“We lost a lot of good seniors who were leaders on our team, so we focused a lot in the offseason on leadership, and we knew we had guys here with leadership qualities. You just have to develop them and get them leading.”
— Zeb Speir, App State Senior, Quarterbacks
Moving forward from a 9-4 season in which Appalachian State claimed a second straight Sun Belt Conference title and a third consecutive bowl victory, the Mountaineers have adopted the #10Strong motto for 2018.
In the spring, head coach Scott Satterfield and assistant athletics director of athletic performance Mike Sirignano formed a leadership panel that included one player from each of the 10 assigned position groups and had weekly discussions about the contents of a Jon Gordon book called “The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, and Team with Positive Energy.”
Today’s position preview in the #10Strong Series leading up to the Sept. 1 opener at Penn State focuses on the quarterbacks, with senior Zeb Speir serving as that group’s representative on the panel.
The departure of 2017 senior Taylor Lamb, a record-setting quarterback who started the final 49 games of his career, gives the Mountaineers a new look behind center. The last non-Lamb start occurred on Sept. 6, 2014, and sophomore Zac Thomas emerged from spring practices as the first-team quarterback.
Jacob Huesman, another sophomore, and redshirt freshman Peyton Derrick have also returned, while true freshman Stephon Brown and UCLA transfer Jackson Gibbs are newcomers to the 2018 roster. That position group also includes Speir, who took snaps in last year’s Savannah State game, and redshirt freshman Tanner Wilson, who enhances his résumé by being a Heisman-level performer in the quarterbacks’ preseason mustache-growing exhibition.
It’s a close, fun-loving group with members who understand the serious value of strong leadership.
“It’s about stepping out and holding guys accountable, pushing guys,” Speir said. “You’re all best friends, buddies, and sometimes it can be uncomfortable telling somebody, ‘Hey, we have to get going.’ Holding each other accountable is the best part of that. It builds respect with you and with the group.”
Thomas and Huesman were understudies to Lamb for two seasons, as they both redshirted in 2016 and appeared in games for the first time last year. Thomas rushed eight times for 45 yards and attempted passes in two of his four appearances, going 3-for-5 against both Georgia and Savannah State.
Quarterbacks coach Frank Ponce has noted the arm strength and speed that are assets for Thomas. He is working to increase his experience and confidence as fall camp progresses.
“The role for me has changed a lot,” Thomas said. “Being a backup, there was not as much worry — you may get a couple snaps here and there, but you go to practice and practice hard. Now, there’s a lot of stuff put on me to be a team leader. You’re watching more film, learning defenses inside and out, getting that extra work with receivers to get the timing down.”
Thomas acknowledged the importance of leadership at a position with such high visibility. He’ll be working with plenty of talented and experienced teammates, from an offensive line that includes three returning starters, a backfield with two-time Sun Belt rushing champion Jalin Moore and a deep receiving corps. Along the way, Thomas is also being pushed to perform at a high level by Huesman, Derrick, Brown, Gibbs, Speir and Wilson.
“Everybody is competing,” Ponce said. “We have some new guys in the group that are very talented. We’re excited about them, and that’s why they’re here. It’s going to take a while, and fall camp is definitely the time to fix everything and get Zac ready to get the ball to our playmakers.”
Thomas followed a long run through the middle of the field during Thursday’s practice with a touchdown pass to tight end Collin Reed. Multi-position threat Darrynton Evans had a touchdown run of 50-plus yards among his two big gains, A’Darius Purifoy made an impressive sliding catch near the sideline and Chandler Greer continued to make his presence felt on the offensive line.
Defensively, redshirt freshman cornerback Shaun Jolly made a nice play to come up with a sideline interception during one seven-on-seven drill, Clifton Duck prevented a touchdown with an end-zone breakup, Anthony Flory picked off a mishandled pass and freshman outside linebacker Nick Hampton made a tackle for a safety during one possession with the offense backed up.