BOONE — The tone of Appalachian State’s scrimmage on Saturday was echoed through a positive pass play.
Zac Thomas, Appalachian State’s starting quarterback, connected with Corey Sutton on the right side of the field for a short reception. But before his feet could touch turf, he was immediately corralled by Shaun Jolly.
The cornerback slammed the wide receiver to the ground, sparking reactions out of both units as a cluster of players surrounded the spot. Jolly, a sophomore occupying one of the first-team starting spots, earned praise from his defensive teammates as the team settled in for the next down.
Jolly’s hit reflected the vibe of the Mountaineers’ second spring scrimmage, which featured a dominant showing for a group returning seven starters from last season. App State’s defensive players grabbed three interceptions, including a long touchdown from safety Desmond Franklin, as the offense struggled with penalties.
“I think we’ve got some rangy players,” Coach Eli Drinkwitz said of the defense. “Long, athletic guys who can play in space. They do a nice job in stopping the run, forcing the ball laterally and then chasing it down. . . Obviously we’ve got good players”
Besides Franklin, linebackers Trey Cobb and Jace Frisbee picked off App State quarterbacks, and D’Marco Jackson nearly had one as well.
App State opened its initial offensive drive with penalties. Other than three field goals from Chandler Staton and a short touchdown dive from running back Marcus Williams Jr., the Mountaineers stayed relatively quiet.
Drinkwitz said his issue with Saturday’s practice stemmed all from mistakes that could have been avoided.
“I’m not going to get too concerned about whether or not the offense is behind the defense and all that stuff,” Drinkwitz said. “What I am going to be concerned about is being able to control the controllables. Things that we control. Whether it’s penalties, pre-snap penalties, or not knowing your assignments.”
Part of the offensive struggle stems from offensive line health, Drinkwitz mentioned. The coach indicated that the Mountaineers are working with eight healthy lineman. Ryan Neuzil, the starting left guard for just under two seasons now, didn’t play on Saturday.
The need for help there has resulted in the emergence of Cooper Hodges as a steady contributor on the first unit. Hodges, a freshman, redshirted last year but has appeared in both guard spots this spring when last year's starters (Neuzil and right guard Baer Hunter) weren't available.
“Well, dependability is more important than ability,” Drinkwitz said of Hodges. “He’s healthy and ready to go every day, so you’re going to get an opportunity when you’re healthy and ready to go.”
Noah Hannon, App State’s starting center, said there's been need for the occasional patchwork job for the offensive line. But that can’t be used as an excuse for errors, he contends.
“We’re making a lot of mental mistakes right now, myself especially, technique wise that we can clean up,” Hannon said. “We’ve got five days left of practice to do our best we can to eliminate all those mental and technical errors. We’ve just got to step up.”
On top of the interceptions, the defensive registered multiple sacks. Plays were whistled dead when the quarterbacks were touched or defenders had clear lines on passers. Pairing that with setting hard edges on run plays, and the Mountaineers did little wrong in preventing offensive traction.
Tyler Bird, an inside linebacker, said the defense struggled on Wednesday during its live moments. For him, it was nice to get back to the group’s disruptive ways.
“I think we’re just cleaning up the mistakes,” Bird said. “. . . So we really wanted to come out today and show ourselves, show the offense, show everybody that we are good and we’re the same defense that we had before, if not better even.”