The focus of Appalachian State spring practices is always on building greater depth, especially fresh on the heels of the momentum from title-winning seasons.
Proven playmakers among returning starters will work enough to stay sharp but the stage is set for younger players looking to forge their way into the two-deep rotation, and by all reviews there are a number of promising candidates from the 2015 and ’16 recruiting classes.
There are also critical open starting spots to be filled starting with spring ball and the competition promises to be heated between veteran players and hard-charging upstarts.
In this 2017 Spring Practice Prospectus, App State Mania evaluates the nearly one-month spring ball session by position group.
QUARTERBACK: While the starter spot is simple (yes, Taylor Lamb’s spot is safe), there’s great competition within the position group.
Starting with 2016 primary back-up J.P. Caruso, then moving on to redshirt freshmen Jacob Huesman and Zac Thomas, and third-year sophomore Jake Easter, not only will the group jockey for the snaps behind Lamb but position themselves for the eventual starting spot in 2018.
The key this spring will be for someone to demonstrate the throwing accuracy that Scott Satterfield and Quarterback Coach Frank Ponce demand to keep the sticks moving and maximize ball security. Huesman comes in as arguably the most accurate, but Caruso and Thomas are explosive runners with big arms. With Peyton Derrick coming to Boone this fall, Easter likely needs to show growth in spring ball to stay in the running at QB.
RUNNING BACK: No better way to replace the all-time leading rusher than with the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year. Jalin Moore is firmly established as the starter, but the race for the reserve-rotation should be just as interesting as at QB.
There’s a familiar face, an injury comeback, and a redshirt freshman, two of who never saw the field last season and the third managed just seven carries. Add to that at least the projected part-time presence of 2016’s fourth-leading rusher, in Darrynton Evans, and it will be a real scramble for snaps.
Returning from academic suspension, veteran senior Terrence Upshaw ran very hard on the scout team last year and looks incredibly determined to make an impact in his final season. He’ll be pressed by injury-riddled junior Josh Boyd and redshirt freshman Marcus Williams. Again, Evans probably gets snaps out of the backfield but will also likely work in the slot, as originally planned. Williams looks the part of a second-teamer, but Upshaw, in particular, is going to fight tooth-and-nail to regain his prior preferred status.
WIDE RECEIVER: Slot receiver has become even more intriguing with the late-week news that rising fourth-year junior Jaylan Barbour is transferring from the program. That, coupled with the graduation of Jaquil Capel, opens up serious room at the inside receiver spots.
The veteran slot group includes fourth-year junior Deltron Hopkins, with soon-to-be seniors Ike Lewis and Dante Jones as Z-receivers who could slide inside, as well. There is explosive and exciting young talent to consider, including the aforementioned Evans, redshirt freshmen A’Darius Purifoy and Jalen Virgil, and surprising T.J. Watkins (presumably returning from late-season injury). All three are more Z-type bodies, but an opportunity for immediate playing time could come from some M duty.
Shaedon Meadors is well known at the outside X-receiver spot, but this spring will prove to be a big session for key reserves Mock Adams (X) and Zy Letman (Z). Both feature a big frame and great catch radius, but caught just 16 balls between them last season (though Letman’s 16.5 per catch average was team-best). This is a step-up year for both and will be our first true look at redshirt freshman Crisjohn Roscoe, after his recovery from major knee surgery as a high-school senior.
TIGHT END: Another huge spot to fill where Barrett Burns graduates tied for sixth all-time in career touchdown receptions (14), ironically enough the same fellow tight ends Ben Jorden and Daniel Bettis.
The natural assumption is that Collin Reed steps into the role of receiving tight end and Levi Duffield gets time in the H-Back role, as the primary blocker in the group. Reed came on as more of a significant option late in the season, and spring is the perfect time for him to establish himself fully. Spring will also provide an opportunity for redshirt freshman Mitchell McClurg to work his way into significant non-scout reps.
