#parent | #kids | Appalachian State football is a consistent winner. Can it reclaim Sun Belt throne?


It’s a testament to the high standards at Appalachian State that you have to ask how the team feels after a 10-4 season.

Ten wins is an accomplishment for anybody. The Mountaineers won the Sun Belt East division again. They beat a ranked FBS team for the first time since the 2007 upset of Michigan. It was an improvement from the year before. That’s a mighty successful season. But they lost the Sun Belt championship game for the first time, and they lost a bowl game for the first time as an FBS team. Championships and bowl wins are the norm on the mountain.

“It was a very successful season that didn’t end the way we wanted, but we played for championships,” head coach Shawn Clark said. “Any time you win 10 games, you’re doing something good. Disappointing but not discouraged at the end.”

App State has been one of the most consistent FBS programs since moving up in 2014. The Mountaineers won at least a share of four consecutive Sun Belt titles from 2016 to 2019. They’ve won at least nine games for seven consecutive years. A new end zone facility opened last season. The goals in 2022 are the same as every other year: Win the conference and compete for a New Year’s Six bowl. That will be harder than ever this time. Not only because of some key losses on the roster, but also because the Sun Belt is bigger.

Marshall, Old Dominion, James Madison and Southern Miss are now in the league. Those first three moved into the Sun Belt East division with App State and are thus on the schedule, making for a daunting conference slate along with games against Coastal Carolina and Georgia State, plus nonconference games at home against North Carolina and on the road at Texas A&M.

“I think the Sun Belt will be the premier Group of 5 conference in the country,” Clark said. “If you look at the East division, it’s like the SEC West. You’re going to have to play your very best. I’m glad Marshall is back. It was an old Southern Conference rivalry. We played them last year on a Thursday night and we sold out the stadium. That’s cool for our fans. We set a single-season and Sun Belt attendance record last year. We have a passionate fan base. They tell you what you do good and what you do bad.”

The 2022 Mountaineers have a veteran quarterback and a stable of good running backs behind an experienced offensive line. Though the defense has to replace a number of stars, if history is any lesson, the Mountaineers should be right near the top of the Sun Belt again.

“Everyone’s questioning if Appalachian has lost our touch,” Clark said. “We were very spoiled as a program and people forget 10 wins is a good season. People think this could be a rebuilding year, but I don’t see it that way. I think we have all the right pieces.”


Camerun Peoples started only four times last year but has 2,237 career rushing yards. (Andrew Wevers / USA Today)

Offense

The 2021 App State offense was as explosive and effective as previous seasons, but in a different way. The Mountaineers were 22nd in scoring and 32nd in yards per play, not much different from 28th and 27th in those stats in 2020. The difference came in the passing and rushing numbers.

App State finished 24th nationally in yards per pass attempt, up from 56th the year before, as Duke transfer quarterback Chase Brice threw for a school-record 3,337 yards and earned Sun Belt newcomer of the year honors. The rushing attack, meanwhile, finished 42nd in yards per rush, down from fifth in 2020. Still, the Mountaineers had two backs with at least 900 rushing yards in now-junior Nate Noel (first-team All-Sun Belt in 2021) and senior Camerun Peoples (second team). With both of those running backs returning and the top four receivers graduated, will this Mountaineers team lean back on the running game again?

Former offensive coordinator Frank Ponce left for Miami (Fla.) after one season and was replaced near the end of spring by Kevin Barbay from Central Michigan. He’s the offense’s fifth different play caller in five years. CMU running back Lew Nichols III led the nation in rushing as a freshman in Barbay’s offense last year.

“I think we’ll be very balanced,” Clark said. “We were very fortunate to get Kevin Barbay. Hopefully he stays more than one year. He came in during spring, we watched how he evolved the offense and brought new ideas. It was fun to see things we haven’t done before around here, will which evolve our offense to score a lot of points.”

Brice is back, and as Clark says, when your starting quarterback is back, you can sleep at night before the first game. Brice, who began his career as a backup at Clemson, was a turnover machine at Duke (21 turnovers in 2020), but he took better care of the ball with 30 total touchdowns and 11 interceptions as App State had perhaps its strongest passing attack in modern history in 2021. Former Memphis and Texas State quarterback Brady McBride transferred in with two years of eligibility, but this will be Brice’s offense.

