App State Football: Coverage notes from Media Day

App State Football: Coverage notes from Media Day
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By David Rogers. August 4, 2018. BOONE, NC — Saturday was Media Day at Kidd-Brewer Stadium for Appalachian State University’s football program and only Day 2 of pre-season training. We came away from the series of interviews with players and coaches, as well watching a good deal of the afternoon practice with high expectations for the Mountaineers for the 2018 season. Some random notes about OFFENSE:

  • Players and coaches alike shared a common goal: to end the regular season with the best record in the conference, which would mean earning the right to host the first-ever Sun Belt Conference Football Championship game at Kidd-Brewer Stadium.
  • Although App State graduated a number of high profile seniors last year (remember QB Taylor Lamb, OLs Beau Nunn and Colby Gossett, DB A J Howard, LB Eric Boggs, WR Ike Lewis, LB Devan Stringer, DL Tee Sims, and DL Caleb Fuller, all All-Sun Belt Conference selections?), this year’s edition of the Mountaineers has the potential to be better, even with those big shoes to fill.
  • But there remain a lot of question marks for this young team. Offensively, a lot is going to hinge on how well the offensive line comes together to [a] protect the quarterback, and [b] open holes for the running backs. In our opinion, the OL’s performance as a unit may well make or break the season. Left tackle Victor Johnson, still just a junior, is a preseason All-Sun Belt selection and is joined on the left side by sophomore left guard Ryan Neuzil as the probable starters in those positions. The right side has question marks as to who will step up to fill Nunn’s and Gossett’s shoes, but the leaders appear to be a pair of sophomores in RG Baer Hunter and RT Matt Williams. Another sophomore, Noah Hannon returns at center. There are some talented guys behind them but most without many snaps at the college level.
  • Among the promising freshman on the offensive line is a local product, Josh Headlee, who played on both sides of the ball at Watauga High School. He anchored a Pioneer offensive line that opened holes in 2017 for 4,311 yards rushing, but was also the co-defensive player of the year in the Northwestern Conference and selected to play in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas in 2017, as an offensive guard. When asked by Blowing Rock News about the young talent’s progress and ceiling as a college offensive lineman, co-offensive coordinator Shawn Clark broke into a big smile and said, “He’s bigger than he initially looks and should grow into becoming an outstanding football player.”  With four offensive line alums now playing in the NFL (Gossett, Nunn, Kendall Lamm, and Daniel Kilgore), App State’s coaching braintrust could be the ticket for Headlee, as well as for the other young OLs on the roster.
  • We didn’t necessarily see it in Saturday’s drills, but the guy initially tabbed as the starting quarterback this season, sophomore Zac Thomas, is described by coaches as having a stronger arm than the graduated 4-year starter Lamb, as well as a better runner. Co-offensive coordinator Frank Ponce said that the Trussville, Alabama native, Thomas, “…separated himself from the other quarterbacks in the spring.” In drills, most of his throws showed very good placement, as well as pace.
  • Thomas leads a fairly strong quarterback room. Blowing Rock News contributor David Coulson, who is in his 26th year of covering Mountaineer football, noted, “No one among the current roster of QBs has established himself individually to the level of, say, Armanti Edwards, Richie Williams, or Taylor Lamb, among some of the other great quarterbacks that App State’s offense has featured, but of course they haven’t had the chance yet. But as a unit, this crop of quarterbacks is more talented at the position than probably any previous Mountaineer group of QBs, providing great depth at the position.”
  • We only saw half of the QBs in the first half of Saturday’s practice, but there was a lot to see. Besides Thomas, that group included:
    • Stephon Brown (Freshman). Highly recruited, listed as 6- 5, 210 lbs. Very athletic, but like a lot of freshmen needs to fill out a bit. Looks to have a very live arm with a lot of “zip” on the ball, but early in the session the ball tended to sail over his intended targets and was often behind his receivers. A raw talent that will grow into the speed of the college game.
