NEW ORLEANS — Eight months after his first public appearance as Appalachian State football coach during the 2018 New Orleans Bowl, Eliah Drinkwitz returned to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on July 22 to talk about the upcoming 2019 season.
Drinkwitz was joined by two App State student-athlete representatives, who spent the day talking to various media outlets from ESPN to local Sun Belt radio stations.
Leading a team that is coming off an 11-2 season, a Sun Belt Championship and New Orleans Bowl Championship, and a No. 26 ranking in the final AP Poll, Drinkwitz knows the task in front of him.
“What we’re focused on is the opportunities we have at Appalachian State to build on the championship tradition and to compete and do it better than it’s been done before,” Drinkwitz said. “There’s a lot of things that have been accomplished in the past that are tremendous, and we’ve found things that we can do better that we can try to focus on.
“We have to form our new identity. We’re not the 2018 Mountaineers. We’re not the 2005 Mountaineers. We’re the 2019 Appalachian State Mountaineers, and we have to form our new identity with our coaching staff and the players we have. That’s what we’re working hard every day to do.”
The Mountaineers have been picked to win both the Sun Belt’s East Division and the league’s conference championship game in 2019. While App State has claimed three straight conference titles, this is the first pursuit of one with Drinkwitz, the current staff and the current collection of players all working together.
“When you get bit by a snake,” Drinkwitz said, “do you address the wound or do you chase down the snake? That’s the question. For us, we’re chasing down the expectation. We’re embracing the target. Whatever people’s expectations or perceptions are, they don’t mean anything. In college football, you have to go out and prove it every single day. We’re focused on our Week 1 opponent, and we’re focused on creating our identity.”
Starting at 7:20 a.m. local time July 22 with Drinkwitz and Josh Thomas conducting interviews with a radio station from Thomas’ hometown of Montgomery, Ala., continuing for roughly the next seven hours, there were plenty of platforms for the Mountaineers in attendance to discuss the upcoming season. When he wasn’t appearing on ESPN3 broadcast sets or holding court in the press conference area, Drinkwitz even spent time recording social media videos of his players.
Zac Thomas is on the preseason watch list for the Davey O’Brien Award that goes to the nation’s top quarterback, and Josh Thomas on Monday was named to the watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award that goes to the nation’s top defensive back. One of two junior captains in 2018, he has shown valuable leadership during the transition to a new-look coaching staff, and he took his presence in New Orleans as a humbling honor.
“This is like a dream,” Zac Thomas said. “I never thought I’d be here. Just being here, seeing all the coaches, all the teams, being here with Zac, it’s a surreal moment. I’m happy to be here representing App State and my family. It’s just a great experience.”
Dressed sharply in suits and ties, both Josh Thomas and Zac Thomas have come a long way since the 2018 preseason.
Josh Thomas had redshirted in 2017 due to an injury, but he was a key figure in a 2018 defense that ranked fourth nationally at 15.5 points allowed per game, set a Sun Belt Conference record with only 20 defensive touchdowns allowed and tied for first place nationally with only eight passing touchdowns allowed.
Zac Thomas had never started a college game entering the 2018 season, but he succeeded four-year starter Taylor Lamb and helped a balanced App State attack average 37.3 points per contest. Just like the big-picture awareness that past accomplishments don’t guarantee future success, Thomas said he has maintained the blue-collar, hard-working approach that contributed to his strong season in 2018.
“This team, we still have a lot to prove,” Zac Thomas said. “No matter what we did last year, none of that stuff matters. We still have to come out and show up on game day.”