Back OAYP Sun Belt Preview: App State

Back To Sun Belt

OAYP Sun Belt Preview: App State

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin.  Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page

Jim Johnson breaks down the 2019 App State Mountaineers using his OAYP advanced metric.

It’s August and college football is just around the corner. To get ready for the Sun Belt season, I’ll be previewing each of the league’s teams through the prism of my OAYP advanced metric. In short, the formula takes each program’s opponent adjusted performance from 2018 and combines that score with the individual player scores that we have released throughout the offseason, in order to make it predictive.

These will be released in alphabetical order, so we’ll kick things off with the defending champion App State Mountaineers.

Below you’ll find the team’s projected starting lineup, with each qualifying returnee’s marginal OAYP score, and Sun Belt position ranking. The players with OAYP scores and rankings listed are full qualifiers. Players with OAYP scores but not rankings listed were second tier qualifiers, but not meet the full qualifying threshold. Players with neither listed did not meet any qualifying threshold.

However, whereas the prior marginal OAYP rankings reflected each player’s number only relative to the Sun Belt, these scores are relative to Southern Pigskin’s entire coverage area -- so the ACC and SEC, as well. This should more accurately reflect a given player’s efficiency and value since the sample size now includes over 600 players, so especially strong or weak groups in any particular league won’t skew the rankings anymore.

Fresh off of winning the inaugural Sun Belt title game, expectations will continue to be high in Boone. However, with a new cast of characters on the sideline and in the booth, Eliah Drinkwitz and company have big shoes to fill.

OFFENSE

2018 Offensive OAYP (Rank): 0.78 (1)
2019 Projected Offensive OAYP (Rank): 0.67 (1)
QB Ranking: 1
RB Ranking: 5
WR/TE Ranking: 2
OL Ranking: 2

App State returns the best quarterback in the conference in Zac Thomas. In his first year as a starter, he led the Mountaineers to the Sun Belt title in the league’s inaugural championship game, was named the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year, and led the SBC in passer rating, while also finishing in the national top 20 in pass efficiency, and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. According to CFB Reference, just 15 other players since 2000 have had as many rushing and passing scores as Thomas, whilst throwing as few or fewer interceptions -- a list that includes the likes of three former Heisman Trophy winners: Tim Tebow, Robert Griffin III, and Marcus Mariota, among others.

Even with a new coaching staff in Boone, there’s no reason to expect a step back from Thomas in 2019. In fact, given all the returning pieces around him, it’s probably more realistic to expect an even better encore performance under Eliah Drinkwitz and company.

Highlighting that supporting cast is the league’s best receiver, Corey Sutton, who emerged as the Sun Belt’s premier big play receiver in 2018. After transferring from Kansas State and sitting out the 2017 season, Sutton led the league with an average of 17.6 yards per reception and ten touchdowns, the most by a Mountaineer since 2011. B.J. Bennett also recently pointed out that the only returning receivers with at least 10 touchdowns with 17.5 yards per catch or more last fall are Alabama's Jerry Jeudy, the Biletnikoff Award winner, Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb and Sutton. Plus, according to Pro Football Focus, he leads all Sun Belt returnees in yards per route run, having averaged a full yard more than Ja’Marcus Bradley a season ago. It is worth noting, Sutton may miss time after being arrested in June for marijuana possession.

Opposite Sutton, Thomas Hennigan projects as an above average Sun Belt receiver. He offers a little more reliability than Sutton, but needs to find the end zone more, while Malik Williams, arguably underrated by OAYP (a lot of slot receivers are), actually led the group in success rate a year ago.

Meanwhile, Darrynton Evans should be the primary ball carrier after taking over admirably for Jalin Moore after the latter got hurt in 2018. Evans is a home run hitter, and it would be nice to see his efficiency improve, he gained at least five yards on just over 40% of his attempts last year, but still projects much more effectively than Marcus Williams, overall. That said, Williams was decidedly steadier than Evans, so even though he doesn;t offer as much at the second level, he can continue to be a useful complement.

Plus, it’ll help matters running behind an offensive line that returns four starters and projects to be the second best group of blockers in the Sun Belt. Noah Hannon has now started 26 consecutive games at center, while Vic Johnson has started all but one contest at right tackle since he first took the field as a redshirt freshman in 2016. Those two helped lead the Mountaineers to a top 25 national ranking in both rushing yards per game and fewest sacks allowed for the fifth straight year.