OFFENSIVE LINE: There may be no greater interest in any specific position group this spring than up-front offensively, following the graduations of starters Parker Collins (C) and Jamie Collmar (LG). Note that Appalachian loses 80 career starts with Collins’ and Collmar’s departures.
In the spotlight first will be Tobias Edge-Campbell, who could successfully fill either the vacated center or left guard spots. Edge-Campbell is the only game-experienced center on the roster, but also logged successful time at the LG position last season. His performance at center is likely the first domino to fall that creates additional opportunities for others.
The next big key is just general depth across the entire line. Enter the 2016 reshirted offensive line class, which I’ve had one defensive staff member, who saw the group perform all season on scout team, label as the best line class he’s seen at Appalachian and compare them favorably, even as true freshmen, to several existing Sun Belt offensive lines.
Ryan Neuzil is likely next in line at center this spring so expect him to get plenty of first-team snaps, often playing beside Edge-Campbell at guard. Also, with the departure of Alex Taylor from the program, Matt Williams, who received high praise from anyone I asked during last season, likely slides into that spot behind Beau Nunn. Expect Cole Garrison, Madison Malone, and Nate Haskins to battle for the reserve guard spots. Of course, if staff determines Edge-Campbell is the guy at center then that open RG slot has to be filled. I look for Shawn Clark to work a bunch of different combinations up front throughout spring to identify all possible options.
One note of concern that remains is back-up left tackle to Vic Johnson. I suspect that if Johnson went out we’d see Nunn move across to LT and then Gossett slides to RT, with a reserve at RG. In reviewing the current roster, I’m not sure there’s a guy that ideally fits that LT mold but Williams probably comes the closest. Left tackle is a must-have 2018 recruiting priority.
DEFENSIVE LINE: An extremely close second to offensive line in terms of significance this spring. Key rotational guys in defensive ends Dez Reed (2nd-team All-Sun Belt) and Nate Norwood are gone, as are reserve nose tackles Tyson Fernandez and Darian Small.
Despite the losses of Reed and Norwood at DE there’s a lot of excitement around the young talent that will be featured this spring, along with returners Tee Sims, Caleb Fuller, Okon Godwin, and Devin Papenheim. In particular, staff has mentioned redshirt freshmen Chris Willis and Elijah Diarrassouba for their work on scout team. Sims and Fuller are likely to get some days off, so expect plenty of reps for both Willis and Diarrassouba throughout the session.
At nose, it gets a little more defined, as unquestioned starter Myquon Stout will be joined by at least Baer Hunter and Brody Barrett in the spring. Again, Stout is a known, so the lion’s share of reps will go to Hunter, who came on strong last year after an early foot injury, and Barrett, who saw some field time last season.
With Nate Woody’s move towards more use of their NASCAR package, featuring an ultra-quick defensive line with Caleb Fuller at nose along with speed-rush ends on passing downs, the need for as many snaps out of traditional NTs is lessened somewhat. Still, a solid three-man rotation is critical.
I’m especially intrigued to see Hunter work this spring, as he caught my eye as a take-no-crap freshman competitor last year in one-on-one drills between defensive and offensive line. In fact, I would’ve put Hunter second to only Parker Collins in the “most likely to end up fighting” category. He’s a really nice guy off the field, but a Baer, I mean bear, when he gets between the lines.
Note that, despite his entry as a mid-year enrollee, true freshman Jermaine McDaniel will not participate in the contact portion of spring ball, following surgery to repair a torn shoulder labrum, but will go live this fall at defensive end.
LINEBACKER: Another position group with a somewhat tenuous depth chart. Eric Boggs and Devan Stringer return as the known starting performers, and Rashad Townes is the simple answer to fill Kennan Gilchrist’s vacated Dog OL spot. After that, things get very interesting, both in terms of John Law’s empty ILB slot and the depth behind all starters.
