Junior running back Darrynton Evans was the first of a pair of Appalachian State players to have their names called in the 2020 NFL Draft that took place Thursday through Saturday. Evans was selected in the third round with pick 91 overall by the Tennessee Titans.
Senior linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither was the first pick of the fourth round on Saturday, going to the Cincinnati Bengals with the 107th pick overall.
After the draft ended, two Mountaineers signed undrafted free agent deals. Linebacker Jordan Fehr signed with the Minnesota Vikings and safety Justin Thomas signed with the Buffalo Bills.
Tennessee Titans Select App State’s Evans in Round 3
App State made history in the NFL Draft on Friday, as running back Darrynton Evans went 93rd overall as a third-round pick of the Tennessee Titans.
It’s the highest pick of a Sun Belt running back in the history of the conference, as three other drafted backs were sixth-round selections. In the last 25 years, only two other running backs from North Carolina colleges have been drafted higher than Evans: East Carolina’s Chris Johnson (24th in 2008) and North Carolina’s Gio Bernard (37th in 2013).
Evans, an early draft entry who was App State’s primary running back for just 23 games, posted career totals of 2,884 rushing yards and no fumbles on 482 carries (6.0 yards per attempt). Also a skilled returner and receiver, he had 4,642 all-purpose yards and 34 touchdowns in three college seasons, helping the Mountaineers go 10-3 in 2016, 11-2 in 2018 and 13-1 during a 2019 season in which they finished with a top-20 national ranking.
In addition to being named the Sun Belt Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2019 and winning the Sun Belt rushing title in each of his final seasons, he collected three pieces of hardware in four postseason chances as a two-time MVP of the Sun Belt championship game and the MVP of the 2019 R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
Evans rushed for 1,480 yards, totaled 2,064 all-purpose yards and ranked No. 3 nationally by scoring 24 touchdowns (18 rushing) in 2019. He joined Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey (2015) and ECU’s Johnson (2007) as only FBS players this millennium with at least 1,400 rushing yards, five TD receptions and a kickoff return for a score in same year
“I’m very hard to tackle in the open field,” Evans said on a video call with Titans reporters. “That’s just one area that I’ve always worked on in the offseason, just getting quick to where if I see a hole I can hit it fast, and then once I get through it at the drop of a dime, or I can tempo through, and then from there just go 100 miles per hour. So it’s just really using my speed to my advantage, using my vision, and just making people miss.”
From scoring on a 100-yard kickoff return against Penn State in 2018, to rushing for three touchdowns in a win at North Carolina and totaling 158 all-purpose yards in a win at South Carolina in 2019, Evans produced against some of the Mountaineers’ toughest opponents. Against Charlotte, he became the first FBS player this millennium to post at least 200 rushing yards (234), score three rushing touchdowns and have a kickoff return for a touchdown in the same game.
The big plays against Penn State and Charlotte accounted for two of his school-record three kickoff returns for touchdowns during his college career, and the Penn State game opened a 2018 season in which Evans rushed for a league-leading 1,187 rushing yards (with a 6.6 average per carry) even though he didn’t become App State’s primary back until Game 5.
As someone who has completed the 40-yard dash in less than 4.40 seconds and ranked second among running backs at the NFL Scouting Combine with a time of 4.41, Evans used his track speed to amass 11 runs of at least 50 yards over his final two seasons and record three kickoff returns of at least 94 yards during his App State career.
He also earned recognition for his academic excellence, as he was labeled the Sun Belt’s top football scholar in 2018 and relied on his intelligence to perform well at several positions throughout his career.
In program history, the only App State offensive players to be picked higher than Evans are receiver Brian Quick (No. 33 in 2012), receiver Dexter Jackson (No. 58 in 2008) and quarterback-turned-receiver Armanti Edwards (No. 89 in 2010).
Cincinnati Bengals Open 4th Round By Drafting Davis-Gaither
The Cincinnati Bengals reopened the NFL Draft with a bang Saturday, using the first pick of the fourth round to select hard-hitting App State linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither.
He went 107th overall to the Bengals, whose coaches were in charge of the South team for which Davis-Gaither excelled as a captain during the Reese’s Senior Bowl in late January. It’s the second-highest pick of a Sun Belt Conference linebacker in the history of the league, after only Arkansas State’s Demario Davis (No. 77 in 2012).
“I always carry that chip on my shoulder, regardless of if I would have went in the second round, because I know there are people out there that are doubting me,” Davis-Gaither said on a video call with Bengals reporters. “I just want to prove them wrong. (At App State), that’s our motto.”
Moving forward from a 13-1 season in which it finished with a top-20 ranking in both national polls, App State was the first Group of Five program to have two players picked in the 2020 NFL Draft, as running back Darrynton Evans went to the Tennessee Titans in the third round.
With two players going in the opening four rounds for the first time in school history, App State is also the first Sun Belt program ever with two players selected that early in an NFL Draft. Previously, Louisiana had a second player taken 110th in 2012 and 125th in 2003.
