Football season is now real again.
Appalachian State opened fall camp on Friday, setting up roughly a month to wonder how the impending games will go.
There’s still a little time until App State’s season opener at Penn State on Sept. 1, but there are plenty of things to be aware of as practice opens. Here are 10 story lines (in no particular order) to watch for as App State inches closer to the start of the 2018 season:
1. Zac Thomas in the QB spotlight
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The favorite to become App State’s starting QB hasn’t really been a secret. Coach Scott Satterfield mentioned at the end of spring practices that Thomas was the front-runner to take over the position vacated by Taylor Lamb. But Satterfield went a step further during Sun Belt football media day, saying that Thomas would be the starter going forward. Now it’s time to determine how quickly the redshirt sophomore will get comfortable in the pocket.
Satterfield’s said that when it comes to arm strength and scrambling ability, Thomas might possess more talent than Lamb. But Lamb carried experience and a level head into every game. Thomas will have a plethora of weapons to work with. And the quicker he settles in, the better.
2. Who becomes the go-to wide receiver?
The wide receiving corps is brimming with talent. The group lost top pass-catcher Ike Lewis (51 receptions, 733 yards) and TJ Watkins but returns so many young options. The real question, though, is who steps up to be the No.1 option.
It could be the sure-handed sophomore Thomas Hennigan, who had 45 receptions and seven touchdowns last season. It could be Jalen Virgil, who has breathtaking speed. Or maybe it’s Corey Sutton, the 6-foot-3 Kansas State transfer who sat out all of 2017.
3. Darrynton Evans is back
Darrynton Evans streaked like a comet through the 2016 season. He ended it by helping App State win the Camellia Bowl against Toledo, 31-28. In that game, he ran for a 94-yard touchdown on a kickoff return. And that’s the lasting memory Evans left fans with. He didn’t play in 2017 because of injuries, but he still had a redshirt year to burn. He’s listed as a running back/wide receiver, indicating that App State will do all it can to use his playmaking ability.
4. Right side of the O-line
App State had serious stability on the right side of its offensive line last season. But right guard Colby Gossett and right tackle Beau Nunn are gone. In their places will be a converted tight end who was formerly a defensive lineman (Baer Hunter) and a sophomore (Matt Williams).
Both bring promise — Hunter’s versatility is the reason coaches find playing time for him. Williams is 6-5 and 285 pounds — and will be important in keeping a potent App State running game moving forward.
5. Defensive backs unit
The secondary boasts as much experience as it does skill. Cornerbacks Clifton Duck, the preseason Sun Belt defensive player of the year, and Tae Hayes combined to register 10 interceptions and 18 pass breakups. Toss in safeties Josh Thomas — who played very little because of injury — and Desmond Franklin, who replaced Thomas in the starting lineup, and App State might be the best unit in the Sun Belt.
6. New leaders for the defense
Coaches Nate Woody and Scot Sloan have been gone for long enough now. The former defensive coordinator and co-defensive coordinator are now overseeing the defenses at Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern, respectively.
Bryan Brown, App State’s cornerbacks coach since 2012, takes over the defense with the help of co-defensive coordinator Dale Jones. The Mountaineers will stay in the 3-4 defense Woody brought from Wofford in 2013, but Brown will likely add his own wrinkles.
7. Schedule streaks
App State gets lucky near the front of its schedule with a three-game homestand. But those good feelings will be offset later by three straight games on the road in late October/November — at Georgia Southern, Coastal Carolina and Texas State, in that order. A loss in one of those would be surprising, but crazier things have happened on the road.
The Mountaineers close the season with two home games, including a season finale against Troy that could decide the division title.
8. Jalin Moore’s health
Moore’s impact on a game is unquestionable. He enters 2018 as one of only six running backs with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. But last year he dealt with injuries, and those slowed him for the middle portion of the season. Moore, who is from Shelby, still managed to recover late — running for 100-plus yards in App State’s last four games, including a 239-yard performance against Georgia State.
There’s no reason to think injuries will be a recurring problem for Moore, but the offense stays much more potent if Moore can stay healthy.
9. Sun Belt title game
In the past two seasons, App State has won shares of the Sun Belt. Now, the conference won’t deal with co-champions again. The first title game in Sun Belt history will be played this season, and App State would love to host the game in Boone. Winning the East Division, which also includes Troy, would help make that a reality.
10. Satterfield’s employment
Here’s the annual reminder that Satterfield has been good at his job. While there really wasn’t a threat of him leaving last year — though things could’ve gotten interesting had Dave Doeren left N.C. State — Satterfield’s name will continue to appear on candidate lists nationwide. Ushering a program through a seamless FCS-to-FBS transition, including three bowl victories, would do that for any coach.