When Scott Satterfield was named Appalachian State head coach in December 2012, things looked peachy. The Apps just won a share of the 2012 Southern Conference and a bevy of talent was returning.
Three months later, everything changed. App State announced a move to the Bowl Subdivision and the Sun Belt Conference in 2014.
From that time forward, Satterfield had to undergo a rebuilding process to make the team FBS-ready. Mainly he had to build depth that FBS required. 2015 was the long-term goal to have a team that would be ready not only for that season, but have the building blocks for long-term FBS success.
As we've seen, the transition process was a painful one. A 4-8 record in 2013 in the final FCS season then a 1-5 start to 2014 put Satterfield at 5-13 in his short career. It turned out the foundation left behind was shaky at best and the youth injected into the lineup had to take time. With many fans disillusioned by the decision to not renew Jerry Moore in 2012, the losses added fuel to the fire against App State and Satterfield's building project.
Halfway through 2014 after an embarrassing OT loss to FCS Liberty, Satterfield was looking like a dud. However, with some simple tweaks (young players getting their footing, more blitzing and an H-Back to block), App State started to show some serious results. Winning the last six games, including consecutive road wins at Arkansas State and UL-Lafayette, gave the team a 7-5 finish and all the momentum in the world going forward.
This season, with a foundation built and a talent-rich squad, App State has made no bones about it. It's about winning the Sun Belt Championship.
One of the eye-brow raisers people notice about App State is that they return 20 of the 22 starters. However, as Satterfield noted, sometimes the backups will play just as many snaps as the starters as the drop-off in skill has been minimized.
The unquestioned starting quarterback is sophomore Taylor Lamb, who won the job in the third week of the 2014 season. Behind him is redshirt freshman JP Caruso and three other QB's have have exactly zero college experience.
The two new players in the starting lineup are Davante Harris at left tackle and JuCo transfer Mondo Williams at corner. Harris has a number of starts under his belt at right tackle so he's only technically a new starter. Williams is starting as projected starter Brandon Pinckney went down with a season-ending knee injury.
App State is deep at wide receiver. The starters, Malachi Jones, Bobo Beathard and Simms McElfresh, are all seniors. Behind them is a talented group of underclassmen in Ike Lewis, Shaedon Meadors, Montez McGuire, Deltron Hopkins, Zy Letman and more.
However, the heart of the team is in the run game. Marcux Cox returns for his junior year on track to break some school records. Behind him is sophomore Terrence Upshaw, then senior Ricky Fergeson.
Defensively, App State might have the best front seven in the Sun Belt. The 3-4 defense caused a lot of problems in the second half of 2014 and everyone returns. Nose tackles Tyson Fernandez and Darian Small will look to clog up the middle and give the ends and linebackers more freedom to fly around. Senior DE Ronald Blair is a NFL-level talent who can chase down many QB's.
A bevy of talented linebackers make up the second level of defense. Junior John Law and sophomore Eric Boggs will man the middle with junior Keenan Gilchrest and sophomore Devan Stringer on the outside.
The secondary is the biggest question mark for the Apps this season with the lack of depth, especially after Pinckney went down. Senior Doug Middleton is the unquestioned leader and could hear his named called in the NFL Draft next spring. Sophomore AJ Howard and junior Alex Gray will each be roaming the outfield with sophomore Latrell Gibbs and the aforementioned Mondo Williams at corner.
One of the big areas to watch this season is special teams. It's been an area of major concern for App over the last few years. With the addition of Stu Holt to the staff coaching running backs and special teams, some of the two-deep will be put on special teams not as return men but as gunners to shore up some deficiencies.
After a camp battle, senior Zach Matics won the kicking duties over true freshman Michael Rubino. However that leash isn't long if Matics misses. Junior Bentlee Critcher returns to punt duties after having to cover all areas of kicking for most of last season due to a Matics' injury.
The return game will be interesting to see with Beathard returning kicks along with Capel and perhaps more. With depth, poor kick returns won't be tolerated.
This Saturday has the Apps take on FCS Howard. A win is likely but not a sure thing. The following week is the big test at Clemson. Other non-conference action has the Apps at Old Dominion and hosting Wyoming. The big key for the Apps is that Arkansas State, UL-Lafayette and Georgia Southern all come to Boone this season. While road traps are set up at South Alabama and UL-Monroe, the Sun Belt title is likely to be decided in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
A winning record and bowl trip is expected on the mountain. Anything less would be a disappointment.