The past three weeks, our Q&A’s with other schools’ SBN sites have given us valuable information as to what we should be looking for on gameday, how optimistic or pessimistic we should be, and generally what the opposing fanbase is expecting of the game from their non-Carolina blue glasses. Unfortunately, that’s not entirely possible this week, as SB Nation doesn’t have an App State-devoted site. Never fear, though, as we have one of our own to pull double-duty this week: New THB writer and UNC fan/App State alumnus, Max Sloan. I asked him a few questions about the Mountaineers ahead of Saturday’s game, and he graciously answered. Read on:
Me: Let’s first get a little acquainted. What’s your connection to UNC and App State?
Max Sloan: I grew up in Chapel Hill, about a three minute drive from campus. My mom holds two degrees from UNC, and so I was raised to pull for the correct blue. After graduating from East Chapel Hill High School, I was accepted and started classes at Appalachian State, eventually graduating in 2016. Generally, my two teams can exist in harmony, but this week is one of those rare exceptions.
THB: So the Mountaineers have had a fun start to the season, scoring 98 points in their first two games. What’s been the primary catalyst behind that offensive explosiveness?
MS: Experience plays a big role in this offense being so dominant; the Mountaineers return the vast majority of last year’s starters, especially at the skill positions. A couple offensive linemen (Tobias Edge-Campbell and Chandler Greer) graduated last season, as well as star running back Jalin Moore. But the wide receiver corps has been together for a full season now, and they’ve been catching passes from the same quarterback for that same stretch of time. The loss of Jalin Moore was softened by the very strong ‘next-man-up’ culture of Appalachian State; Darrynton Evans, the leader of a deep running back room, was leading the nation in rushing through two games this season. I also reckon Coach Drinkwitz’s offensive scheme has really played to the strengths of this offense; there are a lot of ways the Mountaineers can put up points, and he has a history of being a great quarterback coach.
THB: On the other hand, it looks like the defense is still trying to catch up, allowing 41 points to Charlotte and ranking just 81st in Bill Connelly’s SP+ after 3 weeks. What has been the primary problem, if any, on that side of the ball?
MS: The defense was a little worrisome, especially in the game against Charlotte. The Mountaineers seemed unable (or unwilling) to stop big plays. This is not to take credit away from Charlotte; their offense has improved tremendously since last season and running back Benny LeMay is the real deal, but the Mountaineer defense didn’t seem as aggressive as in years past. Ted Roof, the new defensive coordinator, seemed to be giving the Charlotte receivers a really big cushion off the line of scrimmage, which led to easy completions for first downs. I worry that if this trend continues, Sam Howell and the Tar Heel receivers will have a big day on Saturday. Barring one stellar string of plays to finish out the first half (a sequence that wound up being the difference in the game), the defense never really did get clicking, and relied on the offense to maintain the lead against the 49ers. Some of that was personnel: the Mountaineers lost a very good duo of starting corners from last season, one to graduation and one to an NFL practice squad (Tae Hayes and Clifton Duck, respectively). A starting safety, Austin Exford, also graduated last year. The defensive line also took a hit, with senior leaders by the names of Okon Godwin and Myquon Stout finishing up their Mountaineer careers. The good news for the defense: the bye week should help Appalachian scheme for the Tar Heel offense, as well as (hopefully) take a look at those 7-to-10-yard cushions that the corners were giving 49er receivers which led directly to multiple easy first downs.
THB: Sometimes, numbers mask appearances. Has Zac Thomas adjusted to Eli Drinkwitz’s scheme as well as the scoring would indicate, or have there been some bumps? How has he looked in his second season starting?
MS: Zac Thomas got his first-ever start on the road against a 14th-ranked Penn State team. A lot of players would show flashes of freshman in that scenario, but Thomas was absolutely unbothered by the pressure. I’m sure there has been some adjustment behind the scenes, but on the field it’s been the same old Zac Thomas that Mountaineer fans have been lucky enough to get accustomed to. He takes care of the ball, moves through his reads quickly and efficiently, and can throw the deep bomb or drop in a beautiful teardrop touch pass. Coach Drink’s system is built around quarterback talent, and I think he’s found a deep well of it with Zac Thomas. Another point of note about Thomas and the Mountaineer offense-- they’ve scored all of these points without Thomas having to be a hero. The offensive sets and plays, by and large, have been fairly simple and straightforward, just executed extremely well. I think the opposition has played a role in that as well; no need to get fancy when you can win straight up. The Mountaineers may need a bit of heroism on Saturday, but we’ve seen that the Appalachian State quarterback can be that guy. Thomas also benefits from a deep and talented pool of receiver talent: Jalen Virgil is a burner who can take the top off a defense or toast an edge rusher on an end-around. Thomas Hennigan is a fantastic possession receiver who high-points the ball really well and catches nearly anything thrown his way. The aforementioned Darrynton Evans is also a pass-catching threat from the backfield, and it’s never bad to have a nation-leading rusher to dump the ball to as your checkdown.
THB: Give me one player to watch out for apiece on offense and defense that you haven’t already named.
MS: There have been rumblings that Corey Sutton, the talented receiver transfer from Kansas State who played his first season with App last year and led the team in receiving, will be made available for the coming game. He missed the first two games of the season after being suspended for a violation of team rules, but the addition of last year’s leading receiver for the Mountaineers could be a huge boon for the team from Boone. On the defensive side of the ball, two linebackers stick out -- Jordan Fehr and Akeem Davis-Gaither. These two seniors read plays extremely well and are unafraid of contact. Davis-Gaither, from his outside position, is an adept pass rusher and edge protector. Fehr, the leader of the defense from the middle linebacker position, is solid in coverage and great at flowing downhill to fill gaps on rushing attempts.
THB: And finally, let’s get a score prediction!
MS: This is something I’ve gone back and forth on a lot, and either way some part of my mind is gonna be indignant and disappointed. That being said, I have to stick with my alma mater and call for Appalachian State to take the win, 38-34 in a squeaker. But I could change my mind tomorrow when I’m wearing Carolina blue glasses and not my black and gold ones...
Thanks a ton to Max for his detailed and informative answers, and we’re glad to have him here!