Recent years have seen a quiet giant residing in Kidd Brewer Stadium. It is underrated, unheralded and often underestimated. It calls itself “The Legion of Boone” and it is the secondary of the Mountaineers’.
The defensive backfield has spent the past few years as one of the top units in the Sun Belt conference and is a threatening group on the national stage. Last season, sophomore cornerback Clifton Duck and then-senior Mondo Williams both found themselves on the Sun Belt’s All-Conference first-team with senior defensive back AJ Howard receiving an honorable mention.
Duck also walked away from the season with the conference’s freshman of the year award, as he started every game as a true freshman for the Mountaineers.
The man at the helm of the cornerbacks’ group is Bryan Brown, who has been coaching at Appalachian since 2012, and has helped turn the secondary into one of the nation’s top pass defense units.
The corners he has coached combined for 10 interceptions last season and 15 in 2015, and the Mountaineers as a whole had 38 interceptions over the last two seasons, the third most in the nation.
This season, the defense has the task of replacing starters in Williams and safety Alex Gray, but according to Brown it’s not as simple as “next man up.”
When asked for the names of who to watch out for, Brown said that everyone is going to have to step into their roles and play at the level that is expected of Mountaineer defensive backs.
“All of them, just all of them, they’ve done an outstanding job all summer, all spring and in fall camp,” Brown said. “You look at guys like Tae Hayes at corner and Josh Thomas at safety, you have a lot of guys that will give us a lot depth and when it comes time for them to play, hopefully they’ll be mistake-free.”
With the new season, Williams is gone and Duck will take over as the true No. 1 corner. Last year showed that Duck is not easily affected by outside pressure, as he pulled in five interceptions, second in the conference and most amongst freshmen.
Hype built around Duck as the season progressed and he was recognized nationally when he landed on the USA Today’s Freshman All-American Team and on the Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-American Team.
It will be this former-freshman phenom that will be getting most of the attention this season, but he wants to put the team ahead of himself and focus on being the best teammate he can be.
“This year obviously I want to do more than what I did last year,” Duck said. “But I don’t want to get outside of myself and do anything that would hurt the defense.”
App State’s secondary might be the scariest position group on the team, and it’s led by one of the squad’s scariest players. Howard is going into his senior season as a Mountaineer and has been an ever-present force for the team since he was a freshman. A hard-hitting strong safety with a nose for the ball is a valued commodity in football, and having him be a leader on the team is a bonus that is valued by the younger players like Duck. Howard finished the first game of the season against Georgia with 11 tackles.
“He can play four different positions in our defense, he knows the whole defense inside and out and what everyone’s supposed to do,” Duck said. “He makes sure everyone is doing what they need to do and he’s one of the most vocal guys in our secondary. Having him back there is a huge advantage to our team.”
Every year in college football comes with turnover, it is the nature of the game. Williams and Gray are gone and now is the time for Duck and Hayes to step up as starters. Part of that cycle is learning from those who came before you, and according to Duck, players like Williams and Gray have set up the current players for success and a better season than 2016.
“Each year you can tell it’s getting better and better because we take those seniors and those seniors pass down the tips,” Duck said. “It just keeps going and cycling through and we get better than the year before.”
Expectations for the entire team are higher than they’ve ever been and the defensive backs might have the heaviest weights on their shoulders on the team. Between replacing fan-favorite players and a young star pushing for national recognition, all eyes are going to be on “The Legion of Boone” this year, and they’re completely fine with that.
Story By: Ian Taylor, Sports Reporter
Photos By: Dallas Linger