BOONE — Eli Drinkwitz makes his debut as the new head coach at Appalachian State on the Kidd Brewer Stadium sidelines at 3:30 p.m. Aug. 31 against visiting East Tennessee State.
Drinkwitz has been an assistant college football coach since 2010 and coached prep football from 2005-09, so he’s seen several sidelines and press boxes for several years.
But he admitted on Aug. 26 that his next upcoming game means a little more for Drinkwitz and his staff, who are all coaching together for the first time.
“The closest thing I’ve ever had to being the head coach was a head seventh-grade coach,” Drinkwitz said. “There might be a few thousand more fans here than there were at that one. We’ll do the very best we can. I know our players will be excited. The best thing we have going for us is we have a lot of players with experience, so it won’t be their first game.”
Drinkwitz doesn’t go into the game empty-handed. He leads an Appalachian State team that returns 10 starters on offense, seven starters on defense and is fresh off a season that ended with a Sun Belt Conference championship, an 11-2 record and a New Orleans Bowl victory.
Even with the experience on the roster, the Mountaineers must also show what they’ve learned of the pro-style tempo offense Drinkwitz has installed. Drinkwitz said the experience of playing in big games would help the staff deal with the anticipation of the game.
Drinkwitz announced that three of those experienced players — safety Josh Thomas, linebacker Jordan Fehr and left offensive tackle Victor Johnson — were elected captains by their teammates.
“We can all act like it’s not going to be different, but it’s going to be a lot different,” Drinkwitz said. “There’s going to be a lot of excitement. It’s a new opportunity. It’s a new chapter. There’s going to be a lot of excitement for all the new coaches.”
Drinkwitz anticipates there will be some excitement brewing for East Tennessee State, which revived its program in 2015 after ceasing operations after the 2003 season. The teams have not played since 2003 when the Mountaineers claimed a 21-7 victory at Kidd Brewer Stadium.
Since 2015, the Buccaneers rejoined the Southern Conference and finished 2018 with an 8-4 overall record, which included a berth in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs
The Bucs, coached by Randy Sanders, will be without their 2018 quarterback Austin Herink, who was a senior last season and threw for 1,825 yards and six touchdowns.
Appalachian State’s defense is familiar with his replacement in Chance Thrasher, a transfer from Coastal Carolina, who reached the top of the East Tennessee State depth chart Monday. A pair of freshmen, Cameron Lewis and Trey Mitchell, will back him up.
The Bucs don’t have a running back controversy as FCS Freshman All-American Quay Holmes returns for his sophomore season. Holmes gained 928 yards and scored 13 touchdowns on the ground, and also caught 34 passes, second on the team, for 279 yards and two touchdowns in 2018.
Drinkwitz also said East Tennessee State returns four starters along the offensive line, which presents a challenge to the App State defense.
“For us, it comes down to controlling the line of scrimmage,” Drinkwitz said. “The defensive line has to be disruptive. They have got four returning starters up front and the quarterback’s best friend is a good running game, so I’m sure they’ll try to find multiple ways to get their best players the ball.”
Appalachian State’s offense must find a way to block senior defensive end Nasir Player, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 271 pounds. Player, who finished with 43 tackles last season, also had six sacks for minus 42 yards and 11 tackles for a loss in 2018.
East Tennessee State also features defensive back Tyree Robinson, who had six interceptions and 71 tackles in 2018.
As with the App State defensive line, Drinkwitz said the key to success for the Mountaineers’ offensive line to be strong up front.
“They did a really good job stopping the run,” Drinkwitz said. “They do a good job pressuring the quarterback, forcing him into bad situations, making him throw the ball before he wants to. The key for us is we have to do a great job of controlling the line of scrimmage and that’s in the run game and in protection.”