompson said. "It couldn’t have worked out any better because I don’t think anybody was ready to practice."
The Red Wolves return to drills Dec. 28. Thompson said ASU will focus on its game plan in the remaining on-campus practices and touch it up when the Red Wolves arrive in Mobile, Ala.