(Part 1 of a 12-part Sun Belt Conference football preview series)
With numerous key components returning from last year's Sun Belt Conference co-championship team, Appalachian State appears poised to sustain its success in 2017.
Since joining the league in 2014, the Mountaineers own a 20-4 conference mark, punctuated by back-to-back Camellia Bowl victories. Following up an 11-2 2015 campaign, the Apps went 10-3 last season with a 7-1 mark in Sun Belt play. Bouncing back from a 1-2 start, which included a 20-13 overtime loss to Tennessee and a 45-10 setback vs. Miami, the Mountaineers won 11 of their last 12, finishing up with a 31-28 Camellia Bowl win over Toledo.
Featuring six returning starters on both sides of the ball, it came as no surprise that the Mountaineers were picked to win the conference title in the preseason Media Day poll. App State also received 4 points in the Associated Press' preseason poll.
Led by Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Jalin Moore, the Apps ranked No. 1 in the Sun Belt in rushing (250.9 yards per game) and total offense (429.9 ypg), while placing third in scoring (29.2 points per game) and ninth in passing (179 ypg). In addition, the Mountaineers were plus-8 (3rd in the conference) in the all-important turnover margin category.
Now a junior, the durable Moore (237 carries, 1,402 yards, 10 touchdowns) is the centerpiece of the powerful running game. Senior Terrance Upshaw (81-442-3 in 2015), who sat out last season, will share the load with Moore following the departure of Marcus Cox (158-1,015-9).
Senior quarterback Taylor Lamb returns to direct the offense after completing 197-of-325 passes for 2,281 yards with 15 TDs and only two interceptions. Lamb, who enters his fourth season as a starter, was also the team's third-leading rusher with 89 carries for 509 yards and nine scores.
App State also returns its top receiver in senior Shaedon Meadors (45 receptions, 716 yards, 2 TDs), with sophomore Darrynton Evans (6-34 receiving; 48-217 rushing) and senior Zy Letman (10 receptions, 165 yards) stepping into starting roles. Senior Levi Duffield is the tight end.
Senior right guard Colby Gossett, a first-team All-Sun Belt honoree entering his third season as a starter, is the mainstay of the offensive line following the departure of first-team All-Sun Belt center Parker Collins. Also back are sophomore left tackle Victor Johnson and senior right tackle Beau Nunn. Junior Tobias Edge-Campbell moves into the starting lineup at left guard with redshirt freshman Ryan Neuzil stepping in at center.
Despite the loss of first-team All-Conference cornerback Mondo Williams from the Sun Belt's best defense, the unit should be stout, once again.
App State ranked No. 1 in the league in points allowed (17.8 ppg) and total defense (329.7 ypg), second against the run (125.9 ypg) and third against the pass (203.8).
Junior tackle Myquon Stout (20 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2 sacks) is joined on the front three by senior ends Tee Sims (38 tackles, 12 TFL, 7 sacks) and Caleb Fuller (21 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 sacks).
Senior linebackers Eric Boggs (98 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 3 INTs) and Devan Stringer (71 tackles, 3.5 TFL) ranked first and third on the team in tackles. Rounding out the starting foursome are senior Rashaad Townes and junior Anthony Flory.
App State's 38 interceptions over the past two seasons ranks third in the FBS. Clifton Duck (57 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 5 INTs, 8 pass breakups) returns to spearhead the secondary after earning first-team All-Conference and Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors as a true freshman. Senior A.J. Howard (54 tackles, 3 INTs) is the incumbent strong safety. New starters in the secondary are senior corner Brandon Pinckney (7 tackles, 1 INT) and junior free safety Josh Thomas (28 tackles, 2 INTs).
Sophomore kicker Michael Rubino made 15-of-21 field goals and 47-of-48 PATs as a freshman. Redshirt freshman Ryles Critcher is the new punter.
Evans returned 25 kicks for a 22.5-yard average, highlighted by a 94-yard TD in the Camellia Bowl. Duck returned five punts for 4.3-yard norm.
App State opens the season Saturday at Georgia.
2017 APPALACHIAN STATE SCHEDULE
(All times Central and subject to change)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 2 at Georgia 5:15 p.m.
Sept. 9 Savannah State 2:30 p.m.
Sept. 16 at Texas State* 6 p.m.
Sept. 23 Wake Forest TBA
Oct. 7 New Mexico State* (HC) Noon
Oct. 14 at Idaho* 4:00
Oct. 21 Coastal Carolina* TBA
Oct. 28 at UMass 2:30
Nov. 4 at ULM* 2:00
Nov. 9 (Thurs.) Georgia Southern* 6:30
Nov. 25 at Georgia State* TBA
Dec. 2 Louisiana-Lafayette* TBA
SUN BELT COACHES POLL
The Sun Belt Conference preseason coaches poll with first-place votes in parentheses, followed by total points:
1. Appalachian State (7) 136
2. Troy (2) 127
3. Arkansas State (1) 122
4. South Alabama 98
5. Louisiana-Lafayette (1) 95
6. Idaho 84
7. Georgia Southern 82
8. Georgia State 48
9. Louisiana-Monroe 46
10. New Mexico State (1) 41
11. Texas State 31
12. Coastal Carolina 26