Shown by ESPN celebrating in North Carolina with family members not far from his hometown of Thomasville, Davis-Gaither was taken with the first pick Saturday, just minutes after a full day of coverage began.
“I’m just ready to get suited up,” he said.
In his two seasons as a full-time starter for App State, Davis-Gaither accumulated 209 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss and 15 pass breakups (tied for No. 3 nationally among non-DBs) while leading defenses that ranked No. 4 and No. 21 in fewest points allowed per game.
After making a team-high 105 tackles in 2018, he was named the Sun Belt Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and a fourth-team All-American (Phil Steele) in 2019 thanks to his 104 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks and eight PBUs.
Davis-Gaither intercepted a second-half pass and blocked a field goal on the final play of a 34-31 win at North Carolina, where he posted 10 tackles, and he posted 2.5 tackles for loss with one sack, two PBUs and a forced holding penalty on the game’s final play in a 20-15 victory at South Carolina.
Those numbers reflected how productive Davis-Gaither was in high-stakes matchups, as he totaled 54 tackles and 7.0 tackles for loss in the five App State games decided by 10 points or less last season. As a result, he received invitations to both the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine.
All told, he started 30 times in 55 career games for the Mountaineers and made 258 tackles while being mentored by position coach D.J. Smith, an App State alum who was a sixth-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in 2011. Davis-Gaither also performed at a high level on special teams, earning the team’s special teams player of the year award as a redshirt sophomore in 2017.
Davis-Gaither played at App State for teams that went a combined 54-12 with a 5-0 bowl record and four straight conference titles, making him part of just the fifth class in college football history to win five bowl games and four conference championships. The other five-year classes came from Nebraska (1969-73), Alabama (1975-79), Florida State (1991-95) and Marshall (1988-2002).
The Mountaineers have had multiple players picked in the same draft for the sixth time, joining 2013, 2011 (program-record three selections), 2008, 1992 and 1990.
Davis-Gaither is the fourth-highest pick ever for an App State defensive player. Dino Hackett went 35th to Kansas City in 1986, Dallas selected Dexter Coakley with the 65th pick in 1997 and Buffalo used the 87th pick on Matt Stevens in 1996.
Two More Mountaineers Join NFL Franchises
Two members of App State’s record-setting football season in 2019 agreed to free agent deals with NFL teams following the conclusion of the 2020 draft.
The Buffalo Bills signed safety Josh Thomas, and linebacker Jordan Fehr signed with the Minnesota Vikings. Earlier in the weekend, the Tennessee Titans drafted running back Darrynton Evans in the third round (93rd overall) and the Cincinnati Bengals used the first pick of the fourth round (107th overall) to select linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither.
App State led Sun Belt Conference programs by ending the 2019 season with eight alums on NFL rosters. The rookies joining that list played key roles for a 13-1 team that finished with a top-20 national ranking in both FBS top 25 polls.
Davis-Gaither and Thomas were members of teams that went a combined 54-12 in their five seasons and part of just the fifth class in college football history to win five bowl games and four conference championships. Evans and Fehr, meanwhile, won a conference title and bowl game in each of their four seasons with the Mountaineers.
Thomas, Fehr and Davis-Gaither were multi-year starters for defenses that, in 2018 and 2019, ranked No. 4 and No. 21 nationally in fewest points allowed per game. Offensively, Evans helped App State score a Sun Belt-record 73 touchdowns in 2019 while ranking No. 9 nationally at 38.8 points per game.
Thomas, who participated in the CGS College Gridiron Showcase in Texas after his App State career ended, started in 30 of his 56 games for the Mountaineers and was a team captain in each of his final two seasons. He received first-team All-Sun Belt Conference recognition from the grade-based PFF College site as a senior and second-team recognition as a junior.
As a senior, Thomas posted a career-high 72 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss, one fumble return for 37 yards and one interception return for a 16-yard touchdown. His regular-season coverage grade from PFF College ranked No. 2 among all Group of Five safeties.
Fehr, a two-time All-Sun Belt pick, played in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in mid-January at the Rose Bowl in California.
Fehr recorded 195 of his 211 career tackles in his final two years, highlighted by a senior year in which he served as a team captain and had a team-high 109 tackles for a defense that allowed just 20.0 points per game. Facing Power Five competition, he recorded a career-high 16 tackles during the 34-31 win at North Carolina and had 12 more tackles (with one sack and two tackles for loss) in the win at South Carolina.
Fehr was named a Campbell Trophy semifinalist (recognizing the nation’s top scholar-athlete) in 2019 with a 3.77 GPA, and elite-level athleticism led to him ranking No. 3 among FBS linebackers on The Athletic’s annual “Freaks List” thanks to his ability to bench press 415 pounds, run a 4.45 40-yard dash and vertically jump 40.5 inches with a 230-pound frame.