With 17 returning starters in place for second-year coach Shawn Clark, Appalachian State is poised to be a factor in the Sun Belt title race once again in 2021. The Mountaineers need to find a quarterback – likely Duke transfer Chase Brice – but the skill talent and offensive line rank among the best in the conference. Clark’s defense held teams to just 20 points a game in ’20 and returns two of the Sun Belt’s top defensive players in cornerback Shaun Jolly and lineman Demetrius Taylor. An early road trip to Miami is a huge opportunity for this program, but back-to-back matchups versus Louisiana (road) and Coastal Carolina (home) will determine how high this team climbs in the conference.
Previewing Appalachian State's Offense for 2021
Chase Brice gets the first crack at replacing Zac Thomas, the Mountaineers' quarterback the last three seasons. Once Trevor Lawrence's backup at Clemson, Brice arrived in Boone following a forgettable season at Duke in which he threw 15 interceptions and lost seven fumbles while starting 11 games. A full spring practice and offseason with the Mountaineers could — should? — put Brice in a better position to succeed. At App State, Brice has playmakers at his disposal, with running back Camerun Peoples back for his junior season. Peoples' five-touchdown, 317-yard performance in the Myrtle Beach Bowl have increased expectations for this season.
Corey Sutton's presence at wide receiver, after he opted out last season, gives Brice a major weapon in the passing game. Sutton's health, after a knee injury cut short his 2019 season, is a big factor.
The Mountaineers' offensive line returns two starters, with one of them — Baer Hunter — moving from guard to center. Junior left guard Damion Daley must step into the starting lineup and help returning left tackle Anderson Hardy protect Brice's blind side to alleviate the aforementioned turnover issues.
Previewing Appalachian State's Defense for 2021
App State allowed just 20 points per game last season and should be just as strong, if not better, this season with nine starters returning.
Two of those starters are standout defensive ends Demetrius Taylor and Caleb Spurlin, both super seniors taking advantage of the NCAA rule that allows them an extra year of eligibility. Taylor recorded six sacks among his 13 tackles for a loss last season.
With safety Kaiden Smith back as a super senior, Appalachian State returns its top seven tacklers. Linebackers Trey Cobb and D'Marco Jackson lead the way there, helping the Mountaineers allow just 150.9 rushing yards per game last season.
Appalachian State should continue to be equally stingy against the pass; the Mountaineers intercepted 15 passes and allowed only 177.9 yards per game a year ago. Linebacker Brendan Harrington led Appalachian State with four interceptions.
Previewing Appalachian State's Specialists for 2021
The Mountaineers will pressure teams in the return game again with Malik Williams back to handle punt returns. He averaged 10.0 yards per attempt last season. Jalen Virgil returned a kickoff for a touchdown last season while averaging 30.7 yards per attempt. Placekicker Chandler Staton has a strong leg, as evidenced by his career-best 53-yard field goal as a freshman. But accuracy isn't great. He was 13-of-19 last season, with four of his misses from 39 yards or closer. A super senior like Staton, punter Xavier Subotsch averaged only 41.9 yards per attempt last season.
Appalachian State has a defense capable of making it the nation's top Group of Five team. The offense possesses the kind of playmakers — led by Peoples and Sutton — to score against anyone on its schedule. The question comes at quarterback. Will Brice be the type of quarterback he showed at Clemson when he came off the bench in relief of an injured Trevor Lawrence to lead the Tigers to a win during their 2018 championship season? Or will he be the turnover machine he was at Duke last season, his only one as a college starter? If Brice is good, Appalachian State could compete for a New Year's Six bowl.
National Ranking: 55
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(Shaun Jolly photo by John Staton, courtesy of appstatesports.com)