College Sports

‘What we’re doing works’: Can new coach take Appalachian State to a new level?

Eliah Drinkwitz knows what he has gotten himself into as Appalachian State’s new football coach.

He’s directing a program that has a history and culture that few “Group of 5” programs can match. The Mountaineers followed up three national titles while playing in the Football Championship Subdivision with four consecutive bowl appearances (and victories) when they stepped up into the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2015.

So there’s an interesting dynamic happening in Boone this season. Drinkwitz’s challenge is to sustain the excellence the Mountaineers have had while trying to put his own stamp on the program.

In other words, how much should Drinkwitz tinker with what has been a successful formula over time in order to mold and enhance a Mountaineers’ “brand” into something closer to his image?

“Yes, they’ve been good; yes, they’ve had success; and, yes, we embrace that,” Drinkwitz said earlier this month as the Mountaineers opened preseason camp. “But there’s more to do. If we’re satisfied with that, it’s not what we’re about. It’s about taking this thing and continuing to build and move forward.”

Drinkwitz, 36, is only the third coach Appalachian has had since 1989. In 28 seasons under Jerry Moore, the Mountaineers won 10 Southern Conference championships and three consecutive FCS titles (2005-07). Scott Satterfield, a former Mountaineers quarterback who replaced Moore in 2013, shepherded Appalachian’s seamless transition into the FBS.

That all sounds good to Drinkwitz. Also, he said, it’s time to move on to whatever’s next.

“As good as things have been in the past,” he said, “there are still things out there, accomplishments that can set us apart.”

This is the first head-coaching job of any kind for Drinkwitz, who came to Appalachian after Satterfield left for Louisville. Drinkwitz’s most recent stop was N.C. State, where he was offensive coordinator for three seasons under head coach Dave Doeren. That’s Drinkwitz’s only experience with a “Power 5” program, and he wants to bring some of that culture to Appalachian, which opens the season Aug. 31 at home against East Tennessee State.

“He’s enhancing every facet of the program,” said assistant head coach Shawn Clark, a holdover from Satterfield’s staff who played at Appalachian in the late 1990s. “You might not see that from the outside. But things like the quality of meals, the gear the players are getting, making sure their living situations are up to par. He’s made those kinds of things a priority to make sure this is a first-class program. He wants it to be like the big time, and that’s exciting to see.”

Drinkwitz is stepping into a program that already has many of the trappings of the “big-time” Clark talks about. The Mountaineers have had an indoor practice facility since 2007. A $45 million project that includes a multi-sport field house in Kidd Brewer Stadium’s north end zone is scheduled to be completed in time for the 2020 season. Much of what will be in the field house will replace the football program’s offices and locker room — currently housed in the relatively new (2009) and still-first-class Mark E. Richts Athletic Complex.

On the field, Drinkwitz has a team that returns 17 starters from last season, when the Mountaineers went 11-2, won the Sun Belt title game, then beat Middle Tennessee 45-13 in the New Orleans Bowl.

Drinkwitz will tweak the offense slightly to a Pro Tempo system — primarily to have junior quarterback Zac Thomas (the Sun Belt’s preseason offensive player of the year) throw more, shorter passes, rather than have him keep the ball as much. Dynamic playmakers like running back Darrynton Evans and receiver Corey Sutton (whose status is uncertain because of an offseason marijuana arrest) are at Thomas’s disposal.

Drinkwitz won’t do much differently with the defense, which returns seven starters and will use multiple formations.

Still, adjustments will need to be made to how Drinkwitz and his staff do things.

“We have a lot of returning starters, but they weren’t starters in our system,” Drinkwitz. “They have to get caught up in our schemes.”

Shortly after Drinkwitz was hired, he met with several of the team’s leaders.

“He told us he didn’t want the brand of App State football to change,” Thomas said. “ ‘Drink’ has done a good job with that. He knows what to do. He’s adapted to that; he has the same mind-set.

“Obviously, we win a lot of games. We want to keep doing what we’re doing, because what we’re doing works.”

David Scott: @davidscott14