App State football media day: Mountaineers preparing to take whatever they can get in 2020

Silas Albright, Reporter

Even with all the confusion and unknowns 2020 has brought so far, the Mountaineers and their first-year coaching staff made it through spring ball, finished up summer workouts and walkthroughs, and are set for fall training camp, which starts Aug. 7. 

“Our guys are very mature, and they’ve handled this better than I thought they would,” head coach Shawn Clark said. “That’s a credit to those guys in our locker room—they have a lot of experience. Like I told them last night in our meeting, whatever we get, we’re gonna take it and go with it.” 

Before the pandemic forced plans to change, App State had a pair of trips to play Power 5 opponents on its non-conference schedule: Wake Forest on Sept. 12 and Wisconsin on Sept. 19. The Big 10 announced July 9 that it would be moving to a conference-only schedule, eliminating the Wisconsin game from App State’s schedule, and on Wednesday, the ACC released its full football schedule. But, App State isn’t Wake Forest’s one non-conference opponent. The Demon Deacons will play Old Dominion on Oct. 9.

“We’re very disappointed, not just for our players, but for our fans,” Clark said. “It’s a game that’s 85 miles apart, with two (in)-state schools. I know our administration and Doug Gillin worked day in and day out, 24 hours a day, to make sure this game went on.” 

Clark said when Gillin came to him and asked if the two teams should play, he replied, “We’ll play in front of a full crowd, half crowd, quarter crowd or no crowd.” 

Clark pointed out that in recent years, App State and Wake Forest have fought the battle for the best college football team in North Carolina. He said his team was looking forward to settling the argument on the field.

“I came off the field this morning and I (saw) they’re playing Old Dominion, which makes no sense to me,” Clark said. “We’re an hour and 15 minutes away, we have great fans in that area, it’s a great game for college football.” 

The Monarchs went 1-11 a season ago and haven’t won since their season opening 24-21 win over Norfolk State on Aug. 31 of last year. On the other hand, App State returns 10 of its offensive starters and seven of its defensive starters from a 2019 squad that went 13-1 and became the highest ranked Sun Belt team ever. 

One area of importance for App State in 2020, especially defensively, will be rotating players in and out of games and practices for experience. Defensive coordinator Dale Jones said this is important because if someone gets sick or injured, there needs to be another guy ready to move up on the depth chart. 

The Mountaineers have several key position groups competing for the first slot on the depth chart over the duration of fall camp.

It’s no secret that it’ll be tough for App State to fully replace the dynamic skill set that former running back Darrynton Evans took with him to the Tennessee Titans as their third round pick in this year’s NFL Draft. 

However, the running back group returns a pair of experienced and talented players with senior Marcus Williams Jr. and junior Daetrich Harrington. Williams is one of three active players in the Sun Belt to rush for over 500 yards in each of the past three seasons, while Harrington rushed for 319 yards and two touchdowns on just 50 carries a season ago. 

“Those guys have really changed their bodies,” Clark said. “Coach Brad (Bielanic) has done a great job in the weight room for those guys.” 

Clark also said redshirt sophomore Camerun Peoples is back to “full speed” and is “looking good” after missing nearly all of last season with a knee injury. Clark also mentioned true freshman Nate Noel and redshirt freshman Ben Williams as guys he’s been impressed by. 

“(Noel) catches your eye; he’s very Darrynton Evans-like, he’s very smart, he’s fast and he can catch the ball out of the backfield,” Clark said. 

The Mountaineer wide receiving corps returns four experienced seniors with Corey Sutton, Thomas Hennigan, Malik Williams and Jalen Virgil. 

“I think our receiving group is one of the tops in our conference, if not college football,” Clark said. 

At the quarterback position, senior Zac Thomas solidified himself as the starter and commander of the offense. The 2018 Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year started under center for the Mountaineers for the last two seasons and has amassed a 23-3 record over that time.

“I think our quarterback is the best player in this conference,” offensive coordinator Tony Petersen said.

On the defensive side of the ball, the most obvious hole is at the linebacker position, where the Mountaineers lost standouts Jordan Fehr and Akeem Davis-Gather to the NFL. Davis-Gaither was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the fourth round and Fehr signed a free agent contract with the Minnesota Vikings. 

“It’s hard to say ‘you will replace Jordan Fehr and Akeem Davis,’” Clark said. “Those guys were all-conference players, three and four year starters who were outstanding players.” 

At the inside linebacker slot, Clark expects juniors D’Marco Jackson and Trey Cobb, sophomore Jourdan Heilig and transfer T.D. Roof to make plays in 2020. 

For the outside linebacker position, Clark said the team will have to find out what happens in camp, but sophomores Kesean Brown and Brendan Harrington are two guys who could end up getting a lot of playing time. 

With all the uncertainty still swirling around the final schedule or what stadiums will look like this season, Clark and the Mountaineers are focused on fall camp and simply “controlling what they can control.”