Breaking down each position group for App State football heading into 2020

Head+football+coach+Shawn+Clark+hoists+the+New+Orleans+Bowl+trophy+after+App+State%27s+31-17+win+over+UAB+on+Dec.+21.

Silas Albright

Head football coach Shawn Clark hoists the New Orleans Bowl trophy after App State's 31-17 win over UAB on Dec. 21.

Silas Albright, Dan Davidson, Connor Davidson, Cameron Burnett, Joey Magnani, and Jayson James

Quarterbacks (by Dan Davidson):  Senior Zac Thomas returns to Boone to lead the Mountaineer offense as the starting quarterback. Thomas was named the preseason Sun Belt offensive player of the year, and has been named to five preseason award watch lists. The senior has racked up a 23-3 record as a starter and sits at fourth most passing TDs in school history with 49. Backing up Thomas, senior Jacob Huesman and junior Jackson Gibbs provide additional experience to the position group. Huesman has seen action in 14 games across his career, including five last year, while Gibbs appeared in three games last year. In 2019, Huesman completed five of seven pass attempts for two touchdowns and zero interceptions. 

Running backs (by Jayson James and Silas Albright): Losing a great running back like Darrynton Evans to the NFL is tough for any offense, but App State still has plenty of talent and depth at the position. Head coach Shawn Clark expects the trio of Marcus Williams Jr, Daetrich Harrington, and Camerun Peoples to get the majority of the carries. Williams and Harrington have seen action in backup roles in the past and done well with their opportunities. Peoples showed an impressive glimpse of his skills when he took off and scored on a 63-yard run in the 2018 New Orleans Bowl win over Middle Tennessee State. Although there isn’t a clear No. 1 guy at the running back position, the App State offense typically places a heavy importance on the run game. Don’t expect the Mountaineers to get far away from that in 2020: they’ve had a 1,000 yard rusher each of the last eight seasons. That streak is tied with Ohio State for second longest in the country. Boise State ranks first with a 1,000 yard rusher each of the last 11 seasons. 

Wide receivers & tight ends (by Silas Albright): The pass catching unit for the Mountaineers is still one of the strongest groups on the roster, even with standout receiver Corey Sutton electing to opt out of the 2020 season. The wideouts are anchored by a trio of senior playmakers: Thomas Hennigan, Malik Williams and Jalen Virgil. Hennigan has started every game over the past three seasons while Williams has played in every game over that time, often starting at the slot receiver position. Virgil, an all-Sun Belt sprinter in the 100m in 2018-19, was ranked No. 3 on The Athletic’s national “Freaks” list coming into the season because of his blazing speed. Clark expects some young guys like true freshman Christan Horn and redshirt freshman Christian Wells to make an impact at the wide receiver position. As for tight ends, junior Henry Pearson will likely take the lead role. Pearson started in eight games last year. App State tight ends are typically utilized more for blocking than for pass catching. 

Offensive line (by Joey Magnani): App State’s offensive line is one of the team’s most highly-touted position groups with four out of five starters receiving preseason all-Sun Belt honors: Senior Baer Hunter, sophomore Cooper Hodges, and senior captain Noah Hannon all received first team honors. Senior Ryan Neuzil was named to the second team. Clark said sophomore Anderson Hardy and senior Cole Garrison will both see time at left tackle to begin the season. This unit is coached by title-winning App State alum Nic Cardwell, who returned to the program for his eighth season as a member of the Mountaineer staff after serving as a quality control coach on Scott Satterfield’s Louisville staff in 2019. Cardwell played for App State from 2004-07.

Defensive line (by Connor Davidson): The defensive line returns preseason first team all-Sun Belt selection defensive end Demetrius Taylor for his senior season in 2020. Taylor accounted for 44 tackles and seven sacks during the 2019 season and was named the Bronko Nagurski national defensive player of the week after the win at North Carolina. Senior Elijah Diarrasouba brings back leadership to a defense that holds a lot of respect for him. Diarrassouba was named one of six captains prior to the season. Junior George Blackstock also returns after making 35 tackles and three sacks last season. Seniors Caleb Spurlin and Tommy Dawkins Jr add depth and experience to the d-line unit. Sophomore Hansky Paillant has impressed coaches in training camp and is expected to see an increased role. Without losing too much on a very experienced defensive line, a similar performance to last year can be expected.

