In mid-October, Appalachian State looked poised to do what most teams do in their first FBS season…stink. But then? The proverbial light bulb moment happened and everything came together for this young team. Now, almost everyone is back and the Mountaineers are primed and ready for a conference title run.
For personnel purposes, offensive line and receivers are the two strongest units on the team, so let’s start there. The offensive line is in a rare position where it loses four starters, but somehow brings back four guys with starting experience. Injuries and younger players outplaying veterans created a strange, but arguably beneficial, scenario where tons of linemen got starts. In 2015, that should pay major dividends. LG Parker Collins and RT Beau Nunn are the most heralded members of the line, but none of the linemen should be considered a weak link.
The receiving corps is also abiding by a “strength in numbers” philosophy. App State returns twelve of the fourteen players who caught a pass in 2014, including running backs Marcus Cox and Terrence Upshaw. Expect the leaders of the group to be Malachi Jones, Simms McElfresh, and Montez McGuire although there is probably too much love to spread around with only one ball for these guys to receive individual awards.
Marcus Cox may be in the running for All-Sun Belt though. He benefits from a good scheme and a better line, but don’t let that detract from his talents either. You don’t rush for 19 touchdowns and 1,400 yards if you aren’t any good. One thing he does need to work on is ball security. He coughed up eight fumbles last year and lost six. That won’t cut it.
Rarely do I save the quarterback for last, but don’t take that as a slight to Taylor Lamb. In a quarterback-centric league, he’s still one of the best. It’s just that in this scheme, he isn’t asked to do as much as say Fredi Knighten. Don’t let that fool you though, as a true freshman Lamb completed over 60% of his passes for over 2,000 yards.
A noticeable difference between the early season 1-5 Appalachian State and the team that won their last six games, was the aggressiveness of the defense. Once they started blitzing more and playing in attack mode rather than bend-but-don’t-break good things started to happen. Part of that may have to do with younger players getting more comfortable, and part may have to do with defensive coordinator Nate Woody deciding something had to change, but either way it’s safe to say that the Mountaineers will come out aggressive again on defense in 2015.
They have three good athletes, one at each level of the defense, to do it too. Ronald Blair is one of the top returning ends in the conference after logging a cool 13 tackles for loss and six sacks last season.
ILB John Law who helped against the run and the pass with six tackles for loss will lead the middle of the defense and four pass break-ups.
Perhaps the best weapon on this defense though is free safety Doug Middleton. Middleton was also great in both phases of the game last season notching 64 tackles (six for loss), six pass break-ups and four interceptions. With those three and every other starter back except CB Joel Ross, this defense ought to be the strongest in the conference.
I know I talked them up a lot in the previous five hundred words, and now I’m pulling a classic Corso, “Not so fast my friend.” But, that’s because I’m still a little skeptical. Their turn around last season was truly inexplicable on many levels, and their special teams (which I don’t usually get into) were the worst in the nation last season. If they level off and can’t build on last season’s improvement much, then I see them ending up around .500 like I’m predicting. However, they do have the three biggest conference games at home, so there’s a good chance I’m undershooting them.
Cover Photo Courtesy of Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports
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Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Sam Pouncey