Appalachian State ready to compete with the big boys

One of the nation’s winningest teams has two big Power Five showdowns

Appalachian State running back Darrynton Evans stepped in for injured senior Jalin Moore last season and is now considered a pro prospect. (Gerald Herbert / AP Photo)

Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma.

Since the start of the 2015 season, those four teams — perennial college football playoff contenders — are the only teams in FBS with a better winning percentage than Appalachian State.

The Mountaineers are 41-11 over that span for a .788 percentage, and, if things go as expected this season, that number could be rising.

App returns 10 of 11 starters on offense and six on defense from last season’s 11-2 Sun Belt champions.

With most key contributors coming back, the biggest change in Boone is on the sideline, where Scott Satterfield took his 4-0 bowl record to Louisville. He’s been replaced as App head coach by Eliah Drinkwitz, who most recently was the architect of the record-breaking NC State offense as Dave Doeren’s offensive coordinator.

The Mountaineers return starting quarterback Zac Thomas, who threw for 21 touchdowns and more than 2,000 yards last season and ran for 10 more scores. He’s on the watch lists for the O’Brien, Maxwell, Manning and Camp awards.

Also returning is leading rusher Darrynton Evans, who gained 1,187 yards last season and scored seven touchdowns. He’s on the watch lists for the Camp, Walker and Hornung awards, as well as being on the radar of several NFL teams.

Evans’ breakout season helped the team withstand the loss of Jalin Moore, the sixth-leading rusher in program history who went down with an injury in the fifth game last season. He’s now busy trying to make the New York Jets roster and is the most significant loss on offense for the Mountaineers.

Cornelius product Corey Sutton is also back. He had 44 catches for 773 yards and 10 scores last season. Tight end Collin Reed also returns after earning third-team All-Sun Belt honors.

Center Noah Hannon and first-team All-Sun Belt left tackle Victor Johnson lead a returning group of five offensive linemen who have started games for App.

The Mountaineers also added two grad transfers to the offense in lineman Joey Cave (Tennessee) and Western Michigan wide receiver Keishawn Watson.

Cave walked on at Tennessee and switched from defensive line. Watson was WMU’s leading receiver in 2017, catching 41 balls and seven touchdowns. He also threw two touchdown passes that year. Last season, he had 25 catches for 330 yards and two scores.

The defense may not be quite as loaded as the other side of the ball, but App State returns plenty of talent. Thomasville’s Akeem Davis-Gaither had 105 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks, seven pass breakups and two forced fumbles at linebacker last year. He’s up for the Bednarik and Butkus awards.

Hometown product Jordan Fehr joins Davis-Gaither at linebacker after a first-team All-Sun Belt season last year. Noel Cook, who led App with 11.5 tackles-for-loss last year, rounds out one of the best linebacking corps outside of Power Five — and better than many inside of it.

Safeties Desmond Franklin and Josh Thomas each recorded four interceptions last year. Both are back and on the Thorpe Award watch list.   

The secondary is bolstered by Illinois State grad transfer Willie Edwards, who started at corner each of the last two seasons.

The defense has to fill in for some departed contributors, including corners Clifton Duck and Tae Hayes, as well as linebacker Anthony Flory.

App is currently the only team in the state getting preseason poll votes, and the Mountaineers will have a chance to establish their presence as a North Carolina football factor with a September trip to Chapel Hill to face the Tar Heels. Depending on UNC’s start, there’s a good chance App will be favored in that game.

It might not be the same as winning at Michigan, but a win over the Heels would serve notice in the state. The Mountaineers also travel to South Carolina in November. App also managed to secure bye weeks in the weeks leading into both of those Power Five showdown games.

In conference, the Mountaineers face Georgia Southern (10-3 last year) at home on Halloween and finish the regular season Nov. 30 at Troy (10-3) in a game that could determine which team wins the Sun Belt East.

Appalachian State Mountaineers

2018 Record: 11-2 (7-1 Sun Belt)

Coach: Eliah Drinkwitz (0-0 career record)

Points Per Game: 37.3

Points Allowed Per Game: 15.5

Key Returning Players: Jr. QB Zac Thomas; Jr. RB Darrynton Evans; Sr. LB Noel Cook

Key Departed Players: CB Clifton Duck; RB Jalin Moore

Key Additions: Gr. CB Willie Edwards, Gr. WR Keishawn Watson

Key Game: North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Sept. 21