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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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A&M defense has the high ground

Photo by Robert O’Brien

Freshman DB Jacoby Mathews (14) celebrates with a teammate after recovering a Sam Houston State fumble during the Aggies’ game against Sam Houston State at Kyle Field on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.

On Feb. 21, 2022, Appalachian State said goodbye to now-Miami quarterback coach Frank Ponce and hello to ex-Central Michigan offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay. For the Chippewas, Barbay coached the country’s leading rusher in sophomore Lew Nichols III and led a high-powered offense that averaged 445.4 yards per game and 32.3 points per game. Now, he has full command over an offense with an ex-Power Five quarterback at the forefront and two Preseason All-Sun Belt running backs. 

Graduate transfer Chase Brice is back in command as the field general for the Mountaineers after slinging the ball for 3,337 yards on 242 completions and securing 27 touchdown passes in the 2021 season. This three-star quarterback began his collegiate career as a backup to now Jacksonville Jaguars’ Trevor Lawerence for two years at Clemson before transferring to Duke University for the 2020 season. 

Now, Brice is back at the helm for his last season at App State in hopes of leading the Mountaineers to another successful season after finishing last year 10-4 overall, 7-1 in the Sun Belt Conference. 

In the Week 1 showdown against head coach Mac Brown’s Tar Heels, Brice put on a respectable performance. The Georgia native completed 25 of his 36 passing attempts for 361 yards and six touchdowns — yes, six touchdown passes. Despite losing the game after consecutive failed 2-point conversions, Brice left this game a winner and was named Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Week.  

Now for Brice’s right-hand man — or left, depending on the play call — is not just one, not two, but five running backs A&M’s defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin must worry about before the Sept. 10 matchup. The Mountaineers have two All-Sun Belt running backs splitting carries in sophomore Nate Noel and junior Camerun Peoples. This one-two punch combined for 2,054 yards and 18 touchdowns during the 2021 season and is already off to a similar start. 

In the 63-61 loss to North Carolina, they combined for 181 yards on 27 carries and three touchdowns. However, three other running backs made an appearance in Chapel Hill, N.C. Sophomore running backs Anderson Castle, Ahmani Marshall and junior Daetrich Harrington combined for 51 yards on seven attempts and will most likely come in as a fresh set of legs for Noel and Peoples. 

Similar to the tailbacks, there are multiple wideouts to watch out for. The first is redshirt junior Dashaun Davis who led the Mountaineers in both receptions and receiving yards with six and 72, respectively. Davis snagged a 28-yard touchdown pass at the end of Week 1’s game that set up App State’s first failed 2-point attempt. The next leading receiver was junior Christian Horn who averaged 19.7 yards on just three receptions and a touchdown. The last receiver to watch out for is redshirt junior Kaedin Robinson who tallied 48 yards on just two receptions and a touchdown. 

The Mountaineers had three other receivers who had over 20 yards receiving and five receivers who had at least one reception. Expect Barbay to call a heavy dose of pass plays come Saturday and for Brice to share the ball to at least eight of his teammates at the wideout position.

There is not much to say about the Mountaineers’ offensive linemen other than they have four redshirts who are under the wing of a senior transfer from Western Carolina. Right guard Isaiah Helms was named to the 2022 preseason All-Sun Belt team and will look to hold a deep and young Aggie defensive line come gametime.  

“Coach Clark and Appalachian State are coming in here, and they have one heck of a football team,” A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said. “This is a great football team that I think could be in any major conference in the country and be extremely competitive. These guys have played for a long time and played great people every year. They had a great game last week and had a shootout. We’re going to have to play a great game in all three phases.”

As for Durkin’s talented 11, they will be coming off a 31-0 shutout win against Sam Houston State where they formulated two turnovers, an interception by sophomore safety Jardin Gilbert and a forced fumble recovered by freshman Jacoby Mathews.

As a collective unit, the Aggies’ defense forced six three-and-outs on the Bearkats first seven possessions, three sacks and six tackles for loss against a team who hasn’t been shutout in the past eight seasons, the last being a 56-0 loss to LSU in 2014. 

“Our front seven did a really nice job in winning the first down battles,” Fisher said. “Which kept us in more second- and third-and-long situations which really helped get three-and-outs and being able to get stops.”

Against the Bearkats, the Aggies’ defense held the offense to 198 total yards on offense, including 91 yards through the air and caused 50% of passing attempts incomplete. 

Against a mid-major team who is transitioning from the Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS, to the Football Bowl Subdivision, or FBS, a fan might expect more chaos in the backfield. However, it’s difficult to stop a mobile quarterback who transferred from a Power-Five conference and lives outside the pocket. Now, they will be facing a pocket-passing quarterback in Brice who hibernates in between the tackles. 

On Sept. 3, the 12th Man witnessed a rotation from multiple freshmen on the defensive side of the ball, all making an immediate impact in the first game of the season. Their playing time has not expired and isn’t expected to anytime soon.

In the secondary, freshmen Bryce Anderson, Denver Harris and Martrell Harris Jr. had a combined five tackles, all being individual takedowns. On the defensive front, freshmen Walter Nolen, L.T. Overton and Shemar Stewart combined for six tackles, 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hurries. 

“Those guys are very talented,” sophomore defensive lineman Fadil Diggs said. “They’re going to strain, run to the ball. I’m glad they got to do that today, because, you know, it can be nerve-wracking playing your first game as a freshman. So I’m glad that they got that out.”

Expect the maroon and white secondary to step onto Kyle Field and into a bigger role from their Week 1 matchup. Against Sam Houston, senior Demani Richardson and junior Antonio Johnson played up to expectations and were more impactful in the backfield rather than their own territory. Richardson and Johnson had a combined nine tackles and two tackles for loss in the 31-0 victory. 

On Saturday, Sept. 10, expect an intense matchup from a high-powered offense run by Barbay against Durkin’s young and lethal defense.

“Watching [Appalachian State], they look like they play well together,” junior defensive lineman Isaiah Raikes said. “We definitely want to hold [Appalachian State] to as minimum points as possible. It’s exciting to me; I love competition. I look forward to that and I’m sure our whole defense looks forward to that.”

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