App State Football News.... (2018-10-06 21:58:20)

Special Start: How App State Leads Nation in Return TDs

By Bret Strelow

BOONE, N.C. — Thomas Hennigan enjoyed a satisfying return trip to the end zone. Darrynton Evans needed another one to put the past in the rearview mirror.

Not to be outdone, Steven Jones and Clifton Duck joined in on what's been a special start to the 2018 season for Appalachian State's special teams.

All four players already have scored touchdowns in the return game, putting a group coordinated by assistant coach Stu Holt in elite company.

App State leads the nation with four special teams TDs, and that pace-setting stretch to begin the season preceded a 52-7 victory in which the Mountaineers blocked a South Alabama field goal and also had a 52-yard punt return.

Appalachian is the only FBS program with a touchdown via a kickoff return, punt return and the return/recovery of a blocked punt, and no other FBS team has scored a special teams touchdown in three straight games this year.

"You're always just trying to find an edge somewhere," Holt said. "A key ingredient, our players have really bought in, and they pay attention to the details. It helps them play fast, and that's how you make plays in any phase. Like (head) coach (Scott) Satterfield has said, it's a good indicator of our overall team speed that we can make these 70-yard and 50-yard plays. It takes a lot of skill and effort to make it all happen."

Appalachian State's first offensive possession of the season had to wait because Evans returned the kickoff 100 yards for a game-tying touchdown at Penn State. A week later, Hennigan returned a punt 59 yards for a touchdown at Charlotte.

The hurricane-related cancellation of the Southern Miss game created an unexpected off week for the Mountaineers, but they wasted no time in continuing their hot streak against Gardner-Webb. Jones blocked an end-zone punt with his left hand before diving on the ball along the right edge of the ­­­end zone for a touchdown that produced a 14-0 lead.

That was the first of his two punt blocks, and he was on the field when Duck weaved in and out of traffic on a 62-yard punt return for a score. Hennigan, who took over as the punt returner at Charlotte after Duck was sidelined, also threw a block on the play.

"He told me, 'I got one, so you have to get one,' and he had a key block," said Duck, who recovered Tae Hayes' blocked field goal against South Alabama and set up a touchdown against the Jaguars with another long punt return. "I feel like this year our special teams are all playing together, all playing for one another. You see people running downfield 40 yards to make a block, and I'm not an easy person to block for because I cut back a lot."

The Sun Belt's Special Teams Player of the Week honor has been awarded to both Evans and Jones, whose two blocks in one game tied Dino Hackett (vs. East Tennessee State in 1985) and Chuck Hill (vs. both Liberty and Western Carolina in 1987) for the school record. Jones is one of five players nationally with two blocks this season, as his second push through the middle of Gardner-Webb's line came with an assist from the attention that teammate D'Marco Jackson drew.

"Coach was telling us when we get there to have big eyes and shoot your hands, and that's what I did," Jones said. "I executed it all practice. I got to the game. Two blocks. Touchdown."

App State last had two punt returns for touchdowns in the same game when Dexter Jackson scored from 86 and 68 yards against Gardner-Webb in 2006, and 1992 was the last time the Mountaineers scored special teams touchdowns in two straight games, let alone three.

Evans started the 2018 streak, which coincided with an individual one that required some patience.

He capped a productive true freshman season with a 94-yard kick return that broke a 21-all tie as Appalachian won 31-28 against Toledo in the 2016 Camellia Bowl. An injury resulted in a redshirt year for him in 2017, so this year's opener at Penn State actually made it two straight games with a return touchdown for Evans.

He showed off his 4.38 speed in the 40-yard dash against a top-10 opponent and went to work proving he's more than a one-hit wonder.

"I fielded the kick, started running and saw a hole," Evans said. "I was like, 'You have to be kidding.' I just hit it from there."

Hennigan emerged as another big-play threat during his true freshman season.

He caught four touchdown passes in the 2017 regular-season finale against Louisiana. A fifth overall score on an 82-yard punt return was negated because officials flagged him for waving his arms illegally right before he fielded the ball and took off toward the end zone.

When Hennigan scored this year at Charlotte, he received important blocks from Jones and fellow 2017 enrollees such as Jackson, Malik Williams, Demetrius Taylor, Tim Frizzell and Ryan Huff. Those seven players are all second-year members of the program.

"The punt return team did an excellent job securing their blocks," Hennigan said. "It was like the Red Sea parting right before my eyes. One, two cuts, then it was me and the punter, and even the punter was covered by Steven Jones.

"It was awesome seeing everyone you were on your recruiting visits with being on the field together. It shows what we can do as a whole class and is a sneak peek of great things to come from this class."

