Appalachian State, Charlotte open season with in-state matchup

The Mountaineers, led by new coach Shawn Clark, host a 49ers program on the rise under second-year coach Will Healy

Charlotte coach Will Healy, right, leads the 49ers into Boone for a season-opening game against coach Shawn Clark's Mountaineers. (AP Photos)

Appalachian State might be on its third head coach in three seasons, but according to the latest man to hold down the job, the effect of the rapid turnover won’t be as dramatic as most think.

“The good thing about our program is we have an identity,” Shawn Clark, the former offensive line coach who took over after Eliah Drinkwitz left for Missouri after one successful season, said last week in a virtual media conference. “We know what we’re going to do on offense. We know what we’re going to do on defense. And having those 11 practices early in the spring helped a bunch.

“Getting to camp, we picked up right where we left off in March. I’m not sure what we have to find out this week, but we’re going to be very detailed and get all the small things cleaned. We’re ready to go and we could kick off today if we needed to.”

Clark and his Mountaineers will have to wait until Saturday to finally get their coronavirus-delayed 2020 season underway.

And when they do, it won’t be against the opponent they were originally scheduled to play.

The Mountaineers were supposed to play at Wake Forest on Saturday in a game that was canceled when the ACC eliminated three of its teams’ four nonconference games. Instead, they’ll face off against another in-state rival when they take on Charlotte in Boone.

“We know the history of that program and what kind of team they have coming back,” 49ers coach Will Healy said. “Shawn Clark is a really, really good person and he does a great job. I know he’s going to keep them rolling.”

If last year’s meeting is any indication, the game will be a high-scoring affair. It was a 56-41 shootout won by the Mountaineers on their way to a 13-1 record.

Despite the unexpected loss of Corey Sutton, the team’s second-leading receiver last season who opted out over COVID-19 concerns, App State should be just as potent offensively with the return of three-year starting quarterback Zac Thomas, top receiver Thomas Hennigan and four offensive linemen selected to the preseason All-Sun Belt Conference team.

Charlotte also returns plenty of firepower as it looks to build on the momentum gained from its first bowl appearance in Healy’s debut season last fall.

Not only is dual-threat quarterback Chris Reynolds back after throwing for 2,564 yards, rushing for 767 yards and accounting for 26 touchdowns, but so are his top three receivers.

And while the 49ers will have to replace their all-time leading rusher Benny LeMay, who is currently on the Cleveland Browns’ practice squad, Healy has filled the void with transfer Tre Harbison, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher at Northern Illinois.

“Anytime you have a great quarterback like Chris Reynolds, he’s always going to be giving you problems because he can extend plays,” Clark said. “They do a really good job on offense. They get in a bunch of unbalanced sets and put your defense in a bind.”

Even though Charlotte’s defense lost its anchor when pass-rushing specialist Alex Highsmith was taken in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Healy likes his team’s chances in its challenging opener.

“I’m not scared of them,” Healy said of the Mountaineers. “But I understand the task at hand and how well we’ll have to play to have a shot.”

Like Healy, App State’s Clark said he doesn’t anticipate feeling any nerves in his first regular season game as a head coach.

He likely got those out of the way last December when he took over for Drinkwitz and led the Mountaineers to a 31-17 win against UAB in the New Orleans Bowl.

“The bowl game helped quite a bit, to be honest with you,” Clark said. “But it’s business as usual, and we have a job to do here at App. There’s always a detailed plan and we have great coaches here and we’ve stuck to the plan, never deviated from the plan when things went awry. Again, we’re just excited to get going.”

While Saturday’s opener is something of a step down in competition for an Appalachian State team that had hoped to flex its muscles against Power 5 opponents Wake and Wisconsin in the season’s opening few weeks, it’s the first of several opportunities for Charlotte to enhance its stature against in-state opponents.

The 49ers will play North Carolina in Chapel Hill next week and at Duke on Oct. 31.