The matchup for the second Sun Belt championship game has been set, and it's a rematch of the first. Appalachian State and Louisiana will play Dec. 7 to determine which team will represent the conference in the New Orleans Bowl.
But focusing on this week, there is a lot going on with the Mountaineers — specifically the wide receivers.
Here are a few notes on that position group:
Virgil could see more reps
Jalen Virgil had only one career start before the 2019 season began.
That changed quickly, with the junior Appalachian State wide receiver getting three in a row — against East Tennessee State, Charlotte and North Carolina.
He finds himself in that spot again this week, where he most likely will be the beneficiary of the reps vacated by Corey Sutton, who tore an ACL on Saturday during the Texas State game and will not play the rest of the season. App State (10-1, 6-1 Sun Belt) travels to Troy for a Friday night season finale that will determine whether App State plays host to the conference title game.
Virgil said the experience was good for him, giving him valuable reps in a season where he’s appeared in both the pass and run game. But the scenario has changed now in the Mountaineers' closing stretch.
“I know it’s going to be a different type of situation because it’s a different point of the season,” Virgil said. “With everything in this — we have to win this game. So we’re just going to have to see how it plays out.”
Virgil has scored four touchdowns this season, two of which came in the 56-41 victory against Charlotte in Week 2.
Coach Eli Drinkwitz said as far as the offense goes, App State likely will revert back to the way it approached personnel during the first two games when Sutton was out.
Drinkwitz said that App State might also use grad transfer Keishawn Watson and Christian Wells in at wide receiver more as well. Watson caught his first touchdown as a Mountaineer on Saturday. Wells, a freshman, can play in two more games and still qualify for his redshirt.
“Well we’ve always had a lot of confidence in Jalen Virgil,” Drinkwitz said. “I mean, he’s a guy that’s got great speed, size, hands, has played a lot of football for us, has packages in every game.
“... So anticipate no real change in how we’re going. It’s just he’ll get more reps because of the injury. Very excited for him, know he’ll step in.”
Virgil said Watson has been a welcomed addition to the wide receiver room. On top of being “one of the funniest dudes on the team,” Virgil said Watson provided a different perspective.
When Watson arrived in the summer, Virgil said the two started working together. Watson incorporated some different hand-eye coordination drills that Virgil started working on too. Virgil said some of the drills Watson uses now are from Corey Davis, a Western Michigan wide receiver that was taken with the fifth-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans.
“He came in and brought some stuff,” Virgil said of Watson. “Pretty much, our whole receiving corps is veterans now, so just bringing some veteran-type stuff over for us to learn is pretty cool and just like training different things we can use to get better.”
Drinkwitz on Sutton
Drinkwitz officially announced the ACL injury for Sutton on Monday during his weekly press conference. It followed Sutton’s announcement on Twitter from Sunday afternoon.
While this injury comes late this season, Drinkwitz said it shouldn’t affect Sutton next season and that ACL recovery varies from case to case.
“Everyone’s different, but there’s no indication to think that he wouldn’t be back, ready to go by the time we start next season,” Drinkwitz said.
The Mayo Clinic said that recovery from an ACL surgery takes around nine months, and that it may take “eight to 12 months for an athlete to return to their sport.”
Nine months would mean that Sutton is fully recovered by late August. App State opens the 2020 season on Sept. 5 against Morgan State.
Hennigan on what he’s learned this season
Thomas Hennigan is in the midst of a season that’s reminded everyone how good he is.
After a quieter season in 2018, Hennigan is second on the team in receptions (43), yards (533) and receiving touchdowns (four). He’s one of three receivers on the team with more than 40 receptions — the others being Malik Williams with 45 and Sutton with 41.
The Journal asked what Hennigan has learned from this season, from the coaching transition through now, with the Mountaineers one game away from playing in the second Sun Belt title game.
“Just to stay positive and stay with an open mind. That’s kind of been my theme throughout college football: keep an open mind, keep being positive,” Hennigan said. “Coach (Pat) Washington’s been really good with me this whole year. He’s a really good coach. You know, as far as just he’s always calm, he’s very collected and he’s just good at relating with us as players to figure out what he expects from us and what we should expect from him.
“This year, it’s just been a lot of learning experience. Being able to do this for a third time is such a blessing. I just can’t wait to finish out the season with these guys.”