    • Jackson Gibbs is a redshirt freshman who is not expected to play this season per NCAA rules governing transferring players, in this case from UCLA. The 6-1, 190 lb. grandson of former NFL coaching legend Joe Gibbs (Washington Redskins) and one of the premier team owners in NASCAR (Joe Gibbs Racing), the younger Gibbs had good accuracy and pace on the ball in Saturday’s drills. Interesting pedigree and as a freshman last year, we understand he was #3 on the depth chart at UCLA.
    • Again, it was only the second day of practice without contact or pressure, but there was a lot to like about the delivery of redshirt freshman Tanner Wilson, who as a senior led an unbeaten Reidsville (NC) High School to a state 2A title in 2016. On Saturday he looked pretty sharp. We didn’t observe him run — which is a key QB skill in App State’s multiple spread offense — but he rushed for 271 yards and 6 TDs as a Reidsville senior, while completing 153 of 236 passes for 2,523 yards and 37 TDs vs. only five interceptions.
    • The remaining QB candidates that practiced in the second half of Saturday’s drills were senior Zeb Speir, sophomore Jacob Huesman, and redshirt freshman Peyton Derrick. Huesman and Derrick are listed on the depth chart as the lead candidates to back up Thomas at the position.
  • One of the most impressive units, in our opinion, is the group of athletes at the wide receiver position. Not to take anything away from individual alumni at the position like Brian Quick (Washington Redskins) or Malachi Jones (“Rookie of the Year” and “Wide Receiver of the Year” in the Arena Football League and currently on the NFL’s Chicago Bears pre-season roster), among others, but the 2018 receiving corps has the potential to be something special IF the offensive line gives the QB time AND the QB can deliver the ball. Some individual notes from Saturday observations:
    • Sophomore Thomas Hennigan got stronger in the off-season, as well as lost 8 pounds, he noted to Blowing Rock News on Saturday. He said that his 40-yard dash time is step or two faster, and that he was aiming for more explosiveness to gain separation from defenders. Hennigan was one of Taylor Lamb’s most reliable targets last year en route to the Mountaineers’ Sun Belt championship and Dollar General Bowl win.
    • Corey Sutton is a good sized (6-3, 200 lbs.) sophomore transfer from Kansas State. Outstanding quickness and ball skills, coaches described him as already the “best route runner” on the team.
    • Darrynton Evans, another sophomore, will play both wide receiver and running back, as well as take some snaps as a kick and punt returner on special teams. In his press conference on Saturday, head coach Scott Satterfield indicated that he was really looking forward to the different ways that Evans can help the Mountaineer offense as such a versatile and very intelligent student-athlete.
    • Huntersville, NC native and Hopewell HS alum Dominique Heath will be immediately eligible as a graduate transfer from Kansas State. At 5-9, 175 lbs., he is among the smallest of the App State receivers, but looked to have exceptional quickness and athleticism in drills on Saturday. At K-State, he had some impressive outings, including 101 yard performance at Oklahoma in 2016 that featured a 54 yard TD reception. The same year, he churned up a 52 yard TD run on an “end around” against SEC power Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl. A threat in the Mountaineers’ “jet sweep?”
    • Sophomore Jalen Virgil may well have the most upside of any of the Mountaineer receivers. After running a 10.2 in the 100 meters during track season, Virgil reinforced the notion that he may be one of the fastest football athletes in the nation. Beyond sheer speed and elusiveness in space, he has good size at 6-2, 211 lbs. If he can improve his route running and gaining separation in traffic, we are excited about Virgil’s very high ceiling and potential to be among the best student-athletes that App State has ever produced. In interviews, he is very articulate, so it is obvious that he is likely excelling in the classroom, too.
    • Malik Williams, yet another sophomore, comes back listed on the pre-season depth chart as a starter after an impressive freshman campaign in 2017. Out of Chester, SC, he was named 3A “Player of the Year” for South Carolina his senior year in high school. In drills, he ran low with the kind of cuts that will gain separation from defenders. Very good hands.
