The proof that college football is near appeared in my mailbox on Friday afternoon.
It weighed a couple pounds. It had a glossy cover. And it means the 2019 season is coming in a hurry.
Advanced copies of Phil Steele’s College Football Preview are out (it will hit newsstands on June 25). The magazine, now in its 25th year of publication, garners a biblical following with its depth and factoids. This year’s installment is more than 350 pages, featuring breakdowns on all 130 Division-I teams throughout the nation.
A quick flip (OK not super quick but you eventually get to the Sun Belt section, which leads off with Appalachian State) reveals what Steele thinks about the Mountaineers: this year's team could be set up to roll.
Steele picks App State as the clear front runner in the Sun Belt, stating in his write up of the conference forecast, “All 9 sets of my power ratings have App St as the SBC’s No. 1 team.”
He picked nine App State players for his conference first team, 18 guys total throughout, and frankly, there’s tons more to digest. So instead of trying to make a story out of this, here’s a breakdown of Steele’s observations plus other items of interest:
— First, to fill you in on all his Sun Belt picks. His nine App State first-team picks aren’t really any surprises: Zac Thomas (quarterback), Darrynton Evans (running back), Corey Sutton (wide receiver), Collin Reed (tight end), Noah Hannon (center), Vic Johnson (offensive tackle), Jordan Fehr (linebacker), Akeem Davis-Gaither (linebacker) and Desmond Franklin (safety).
— Noel Cook (linebacker) and Josh Thomas (safety) represented the Mountaineers on the second team. Thomas Hennigan (wide receiver), Ryan Neuzil (offensive guard) and Evans (kick returner) were on the third. Fourth teamers were Elijah Diarrassouba (defensive end), Chandler Staton (kicker), Clayton Howell (punter) and Hennigan (punt returner).
— Steele also ranks the different units of each conference. In the Sun Belt, he gives App State the top spot in quarterbacks, linebackers and defensive backs (a group that lost both starting cornerbacks with the departures of Clifton Duck and Tae Hayes). He also graded the Mountaineers second with running backs (behind Louisiana), receivers (Arkansas State), offensive line (Louisiana) and special teams (Troy).
— The lowest rated unit grade from Steele was in coaching, in which App State tied for eighth. But that’s not a slight on first-year coach Eli Drinkwitz — the other two teams that Appalachian tied with (Texas State and Troy) are also facing the debut season of new coaches.
— In a bigger picture item, Steele ranks the App State special teams unit as the 13th-best in the nation. The team features a top-notch kickoff returner in Evans, who appeared on the East Coast regional cover of the magazine, plus a strong kicker-punter duo of Staton and Howell.
— App State received a plus/minus rating of 112.93 from Steele, which was highest in the Sun Belt. Second place went to Georgia Southern, who got a 105.68.
— As mentioned previously, Steele uses nine different rankings to compile his power poll. App State ranks 47th in that poll, ahead of Boise State. That’s five place ahead of Drinkwitz’s old school, N.C. State, at 52. South Carolina was ranked 23rd, and North Carolina was 65th.
— Steele ranked the Sun Belt last in his toughest conferences for 2019.
Lastly, Steele ranks the top draft-eligible players at each position. Quite a few Mountaineers appeared there too.
— Zac Thomas is the 16th-rated quarterback, between LSU’s Joe Burrows (15th) and Missouri's Kelly Bryant (17th).
— Darrynton Evans ranked 31st at the running back position.
— Corey Sutton is the 27th wide receiver.
— Collin Reed is rated the 53rd tight end.
— Left tackle Vic Johnson, a 6-foot-5 senior, is the 21st-rated tackle.
— Nose tackle E.J. Scott, the likely successor to former App State starter MyQuon Stout, appeared as the 90th defensive tackle on the list.
— Jordan Fehr is the 32nd-ranked inside linebacker.
— Desmond Franklin is the highest-rated Mountaineer at his position, coming in at 14th on the free safety list.
— Akeem Davis-Gaither and Josh Thomas are ranked as the 32nd- and 33rd-best strong safeties in the country. It’s not clear if Steele projects Davis-Gaither as a safety in the NFL or if this is a typo.
— Evans appears again, this time as the sixth-best kickoff returner in the country.
And that's all I will be typing up for you. To read all the info about App State and the other teams, scoop up a copy of the magazine.