“He’s got a really strong arm,” Barbay said. “He knows when to put touch on the ball. He works the pocket well with his feet. He’s not going to scramble too early. The experience helps a ton. He’s been in so many different systems, and that experience will help as we communicate about things.”

Having Noel (1,126 rushing yards in 2021) and Peoples (926 yards) gives the rushing attack a two-headed monster. Noel is 5 feet 10, 190 pounds, and Peoples is 6-2, 220. Both can hit big plays, and that’s not all. With junior Anderson Castle (5.02 yards per carry last year), returning senior Daetrich Harrington (1,425 career yards), Wake Forest transfer Ahmani Marshall and true freshman Kanye Roberts (3,511 rushing yards and 64 TDs as a high school senior), this backfield is loaded.

“We have six running backs, in my opinion, who can start anywhere in our conference,” Clark said. “That’s going to be the challenge for Kevin and our running backs coach to get guys touches. We have to find some way to be creative and get those guys the ball. Usually, (numbers) five and six are on the scout team, but they’re going to play in games this year.”

The receiver room is the opposite situation, with four seniors departing. The leading returner, junior Christian Wells, had 12 catches for 243 yards. Coaches pointed to juniors Christian Horn and Dashaun Davis, SMU transfer Tyler Page and UCF transfer Kaedin Robinson as players expected to fill the roles.

“I think (Horn) is going to be a really explosive dude that is a good route-runner,” Barbay said. “Christian Wells impressed me, has a lot of versatility. … Dashaun Davis is a really quick and fast guy on the inside.”

Having 6-foot-3 returning senior tight end Henry Pearson, who had 11 catches for 153 yards in an honorable mention All-Sun Belt season, helps as well.


Christian Wells is one of the few returning wideouts with experience. (Jim Dedmon / USA Today)

Up front, Clark spent most of spring working with the offensive line himself again as he searched for a new position coach.

That group, which has been App State’s foundation for decades, returns four starters, all seniors: left tackle Anderson Hardy, left guard Damion Daley, right guard Isaiah Helms and right tackle Cooper Hodges, who enters his fourth year as a starter and is a three-time All-Sun Belt honoree. The center spot is open, and redshirt freshman Troy Everett is the favorite to win the job. Helms can also play center if some bodies need to move around.

“It let me get back with the boys again and coaching football,” Clark said of his spring with the offensive line. “It was good for my soul, good for our offense to get back to the nuts and bolts of techniques.”

The App State offense has been consistently solid for years despite all the coordinator changes. The Mountaineers have finished in the top 25 nationally in plays of 30-plus yards for four consecutive seasons. He may be new, but Barbay knows what works here.

“I’m a firm believer that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said. “These guys have done a great job on offense. The most prevalent thing to me here is the culture. It took me a day and a half to understand why App State wins like they do. We have a great culture of being tough and gritty. It’s a locker room full of guys that enjoy being the underdog.”

Key stat to know: Despite the explosive plays and the good per-play numbers, the Mountaineers were 128th in turnovers and 93rd in third-down conversions (down from fifth in 2020).

Mountaineers returning production

Category Percent returning Top returner
Passing yards

91

Brice, 3,337

Rushing yards

96

Noel, 1,126

Receiving yards

18

Wells, 243

OL starts

80

Three with 14

Tackles

55

Cobb, 75

Tackles for loss

54

Hampton, 17.5

Sacks

48

Hampton, 11

Interceptions

66

Jones, 5

Defense

Last year’s App State defense returned 10 starters and a lot of depth. Its per-play yardage and scoring numbers slipped outside the top 25 nationally, but the Mountaineers forced a lot more negative plays, finishing sixth nationally in tackles for loss per game.

“Two years ago, we were a bend-don’t-break defense, but last year we were much more aggressive,” defensive coordinator Dale Jones said. “It fit the players we had. Every year, you have different pieces to the puzzle.”

Several players who played a key role in that aggression must be replaced, including four of the front seven starters and two defensive back starters. Up front, nose tackle Jordon Earle is back, but two new defensive end starters are needed in the three-man front. Jones pointed to sophomore Deshawn McKnight and senior Hansky Paillant as the likely starters. McKnight was a 220-pound linebacker out of high school who showed up to Boone at 280 pounds with his 6-3 frame and quickly moved to defensive end. He had 2.5 TFLs in about 150 snaps last season and will take on a much bigger role.