Linebackers (by Cameron Burnett): App State’s linebacker group returns starters at every position but will be looking to fill the large shoes of Akeem Davis-Gaither and Jordan Fehr who went to the NFL after last season. The 2020 group is led by junior inside linebackers Trey Cobb and D’Marco Jackson, as well as sophomore outside linebacker Nick Hampton. Jackson and Hampton both received preseason All-Sun Belt honors from Phil Steele. There are mostly returning players at the LB position, but there are four freshmen who will look to earn playing time in their first year with the Mountaineers. Indiana transfer T.D. Roof is eligible to play this year after sitting out 2019 per NCAA transfer rules. Overall, this group returns multiple experienced playmakers who will be complemented by the new faces at the position to try to help create the same impact the group had last year.

Safeties (by Ben Brady): App State football looks to new safeties to fill out the team’s defense in the upcoming season, replacing departed safeties Josh Thomas and Desmond Franklin. Senior Kaiden Smith, who worked frequently at strong safety throughout the spring, has appeared in 36 career games. Clark had only good things to say about the work Smith put in over the summer. Junior Ryan Huff, who has played often at free safety, started two Sun Belt games last season. Sophomore Nicholas Ross is another versatile playmaker who stood out last season, memorably catching a pick six at South Carolina to help the Mountaineers secure the victory. Sophomore Kaleb Dawson played in nine games last year as a redshirt freshman. The App State safeties are coached by Mark DeBastiani. 

Cornerbacks (by Connor Davidson): Leading the charge for the Mountaineer cornerbacks is junior Shaun Jolly. Jolly has gained a lot of national attention this preseason for his efforts in 2019 when he tied for first in the nation with a coverage grade of 91.7. Jolly is on watch lists for both the Nagurski Trophy and the Bednarik Award, which are given to the nation’s best defensive player. Joining Jolly is senior Shemar Jean-Charles who made 45 tackles in 2019 and added nine pass breakups, good for second on the team. Jean-Charles is a strong presence in the locker room as he was voted a captain by his teammates before the season. The cornerbacks performance will be crucial to the success of the defense this year.

Kickers (by Jayson James & Silas Albright): The 2020 Mountaineers return a deep kicking class from last year. With the return of starting kicker Chandler Staton for his senior season, the Mountaineers have an experienced and battle-tested No. 1 kicker. Last year, Staton went 11-of-16 on field goals and 72-of-73 on extra points. Staton accumulated 105 points, which ranked third in the Sun Belt and third-most in a season by an App State kicker. As for Staton’s backups, Sophomore John Gliarmis and redshirt freshman Ryker Casey are the only other kickers on the roster. Neither have any game experience in their Mountaineer careers. 

Punters (by Dan Davidson): App State returns senior Xavier Subotsch as the starting punter. After being named second-team All-Sun Belt by PFF College in 2019, the senior received preseason third-team All-Sun Belt honors from Athlon Sports heading into 2020. During his junior year, Subotsch averaged 42.7 yards on 71 punts, and set a program record with 26 punts landing inside the 20-yard line. Junior Clayton Howell is Subotsch’s lone backup and served as the primary holder on kicks during 2019. 

Kick & punt returners (by Cameron Burnett): The App State return game will consist of a seasoned group likely including senior wide receivers Thomas Hennigan, Jalen Virgil, and Malik Williams. After losing Darrynton Evans to the NFL, they will look to create the same spark that he did on special teams. Hennigan was the main punt returner in 2019 and will look to improve off of his experience. Freshman Christan Horn and redshirt freshman Christian Wells have impressed the coaching staff and will compete for opportunities in the returning game. This group is full of speed and has players who have been known for their plays after the catch in the passing game. This ability with the ball in their hands will help make this group successful, especially with three experienced seniors.