    • Braden Collins. Who, you say? He’s a 6-2, 195 lb. freshman from Knoxville, TN and that state’s Region 1 “6A Athlete of the Year”. Watching him in drills, we saw outstanding athleticism, very quick feet, good hands, sharp cuts. Reminded us of when we saw Hennigan for the first time last year.  Of course, it is only the second day and these were just drills without contact, but we doubt his play will be compromised by contact since he also played strong safety for Knoxville’s Farragut HS. Biggest question is whether coaches will redshirt him given the depth at the position.
    • Other receivers we didn’t get a chance to see include: Senior Mock Adams, sophomore A’Darius Purifoy, freshman Dysaun Rasaak, freshman A J Hall, senior Brad Absher, redshirt sophomore Trey McCollum, freshman Richard Tucker, redshirt freshman Jake Henry, sophomore Michael Queen
  • The other offensive unit that sports some of the best depth in talent that we have seen in our eight years of coverage is at the running back position, beginning with senior Jalen Moore. That overall positional depth could be a big help for Moore in staying healthy because a rotational system at RB would keep him OFF the field for good chunks of time, not overworking him. That said, Moore is a special student-athlete, emphasizing the student as much as the athlete. In speaking with him on Saturday, when asked about his goals for the season he did not hesitate in responding that not only does he want to prove that he is a good football player, but also “a good guy and a good teammate.” He spoke of his leadership role as a senior and because of his career accomplishments and the responsibilities he treasures in serving as a mentor for some of the newer, younger guys.  Other RBs to watch out for:
    • Marcus Williams, Jr. is a sophomore who came into his own when Moore was sidelined with an injury. including 125 yards on 25 carries against UMass and 130 yards on 28 carries in the win over Georgia Southern. In game simulation drills on Saturday, good action and deft hands in catching passes out of the backfield.
    •  was redshirted in 2017 due to injury, but AppNation should be excited for his return as both a running back and wide receiver — and return specialist.  As a true freshman in 2016, his 94-yard kickoff return for TD against Toledo in the Camellia Bowl was the spark that ignited an App State comeback win. APP coaches rave about his versatility and football IQ. We remember our first real notice of him in Darrynton Evanshis 2016 freshman year was at Akron. As game photographer that day, I had moved to a position directly behind the end zone and, after an Akron punt, App State was starting a possession inside their own 5-yard line.  Evans came in on a rotation to give Moore a breather, and promptly punched up the middle for a good gain, exhibiting not only good quickness to find the hole, but impressive power as he pushed through much larger defenders.
    • Daetrich Harrington, sophomore, saw a lot of action in Moore’s injury absence, including as the game’s leading rusher in the season finale vs. Louisiana (118 yards on 17 carries, including a 15-yard TD romp). He was injured in the spring (torn ACL), but Satterfield says he is coming back (“May not be ready for the first game against Penn State, but probably the second vs. Charlotte).
    • D’Andre Hicks is a redshirt freshman who was recruited as a defensive back, but began the conversion to college RB last year when the position suddenly became “thin” with injuries to Moore, Evans, and now graduated senior Terrence Upshaw. Hicks is a versatile athlete to begin with, having played quarterback his senior year at Charlotte HS, as well as seeing action as DB, RB, and WR during his prep career. Coaches say he may be among the fastest guys on the team, which is saying a lot for a team that features the likes of sprint star Virgil. A question mark for Hicks is his size when he makes contact. Co-offensive coordinator Clark described Hicks as “170 pounds soaking wet” but, given space, he could be an explosive runner.
    • Satterfield described freshman RB Cameron “Cam” Peoples as the type of running back with potential rarely seen at App State. At 6-2, he has a bigger frame and will likely beef up in the months and years ahead in his career working with the strength and conditioning pros on the App State staff, but he exhibited a lot of natural talent and athleticism in Saturday’s practice. Given the new team depth at the running back position, the Lineville, Alabama native may be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new rules regarding redshirting, which allows players to play in four games before coaches have to make a decision to redshirt an athlete or not.
    • Running backs we did not observe in practice were sophomore Demarcus Harper, freshman Nakendrick Clark.

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