Young players are often able to break into the lineup by contributing on special teams, and App State's elite-level execution to this point in 2018 is a testament to the depth on the roster. There are also veterans and experienced returners such as Brad Absher, Caleb Spurlin, Shemar Jean-Charles and Kaiden Smith playing key roles in that area.

It's an all-around team effort, with other assistants such as D.J. Smith, Justin Watts, Nic Cardwell and Greg Gasparato being among the staff members who coach certain parts of each return group. And Holt was quick to note that Hennigan's return at Charlotte came after punter Clayton Howell pinned the 49ers deep in their own territory with a 45-yard kick and the defense forced a three-and-out while pushing the offense back even closer to the end zone.

All three phases have worked together to trigger a successful, record-breaking start to the 2018 season.

"I'm really proud of our special teams, and that really comes with team speed," Satterfield said. "That's what really shows in the backups and special teams when those guys get in the football game. It was fun to see those guys perform. As a head coach, it doesn't matter how we score. When your number is called, you have to be ready to go."


Depth Puts App State Defense In Elite Company

BOONE, N.C. — The way Appalachian State rotates defensive players, especially along the line, individual statistics can be misleading. And the lopsided nature of the last three games has created opportunities for even more Mountaineers to play.

One stat helps quantify the depth of App State's defense.

Through one month of the 2018 season, Appalachian is tied for second place nationally with 22 players who have contributed in the tackles for loss category. Utah leads FBS programs with 23 players, and the Mountaineers currently share second place with UCF and Penn State, which has played five games instead of four.

App State uses a three-man front as part of its 3-4 scheme, and defensive line coach Mark Ivey has made a habit of employing a rotation with as many as nine or 10 players. There also have been chances for underclassmen to contribute at linebacker, as three true freshmen and one redshirt freshman have played meaningful snaps at inside linebacker.

In all, 13 of the team's top 14 tacklers through four games have at least assisted on a stop behind the line of scrimmage. App State's leaders with 3.5 tackles for loss apiece are starting outside linebackers Akeem Davis-Gaither and Noel Cook, who missed the opener at Penn State but has had a hand in a sack in all three of his game appearances.

There have been breakout performances from young reserves such as redshirt freshman defensive end Jermaine McDaniel, who had two sacks against Gardner-Webb, and true freshman linebacker Jay Person made a tackle for a 5-yard loss shortly after making his App State debut in the fourth quarter of last weekend's 52-7 win against South Alabama.

The contributions of so many have helped Appalachian lead the Sun Belt in scoring defense (17.0 points per game to rank 18th nationally), total defense (No. 8 nationally at 276.3 yards per game), rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. In holding three straight opponents to single-digit points for the first time in 20 years, the Mountaineers are the only FBS team to accomplish that feat so far this season. The only other teams with three total games allowing single-digit points are Washington and Cincinnati.


Offensive Line Helping App State Rank Among FBS Leaders

BOONE, N.C. — Appalachian State's rushing average is anything but pedestrian.

With the offensive line, tight ends and receivers blocking for App State's running backs and quarterbacks, the Mountaineers rank No. 2 nationally at 6.5 yards per carry. Only Memphis, at 7.3 yards, is ahead of Appalachian.

Individual success is part of the bigger picture, as running backs Jalin Moore, D'Andre Hicks, Marcus Williams Jr. and Darrynton Evans are all averaging at least 6.6 yards per carry. Moore has rushed for 242 yards on 27 attempts in his last four quarters of work — he had 119 yards in one quarter against Gardner-Webb and 123 yards in three quarters against South Alabama — to increase his season average to 6.6 yards per carry, a mark that ranks 20th nationally in the official NCAA statistics. Hicks leads the running backs with an 8.5 average on 21 attempts.

In addition to the four backs, quarterback Zac Thomas is averaging 4.8 yards (with sacks included), and true freshman running back Camerun Peoples averaged 5.9 yards in his App State debut against Gardner-Webb.

After rushing for 159 yards and 139 yards in two pass-oriented games, the Mountaineers have posted 432 and 348 rushing yards in their last two games to increase their per-game average to 269.5, which ranks No. 7 nationally. The work up front of center Noah Hannon, left tackle Victor Johnson, right tackle Chandler Greer and guards Ryan Neuzil, Baer Hunter and Cole Garrison has created running lanes for Appalachian's backs and solid protection for Thomas.

With their strong offensive lines, App State and UCF are the only teams in the country averaging at least 250.0 rushing yards per game while also allowing less than 1.5 sacks with at least 25.0 pass attempts per game. The Mountaineers are tied for 17th nationally at 1.25 sacks allowed per game, even as they've attempted an average of 25.3 passes during their 3-1 start.

Photo Courtesy: Scott Satterfield, App State Sports