In a Sun Belt Conference that is as expansive as ever thanks to the additions of James Madison, Old Dominion, Southern Miss and Marshall, the Appalachian State Mountaineers are still riding high on the wave of momentum they’ve had since they joined the FBS conference in 2014.
App State — a perennial Sun Belt powerhouse that has accumulated a 73-19 record over the past seven seasons — had won six straight bowl games before losing to Western Kentucky in last year’s Boca Raton Bowl.
Although they are missing 13 starters from the 2021 roster that took home the Sun Belt East title with a 10-4 overall record, the Mountaineers and third-year coach Shawn Clark are still expected to battle for a conference title while attempting to avenge last year’s Sun Belt Conference Championship Game loss to Louisiana.
Reigning Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year Chase Brice is back for his second year after a 2021 campaign in which he threw for an App State single-season record 3,337 passing yards to go with 27 touchdowns with 11 interceptions.
The former Duke and Clemson quarterback gets back most of his offensive line but lost his three top passing targets — Corey Sutton, Thomas Hennigan and Malik Williams — to graduation. The trio accounted for more than 73% (2,456) of the team’s receiving yards in 2021. Christian Wells (12 catches for 243 yards last year) will be stepping into the top wideout role with fellow juniors Christan Horn and Dashaun Davis joining him on the depth chart.
The running back corps should again be strong with the return of All-Sun Belt candidates Nate Noel, Camerun Peoples and Daetrich Harrington powering the Mountaineers’ pro-style scheme that helped the team finish second in the conference last year in total offense and scoring. Wake Forest transfer Ahmani Marshall will likely factor into the running game as well.
Despite the losses at wide receiver, new App State offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay will still have quality weapons in his offense’s arsenal.
The Mountaineers limited opponents to just 22.1 points a game last year and ranked highly across the board in defensive categories in the Sun Belt, but App State’s defense will be in the revamping stage after losing five of its top seven tacklers.
Linebackers D’Marco Jackson (last season’s Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year) and T.D. Roof, and linemen Caleb Spurlin and Demetrius Taylor are all gone from the front seven.
There is still experience at both positions, including at linebacker where Nick Hampton, Brendan Harrington and Trey Cobb will need to step up and take on a bigger role.
Cornerback Steven Jones Jr. is back for his senior year after helping a secondary that led the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense in 2021. Aside from Jones, however, the defensive backfield is thinner than it was last year after losing top corner Shaun Jolly along with starting safeties Kaiden Smith and Ryan Huff.
Sophomore Michael Hughes will step in as the team’s placekicker as Chandler Staton’s five seasons of eligibility expired last year.
Meanwhile, redshirt senior Clayton Howell is promoted from the holding duties he’s held over the past few seasons to being the team’s punter. Back in 2018, Howell was named a Freshman All-American with a net average of 41.9 yards and an overall average of 43.6 yards as App State’s primary punter.
In a stacked division, App State is among the teams that have a shot at winning the Sun Belt East crown. For the Mountaineers, there are still some question marks on both sides of the ball — a lack of experience at wideout and in the secondary — but there is still enough talent for the team to compete for a conference title.
Weeks 1 and 2 will each be a test as UNC comes to Boone on Sept. 3 before the Mountaineers travel to No. 6 Texas A&M on Sept. 10. The team’s Sun Belt slate of games should be smooth sailing aside from hosting conference challenger Georgia State (Oct. 19) and road games against Coastal Carolina (Nov. 3) and Marshall (Nov. 12).
Being competitive against the Tar Heels and Aggies could give the Mountaineers the boost they need to run through the Sun Belt and return to a spot in the Top 25.