“Being the first time at that position, we were really pleased,” Jones said. “He had a good spring and we’re excited about his progress. He’s got reps now.”

At linebacker, gone is 120-tackle machine and Sun Belt defensive player of the year D’Marco Jackson on the inside and T.D. Roof on the outside, leaving two open starting spots. Returning senior Trey Cobb is back on the inside after racking up 75 tackles, 5.5 TFL and three interceptions last season, earning second-team All-Sun Belt honors, while senior Nick Hampton and his team-leading 11 sacks and 17.5 TFLs are back on the outside. Hampton was third-team all-conference in 2021.


Nick Hampton finished second in the Sun Belt with 11 sacks. (Jasen Vinlove / USA Today)

Brendan Harrington is expected to slide back into a starting spot on the outside as well. Jones said he might have been the team’s best defensive player in 2020, but a shoulder issue hampered him through seven starts last season. He recorded 31 tackles before undergoing offseason surgery.

The open inside linebacker job is still up in the air. Jones said redshirt freshman Kyle Arnholt will be a special player in the future, but coaches need to see how fast he can adapt. Arkansas transfer Andrew Parker and returning seniors Logan Doublin and Tyler Bird will also be in the mix for snaps.

“It’s probably the only position at this point we’re not sure of, because of youth and a new guy,” Jones said. “I think it won’t take them long to be ready to go.”

The defensive backfield is led by cornerback Steven Jones Jr., who had 51 tackles and five interceptions, returning three of those picks for touchdowns and earning All-America honors. Jones missed spring recovering from shoulder surgery. Returning senior Ryan Huff is also back at one starting safety spot. Senior Nick Ross is expected to take over the other starting safety job after starting two games last season, and sophomore Ronald Clarke will be in the rotation.

The other cornerback job is open. Junior Milan Tucker came to App State as a corner. He moved to receiver and then back to corner and will be back in the mix in the secondary, along with junior college addition De’Jon VanHook.

“We’ve got experience back there, but not like we’ve been in the past with guys who had been here forever,” Jones said. “That corner spot, if we get that nailed down, we feel we can be as good as we were last year, for the most part.”

The Mountaineers defense has been one of the most consistent in the country, finishing in the top 30 nationally in scoring defense for seven consecutive seasons. This year’s defense has to replace a lot of key pieces, but the coaches are optimistic about the potential.

“The biggest thing is our speed,” Jones said. “We have outstanding speed. We recruit kids like that to play in space, and when you have that, you always have a chance.”

Key stat to know: App State’s defense was all-or-nothing last season, finishing sixth in tackles for loss per game and 91st in plays of 30-plus yards allowed.

Special teams

There will be two new starting specialists. Sophomore kickoff specialist Michael Hughes will be the field goal kicker. He’s yet to kick a field goal in a college game. Returning senior punter Clayton Howell was named a Freshman All-American by The Athletic in 2018, but he was later beaten out for the job and hasn’t punted in a game for the past three years.

In the return game, Jalen Virgil returned two kicks for touchdowns last year but is gone. Tucker is likely to take over the kick return. A new punt returner is needed as well.

Opposing scouting report

Coaches in the Sun Belt expect App State to be the favorite to win the league, with perhaps the most talented roster in the conference.

“They have an unbelievable tradition and fan base, so their game day atmosphere and the way their program is is a big-time feel,” one Sun Belt head coach said. “They’re able to attract quality recruits because of that, the excellence sustained over time. … Them and Louisiana are always going to have the best players in this league. (App State is) always good up front on both sides of the ball. That’s where they typically win their games.”

As for the 2022 Mountaineers, the coach was impressed with Brice in their matchup last season and felt he filled the one hole they had.

“He played tremendous (in the second half of the season),” the coach said. “He really stabilized them after losing the quarterback from the previous year. It was going to be their question mark and Chase came in and had the needed experience.”

As for any questions or potential weaknesses, the coach pointed to App State’s coaching turnover, with three head coaches since 2018 and a new offensive play caller every year, hoping that will trip them up at some point.

“I hope that because of all the coaching turnover, maybe there are some inconsistencies in recruiting and maybe not as much depth,” the coach said. “As an opposing coach, I hope that’s the deal. You know they’re gonna have good backs. You know they’re gonna be good up front. That game is always physical. But I’m hoping maybe the three offensive coordinators in three years, maybe the (continuity) isn’t there.”