Let’s start at ILB; Anthony Flory is the most experienced returning candidate, but battled injury occasionally last season and eventually lost reps to senior Toronto Thomas. Jordan Fehr is a guy that impressed coaches anywhere he played as a redshirt freshman, but eventually moved inside after starting at OLB. I have the sense that the race between the two might start out closer than expected. Edward Davis is also an option but he’s missed far more time than he’s played due to injury, so just staying on the field is the first step he must make.
With Boggs taking days off in the spring to save the wear-and-tear, it will be interesting to see Flory and Fehr working side-by-side, not only as they compete for Law’s spot but as the possible 2018 starting LB duo.
At OLB, things are even a little less certain. Obviously, Stringer mans the Anchor OLB opposite Townes at Dog. Akeem Davis got meaningful burn last year behind Stringer and that could be critical, because behind Townes there’s not a standout reserve at the moment with Fehr’s move to ILB. Rising sophomore Noel Cook walked-on last season, but earned his way onto special teams as a true freshman. He has an opportunity to step into the spot behind Townes, but dependent upon his success I could also see a scenario where Stringer could move to Dog, if needed, and Akeem Davis takes the Anchor role.
Bottom line, injury at linebacker will likely be a hold-your-breath scenario for App State fans in 2017.
SECONDARY: Big shoes to fill with the graduations of long-time safety Alex Gray and high-impact corner Mondo Williams (first-team All-Sun Belt), but fortunately potential answers abound.
As noted previously here at App State Mania, veteran CB Latrell Gibbs will be returning to App State to resume his academic and athletic careers, but not during spring session. In a way it’s a bit of a good opportunity; Gibbs knows the system and we know Gibbs, so it’s not like he has to learn what the defense is doing. But, his absence does allow younger corners, and there are several, to get much needed reps.
In particular, you’ll have competition for back-up roles, including veterans Tae Hayes and Brandon Pinckney along with redshirt freshmen Aris Duffey and Shemar Jean-Charles and true freshman D’Andre Hicks (mid-year). The luxury is having starter Clifton Duck and presumed starter Gibbs penciled in, so you’re truly evaluating the rest of these guys for the remaining snaps. Of course, in the event of injury to a starter there also has to be someone prepared to be a starter themselves.
Safety is a similar situation, in that A.J. Howard mans the strong safety spot and it’s a very safe bet that Josh Thomas takes over for Gray at free. That leaves a ridiculous amount of talent to vie for playing time, especially out of the 2016 redshirted class. You have veterans in Austin Exford and Des Franklin, along with redshirt rookies K.J. Chamberlain, Devonte Harrison (more so at strong safety), Jeremy Level, and Kaiden Smith.
There’s a lot of talent back in the secondary this spring and many of these guys haven’t really gone full tilt in over a year. The competition should be very fierce with the young players getting plenty of looks, and those players who not only demonstrate their physical abilities but also grasp the schemes and assignments effectively will separate from the herd. There is a ton of precision and discipline required to play defensive back at App State.
I’ll also state that I feel this is make or break time for some of the veterans back there, especially with the great influx of youth, as the experienced guys are taking what could be their final crack at consistent playing time.
PUNTER/KICKOFFS: App State fans have been spoiled here, after four years of Bentlee Critcher as the punter and occasional kickoff specialist.
Prepare for perhaps another Critcher in the punting role, however. Rylee Critcher will come into spring ball with the first opportunity to establish himself as the next Appalachian punter. Though, it can be tougher to get a great feel for that in spring ball, simply because you anticipate spending much/most of those practices in the indoor facility. There’s not enough head room in there for full-on punting evaluation.
Even though Michael Rubino isn’t a rookie, he would be new to handling kickoff duties assuming he’s the choice. I would imagine he gets the first run at it, and based on observations from last year he gets plenty of height on kicks but doesn’t drive many to the end zone. Let’s see where he stands after spring is completed.
App State Mania will provide periodic observations from spring practice sessions, along with specific coaching staff feedback throughout App State’s 2017 spring session. All for our premium community!