Few things go together as well as crisp, fall weather and a football game. From backyard scrimmages to Friday night lights, autumn is the season of the pigskin.
Boone is where to find some of the best football in North Carolina when it plays host to the Appalachian State Mountaineers every year. When September rolls around, the students have settled, the leaves are changing and the excitement for kickoff builds.
Since moving to the FBS in 2014, the Mountaineers have established themselves as a powerhouse in the Sun Belt Conference — made up of 12 teams in the Southeast United States. Heading into the 2021 season, App is looking to secure their fifth conference championship.
After a 9-3 (6-2 conference) season under first-year head coach Shawn Clark, the Mountaineers are returning a large group of players who used their extra year of eligibility. While they capped their season by winning the Myrtle Beach Bowl, many of the players were not satisfied with missing out on a fifth-straight conference title.
“I think it says a lot about how much we care about keeping the winning tradition in this program,” receiver Jalen Virgil said at the team’s media day. “Last year, we feel like we came out shorthanded. Anytime we don’t come up with a championship, after the season’s over we’re all going to be disappointed. So we felt like we should all come back and finish strong this year.”
Virgil, a super-senior, is part of a receiving corps catching attention for their depth and talent, headlined by fellow super-seniors Corey Sutton, Thomas Hennigan and Malik Williams.
Sutton, who opted out of the 2020 season while recovering from an ACL tear, said at the team’s media day that it was good to be back and ready for the season.
They are part of an offense featuring mauling offensive lineman Baer Hunter and dangerous running back Camerun Peoples. The offense is being joined by quarterback Chase Brice, a transfer from Duke, while under the guidance of a returning Frank Ponce.
Ponce, the offensive coordinator for the Mountaineers, came back to Boone after a stint with Louisville under former App coach Scott Satterfield. Like Jones and Clark, Ponce has Boone in his blood with a long history in the App State program.
Hennigan, meanwhile, is one of eight Mountaineers to land on preseason watch lists for national awards. Defensive titan Demetrius Taylor landed on the lists for the Chuck Bednarick, Walter Camp and Bronko Nagurski awards, while fellow defender Shaun Jolly received nods for the Bednarik and Jim Thorpe awards.
Taylor and Jolly are to of the standouts for a defense returning 10 of 11 starters from the 2020 season. With that level of consistency, defensive coordinator Dale Jones said they have high hopes for a unit so well-versed in the system.
If App is to return to the Sun Belt mountaintop, they will have to go through some stiff competition. The conference’s preseason poll had them tied for first place in the East Division alongside Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers finished the 2020 season ranked 14th in the AP Poll, while fellow conference powerhouse Louisiana-Lafayette finished 15th.
The matchups with the Chanticleers and the Ragin’ Cajuns in October are two of the highlights on the Mountaineers’ schedule. Televised games against East Carolina and Miami open the regular season that culminates in a home rivalry game with Georgia Southern on Nov. 27.
Helping the Mountaineers continue to aim high is a return to a normal offseason schedule. After the 2020 season and the build up to it were heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Clark said the team was back on track and “full speed ahead.”
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