By Nathan Ham
College football season is officially here for fans of Appalachian State University. The Mountaineers will be on the field at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night to take on the East Carolina Pirates.
The Duke’s Mayo Classic features the Mountaineers coming off of a sixth straight season with a bowl victory taking on East Carolina, who enters the third season under head coach Mike Houston. App State finished last year at 9-3 overall and 6-2 in the Sun Belt Conference. ECU struggled to a 3-6 season and a 3-5 record in the American Athletic Conference.
Overall, the Mountaineers lead the head-to-head series 19-12, but the Pirates are won the last contest between the two programs, a 35-13 win in Greenville. Appalachian State last beat ECU in 1975, 41-25 in Boone. This is the first time the two teams will meet as members of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).
App State will be led by quarterback Chase Brice, who transferred to the program after graduating from Duke last year. As a member of the Blue Devils, he passed for 2,170 yards and 10 touchdowns. Before that, Brice was a highly-touted recruit out of Loganville, Georgia, that originally signed with Clemson in 2017. Brice was the backup to Clemson star QB Trevor Lawrence, who was drafted #1 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars, for two seasons.
Brice will be joined in the backfield by a stable of running backs, including returning leading rusher Camerun Peoples. The junior from Linville, Alabama gained 1,124 yards and scored 12 touchdowns last season.
The wide receiver group for the Mountaineers will be one of the best the team has had. Thomas Hennigan returns as App State’s leading receiver. The senior from Greensboro took advantage of getting an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19 to come back for one more season in Boone. Hennigan had 47 catches for 616 yards and three touchdowns last season. The most anticipated return on the offensive side of the ball will be standout wide receiver, Corey Sutton. Sutton sat out all of the 2020 season to continue rehabbing a knee injury he suffered in 2019. He is still second in the Sun Belt Conference in receiving touchdowns since 2018 even without playing a single snap last year. Sutton has 17 touchdowns in 22 games as a Mountaineer. Joining those two will be speedster Jalen Virgil and Malik Williams, both of which took advantage of the NCAA’s “super senior” offer to come back for an additional season after last year’s crazy, pandemic-filled season.
Defensively, Appalachian State returns 10 of 11 starters, giving the Mountaineers a lot of experience on both sides of the football. With NFL draft pick Shemar Jean-Charles as the only departed starter from 2020, players responsible for 91% of the tackles last season are still with the Mountaineers this year. Linebacker D’Marco Jackson will look to build on a terrific season in 2020. He was the only FBS player with at least 90 tackles (91), 6.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, two interceptions and eight passes defended. Defensive end Demetrius Taylor enters this season with 113 career tackles, 19.5 sacks (No. 4 among active FBS players entering 2021, No. 10 in school history), 35.5 tackles for loss, 20 quarterback hurries and five forced fumbles. He was named to the preseason watch list for the Walter Camp Player of the Year, Bednarik Trophy and Bronko Nagurski Trophy.
For East Carolina, junior quarterback Holton Ahlers returns to lead the office. The Greenville native playing for his hometown team threw for 1,921 yards, 18 touchdowns and 9 interceptions last season while completing a career-best 61.3% of his passes. In 2019 with a full slate of conference and non-conference games, Ahlers threw for 3,387 yards, 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while completing 59.7% of his passes.
The Pirates will have to replace last year’s leading receiver Blake Proehl who was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Minnesota Vikings. Tyler Snead and CJ Johnson are expected to be the top two Pirates wide receivers this year.
ECU returns its two leading rushers, Rahjai Harris and Keaton Mitchell. As a true freshman last season, Harris ran for 624 yards and four touchdowns on 128 carries. Mitchell, who was also a true freshman last season, carried the ball 88 times for 443 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Coach Houston is entering his third season as the Pirates head coach. He has a career record of 87-39 in 11 seasons as a head coach but a record of just 7-14 in his third year at ECU. Houston is a North Carolina native that attended Franklin High School and spent a decade coaching at high schools in Western North Carolina, including two years as defensive coordinator at Forbush in East Bend (1994-1995) and 10 years at TC Roberson High School in Asheville, first as defensive coordinator from 1996-2000 and then as head coach from 2001-2005.
Houston’s college coaching career began with one season as defensive coordinator at Division II Brevard College in 2006. After that, Houston was the defensive coordinator at Lenoir-Rhyne from 2007-2010 and then head coach there from 2011-2013. In 2013, he led the Bears to the NCAA Division II National Championship where they were defeated by Northwest Missouri State, 43-28. Houston made the move up to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) where he was head coach at The Citadel for two seasons in 2014 and 2015. The 2015 team won its first Southern Conference Championship since 1992 and made the playoffs for the first time in 23 years. After two years at The Citadel, Houston accepted the head coaching position at James Madison where he led the program to back-to-back 14-1 seasons in 2016 and 2017, which included an FCS National Championship appearance both years. JMU won the title game in 2016 but failed to repeat in 2017. In 2018, Houston led JMU to a 9-4 record in his final year with the program before accepting the East Carolina head coaching job.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. and the game can be watched live on ESPN U with Mike Couzens handling play-by-play duties alongside analyst Dustin Fox. You can also catch the radio call of the game with play-by-play voice Adam Witten, analyst Noah Hannon and sideline reporter Molly Cotten.