A step forward: App State hopes for breakthrough season

Appalachian State wide receiver Corey Xavier Sutton (2) runs for a first down against Louisiana Monroe safety Keilos Swinney (6) and cornerback Josh Newton (20) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Boone, NC. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

RALEIGH — Appalachian State has quietly built one of the nation’s top programs outside of the Power Five. Now the Mountaineers will look to take the next step.

App has gone to six straight bowls, winning them all, sent their last two coaches to ACC and SEC head jobs, respectively, and last year snapped a string of four straight Sun Belt titles.

This year, the Mountaineers return 17 starters, add veteran talent and have a schedule that could put them on the national radar, if things go well.

Quarterback: Chase Brice arrives after a disappointing year as the Duke starter. The former Clemson backup had a full offseason to learn the system and hopes to make a better showing than he did in his last stop. Last year’s backup, Jacob Huesman, returns as well to provide depth.

Running back: Camerun Peoples is back after an incredible 300-yard, five-touchdown outing in the Myrtle Beach Bowl. He’s joined by Daetrich Harrington and Nate Noel, who return from last year, and Notre Dame transfer Jahmir Smith.

Receiver: Corey Sutton returns after opting out of last season. Thomas Hennigan and Malik Williams also return for a second senior season, and Brice will have plenty of other targets at receiver and tight end.

Offensive line: Three starters return, including all-conference candidate Baer Hunter.

Defensive line: The Mountaineers had 26 sacks and 67 tackles for loss last year and return Demetrius Taylor. The super senior was responsible for six sacks and 13 TFL last year. Super senior Caleb Spurlin also returns at the other end.

Linebacker: This unit may not have the star power of the other defensive positions, but App returns plenty of experience here as well, led by Trey Cobb and D’Marco Jackson.

Secondary: App had 15 interceptions last year and held foes to 177 passing yards a game. The Mountaineers return cornerback Shaun Jolly and safeties Kaiden Smith and Ryan Huff to the fourth-most efficient secondary in the nation last season.

Special teams: App returns all the key skill players on special teams, although the unit was the team’s shakiest last year. Return men Malik Williams and Jalen Virgil are playmakers on punt and kicks, respectively. Kicker Chandler Staton was just 13 of 19 on field goals, however, including several short misses. Punter Xavier Subotsch was also inconsistent.

Key players to watch: The offense is loaded with experienced playmakers, but it will all begin and end with Brice. He was one of the biggest pickups from the transfer portal a year ago, but his struggles at Duke were a surprise as he helped the Blue Devils lead the nation in turnovers by a large margin. He’ll need to find his confidence to lead a group of established players who are used to scoring and winning.

Sutton was the team’s best receiver the last time he played a full season, but that was 2018. He missed much of 2019 with an injury and opted out last year. He’ll need to show he’s found his old magic.

On defense, with Taylor up front and Jolly in back, the spotlight will be on the linebackers to avoid being the weak link on a unit that returns 10 of 11 starters, including all seven of the top tacklers from last year.

Key game: App State has won at North Carolina and South Carolina, put scares into Penn State and Tennessee at their stadiums, and traveled to Georgia and Clemson. This year, the team could post a program-defining win when it goes to Miami on Sept. 11. The Hurricanes should be highly ranked and always have a spotlight. A win in South Florida could send a message to the national press that App has arrived.

To achieve its goal of regaining the Sun Belt crown, App will also have the game against Coastal Carolina circled on the calendar. The Chanticleers come to Boone on Oct. 20.

X-factor: It sounds like coach-speak, but consistency will be the key to App’s season. Last year, the losses that cost the Mountaineers the Sun Belt were due to missed field goals, turnovers and empty red zone trips. Much of that comes back to Brice. If he finds his mojo, App could point to 2021 as its breakthrough season. If his struggles from Duke follow him to the mountains, it could be a long, frustrating year for a team that’s built to succeed at virtually every other spot.

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