How the Mountaineers recruited from 2019 to 2022

App State is always near the top of the Sun Belt in the recruiting rankings, though not at the very top. Yet the Mountaineers are always in the mix for the conference title because they find the right players. That comes from decades of success at the FCS and FBS levels.

“It’s different here on the mountain,” Clark said. “You can’t recruit stars. You can’t recruit someone just because they have other offers. You have to recruit guys that want to come to Appalachian State, get a degree and play for championships. We say, if you’re looking for the nightlife and all that, Boone’s probably not the place for you. It’s been that way since 1989 when Coach (Jerry) Moore was here. It’s about values and people.”

The Mountaineers have a strong hit rate. They regularly perform better than the class rankings. The 2017 class, ranked 107th at the time, ranked 13th in Max Olson’s re-rank in 2021. App State never gets blue-chip recruits but has four NFL Draft picks in the past three drafts.

Nate Noel was an unranked three-star recruit out of Miami. Same with Trey Cobb. Nick Hampton was a two-star player. So was Cooper Hodges. Year after year, App State finds these diamonds and develops them into all-conference players by their third or fourth seasons.

“We look them in the eye and ask if this is the place they want to be,” Clark said. “If there’s any second-guessing, then we really don’t want you. Before we take a commitment, they have to be on campus, and it has to be a fit. There have been guys on campus with multiple offers that we didn’t think fit our program. We’ll stay with that and keep a spot for two for the portal and coach as hard as we can.”

In the transfer portal

The Mountaineers plan to annually use the portal to help with depth and fill a hole or two, but not much more than that, because they’re not often losing players to the portal. Only two App State players transferred out to FBS programs: Starting linebacker T.D. Roof transferred to Oklahoma to play under his dad again, and backup quarterback Navy Shuler transferred to Tennessee, where his dad played. That was it.

The Mountaineers needed receivers, so they added Tyler Page from SMU and Kaedin Robinson from UCF. A middle linebacker spot is a question mark, so they added Andrew Parker from Arkansas. Brady McBride came from Texas State as a backup QB to compete for the job next year. In total, App State added six transfers, the number Clark expects to be around each year.

“I did not want to be in the world of transfers. I don’t think you can sustain success in the portal, but that’s the world we live in and we had to adjust or get left behind,” Clark said. “If there’s a player that fits our culture and is one of us, we’ll be aggressive with them. But if not, we’ll stay with the high school kids, because we are a developmental program.”


Shawn Clark has a 20-7 record as App State’s head coach. (Jim Dedmon / USA Today)

Impact of coaching changes

There are three new assistants on Clark’s third staff. The offensive coordinator change mentioned earlier is the headliner. Clark must have a good eye for talent because his first two offensive coordinators were hired away to Power 5 programs (Ponce to Miami, Tony Petersen to Illinois). Clark found Barbay through Central Michigan head coach Jim McElwain, whom Clark had visited in past years.

“I know he wants to do things the Appalachian way, but this is his offense,” Clark said. “He’s not going to be handcuffed. Whatever you want to do, do it. If you look at their tape last year, they were very efficient on offense, beat Washington State in the bowl game. He’s always been on my list.”

Clark also added Texas A&M analyst Lawrence Dawsey as wide receivers coach and Geep Wade as offensive line coach. Dawsey was Florida State’s receivers coach from 2007 to 2017, winning a national championship in 2013.

“He’s been a big lift for offense,” Clark said of Dawsey. “He’s played in the NFL, coached at the highest level, he brings in new ideas, and that’s why I like him.”

Schedule

Date Team Site
Sept. 3

Home

Sept. 10

Away

Sept. 17

Home

Sept. 24

James Madison

Home

Oct. 1

Home

Oct. 8

Away

Oct. 19

Home

Oct. 29

Home

Nov. 3

Away

Nov. 12

Away

Nov. 19

Home

Nov. 26

Away

Final assessment

This could be one of the best rushing offenses in the country with the deep group of running backs, an experienced offensive line and App State’s history. As long as a couple of workable receivers emerge, this should be a strong offense again. The defensive holes are big questions, and there is no time for growing pains with the difficult first two games.

In the end, the Mountaineers expect to always contend for the Sun Belt title, and they should do so in 2022.

(Top photo of Nate Noel and Chase Brice: Reinhold Matay / USA Today)





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