DEFENSE

2018 Defensive OAYP: 0.1 (4)
2019 Projected Defensive OAYP: 0.34 (2)
EDGE Ranking: 1
DL Ranking: 4
LB Ranking: 3
CB Ranking: 5
S Ranking: 1

App State brings back two superstar edge defenders in Akeem Davis-Gaither and Noel Cook. The former was superb both against the run and in coverage, compiling 10 tackles for loss, 14 stuffs, 7 passes breakups, and allowing the third lowest passer rating in the league on throws into his coverage, among linebackers. The latter, meanwhile, contributed another 11.5 TFL’s of his own, and returns the second most sacks on the team. Yet, loaded as the linebacking corps was a year ago, inside linebacker Jordan Fehr was the only one selected to the all-conference first team thanks to his do-it-all versatility. As effective in run defense as he is getting after opposing passers or dropping into coverage, anything less than another first team All-Sun Belt nod would be a surprise. This trio will be the heart and soul of the defense.

Up front, the departures of stalwart nose guard Myquon Stout and havoc wreaking defensive end Okon Godwin are compounded by the loss of Chris Willis, who is out for the season with a lower leg injury. That leaves the Mountaineers with only one qualified returnee on the defensive line. Even so, one thing that the previous regime did better than most was rotating defensive linemen. Not only did that keep their guys fresh throughout the season, but it helped prepare younger players to step into those bigger roles when it was their turn. So, Demetrius Taylor, EJ Scott, and Elijah Diarrassouba -- each of whom graded out positively per OAYP, especially Taylor who posted a breakout star-type score -- will have plenty of experience to step in and have success right away.

The big questions lie in the defensive backfield where App State must replace one of the nation’s premier cornerback duos over the past few years, Clifton Duck and Tae Hayes. For what it’s worth, OAYP slightly prefers Shemar Jean-Charles and Steven Jones, with Shaun Jolly not far behind, but the sample sizes are too small to take anything substantial away from that. Regardless, whoever ends up on the boundaries, will benefit greatly from having the two best safeties in the Sun Belt behind them.

Those aforementioned cornerbacks helped last year, to be sure, but they weren’t the only reason that the Mountaineers allowed the third fewest receptions of 30+ yards in the country. According to Pro Football Focus, Desmond Franklin allowed just 0.31 yards per snap in coverage and his 38.4 allowed passer rating on throws into his coverage was the best in the Sun Belt, regardless of position. He also tallied four picks and nine total passes defended, while Josh Thomas added another four interceptions of his own, which ties the two atop the conference among returnees. Both comfortably in OAYP’s superstar threshold, App State’s average safety marginal OAYP is a full point higher than the next best duo in the conference.

TOP 100 PLAYERS

These are the athletes listed in my annual preseason ranking of the 100 best players in the Sun Belt, which combines my personal opinion and the eye test with the OAYP metric.

4. S Desmond Franklin
6. WR Corey Sutton
9. C Noah Hannon
11. QB Zac Thomas
13. EDGE Akeem Davis-Gaither
14. OT Victor Johnson
22. RB Darrynton Evans
25. S Josh Thomas
38. OG Ryan Neuzil
41. LB Jordan Fehr
50. EDGE Noel Cook
56. OG Baer Hunter
74. WR Thomas Hennigan
81. TE Collin Reed
92. DL Chris Willis* (Top 100 was released prior to injury)

POSITION GROUP RANKINGS

1. Safeties
2. Edge Defenders
3. Quarterback
4. Offensive Line
5. Pass Catchers
6. Defensive Line
7. Inside Linebackers
8. Running Backs
9. Cornerbacks

CONFERENCE SCHEDULE

OAYP not only favors App State in every conference game, but it favors them by more than a touchdown. With the Mountaineers dodging Arkansas State from the West, Troy, Georgia Southern, and Louisiana will obviously be the toughest challenges. OAYP likes Georgia Southern better than the Ragin’ Cajuns, but the home field advantage adjustments put them as basically even foes, leaving the Trojans as the lone team that shouldn’t be a double digit dog. To put it succinctly, anything less than unbeaten in conference play would be a disappointment.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP