From Appalachian State’s first preseason football practice, it’s been obvious what assistant coach Scot Sloan has hammered home to his secondary.
Safety Doug Middleton made reference to it after that first August workout, Sloan, the Mountaineers’ secondary coach, mentioned it Tuesday afternoon and cornerback Latrell Gibbs brought it up four minutes later.
“Not to give up deep balls, that’s the No. 1 priority,” Gibbs said. “If we don’t give up the deep ball, we usually win the game, and that’s what we’ve been preaching the whole camp and spring.”
Early last season, the Mountaineers struggled against the pass, allowing 233 passing yards per game in five losses, including 356 in a loss to Football Championship Subdivision opponent Liberty.
Appalachian State changed course to close the season, allowing an average of 173 passing yards as the it closed the season with six straight wins. Over that stretch, opponents’ longest completions were two that went for 39 yards.
“The easiest way to lose a game is through the air,” Sloan said. “During those last six games, we went back and looked at it, and we didn’t give up a deep ball over our heads.
“If you can do that, you win a lot of third downs, get yourself off the field and you don’t give up a cheap touchdown.”
After starting 1-5, Gibbs said coaches and teammates made things simple for younger players.
“We slowed down practice and broke the plays down,” he said.
Middleton was among the players who helped make things easier for newcomers. A fifth-year senior who was a first-team all-Sun Belt selection last season, Middleton led the Mountaineers with four interceptions, adding 74 tackles, with six for losses.
Middleton is among the Mountaineers’ top prospects to play in the NFL next season, but Sloan said it’s not just his athleticism that makes him special.
“He’s got the mental capacity; that’s the biggest thing,” Sloan said. “Understanding the game, understanding the big picture, being able to make checks, adjustments, things like that.
“That’s huge when you get to any higher level. That’s always the hardest transition for a high school kid coming to college. Same thing when you transition from college to the next level.”
Middleton is working on a Master’s Degree that requires him leave practice early one day each week.
Middleton is joined at safety by returning starter A.J. Howard, who finished with 64 tackles (2.5 for loss) last season. Physically gifted Alex Gray (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) should also figure heavily into the rotation, finishing with 25 tackles last season.
The only new starter on defense will be in the secondary. Mondo Williams, who joined the program in January from Iowa Western Community College, and is likely to take over as a starting cornerback. Sophomore Brandon Picnkney had been slated for the spot, but he was lost for the season because of a knee injury
Williams has impressed coaches with his speed and physicality throughout practice.
Still, true freshman Tae Hayes (5-11, 175) should end up in the two-deep rotation thanks to a stellar camp performance.
“He’s got a lot of natural instincts, got a great skill set as far as his change of direction, his foot speed, he doesn’t get himself in trouble with false steps, little things like that,” Sloan said. “He’s a lot like Doug. In the meeting room, you can tell he’s a smart kid to be a freshman.
“Smart guys play faster, that’s just the bottom line at any position, at any level. The fact that he’s a pretty sharp kid mentally, that helps him.”
Sloan’s hope is that Williams and Hayes can help improve takeaway numbers for a unit that tied for 55th in the nation with 12 interceptions last season. Add seven fumbles they recovered, and the Mountaineers were tied for 74th nationally with 19 takeaways.
“Love to get more and more takeaways,” Sloan said. “Takeaways, I think, is the one thing that is maybe the strongest determination of a game. If you can come out of a game winning the turnover ratio, there’s a good chance you’re going to win.”
The Winston-Salem Journal is a news partner of the Observer. For more Appalachian State coverage go to http://www.journalnow.com/sports/asu/