Sun Belt's belt

Appalachian State running back Darrynton Evans shows off his Sun Belt belt he earned by being named the Sun Belt Championship Game’s Most Valuable Player. He and his App State teammates play Middle Tennessee in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 15. To his right are, from left, Appalachian State Chancellor Sheri Everts and Appalachian State Athletic Director Doug Gillin.

NEW ORLEANS — A league-best eight first-team selections from Appalachian State highlighted the preseason All-Sun Belt football teams announced by the league office Thursday.

The release comes in advance of the conference’s Media Day festivities, which begin Sunday and continue Monday in New Orleans. Preseason all-conference awards were voted upon by the Sun Belt’s 10 football head coaches and selected media representatives.

In tying Arkansas State for first place with 11 all-league picks overall, App State’s eight first-team selections included five offensive players in quarterback Zac Thomas, running back Darrynton Evans, receiver Corey Sutton, offensive lineman Victor Johnson and offensive lineman Noah Hannon. The first-team selections on defense were linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither, linebacker Jordan Fehr and defensive back Desmond Franklin.

The Mountaineers, who have been picked by the league’s coaches to win another Sun Belt title during head coach Eliah Drinkwitz’s first season in Boone, possess three second-team selections in defensive back Josh Thomas, tight end Collin Reed and Evans as a return specialist.

Arkansas State ranked second in the Sun Belt with five first-team choices, while the Preseason Players of the Year were Troy running back B.J. Smith (Offense) and Georgia Southern defensive back Kindle Vildor (Defense).

Zac Thomas completed his first season as an App State starter in 2018 with 2,039 passing yards, 504 rushing yards and a combined 31 touchdowns, 21 from passing. Evans rushed for a league-leading 1,187 yards even though he didn’t become App State’s primary back until the fifth game, and Sutton tied for first place in the Sun Belt with 10 touchdown catches.

Johnson, a starting tackle for the previous three years, and Hannon, the starting center during each of his first two years, helped App State rank in the top 25 nationally in both rushing yards per game and fewest sacks allowed for the fifth straight season. At tight end, Reed has a combined eight touchdown catches in the last two seasons.

Davis-Gaither, Fehr, Franklin and Josh Thomas were key members of a 2018 defense that ranked No. 4 nationally at 15.5 points allowed per game and set a Sun Belt record by allowing only 20 touchdowns.

Davis-Gaither amassed 105 tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss, seven pass breakups, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and three quarterback hurries, while Fehr recorded a team-high 5.5 sacks and 86 tackles. Franklin and Thomas shared second place in the Sun Belt by intercepting four passes apiece from their safety positions in 2018, when they combined for 94 tackles.

In addition to his production at running back, Evans averaged 32.7 yards per kickoff return, a mark that ranked No. 2 nationally among players with at least 1.2 returns per game. His second career return for a touchdown covered 100 yards at Penn State last season, and he also had a 97-yard return in the Sun Belt Championship Game.

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