Appalachian State doesn’t get the credit that they deserve. Despite being a combined 90-38 over the last ten seasons (including five seasons of 10+ wins), the Mountaineers are still a program that is most notably known for a win that occurred back in 2007. Yes, the infamous upset of Michigan remains program-defining, but it makes it easy to look past the growth of this program over the past decade, along with the potential they possess in 2023.
The most interesting thing about this year’s Mountaineer team heading into Fall Camp is the QB competition between Redshirt Freshman Ryan Burger and JuCo Transfer Joey Aguilar.
I know, I know:
“Ethan, this is a run-first team with a great stable of RBs. Why should we care about which QB they roll out this year?”
Because this offense is back under the leadership and scheme of Offensive Coordinator Frank Ponce. He returns after spending a year in Miami with Mario Cristobal and looks to bring a more pass-happy approach back to Boone.
Despite only being an Offensive Coordinator for two seasons, Ponce’s usage statistics suggest his influence on the offensive schemes of his programs is slanted toward the aerial attack.
In 2020, prior to his promotion to Offensive Coordinator, App State had a Neutral Game Script Passing Rate (NGSPR) of 33.7%. In 2021, Ponce’s offense elevated that rate to 58.5% before it dipped back to 38.8% last year in his absence. It’s worth noting that the team retained Chase Brice as the starting QB in both 2021 and 2022, so this wasn’t a decrease that was made due to lacking the right signal caller.
Further suggesting this change was due to Frank Ponce is Mario Cristobal’s Passing Rates prior to Ponce’s arrival. From 2018-2021, Cristobal’s offenses averaged an NGSPR of 43.2% but in 2022 that jumped to 50%. Now it’s a bit cloudier to attribute this change solely to Ponce as it was Cristobal’s first year in Coral Gables, though seeing that Ponce’s presence correlated with a spike in both of his stops thus far suggests he will look to open up this offense again in 2023.
The second piece of the puzzle comes from Ponce’s experience as Passing Game Coordinator for Louisville in 2019 and 2020. During these seasons, he utilized the mobility of Malik Cunningham and played a key role in helping him gain national recognition for his athleticism. This is important because both QBs that are competing for the starting role have more mobility than Chase Brice. Now it’d be unfair for anyone to expect Malik Cunningham levels of rushing production at the QB spot from them, but having an OC that isn’t afraid to utilize their QB’s legs is a major plus in fantasy production.
All of this combines with the fact that the team only returns four defensive starters. If there is regression on that side of the ball then there is a greater likelihood they are positioned in shootouts that could raise the fantasy output for all members of this passing attack. This is a perfect storm for a fantasy breakout.
Ryan Burger is a redshirt Freshman who spent last year backing up Chase Brice. He threw for 40 yards on six attempts and ran for 23 yards on two carries. According to Head Coach Shawn Clark, Burger reminds him of former Mountaineer QB Zac Thomas, who played under Clark from 2017-2020. Clark’s career is one that Burger should be eager to replicate, and if he does, fantasy owners should pay close attention to it. In Thomas’ best year, 2019, he scored 281.78 fantasy points in the regular season. For context, that would have been good for a QB23 finish in leagues with four-point passing touchdowns last season. If Burger has any bit of Zac Thomas in him, we should be very interested in his upside and the ability of this coaching staff to utilize his legs.
Joey Aguilar is a JuCo Transfer from Diablo Valley Community College. In 2022 he played in six games and put up modest numbers (an average stat line of 241 yards on 33 attempts and 1.3 touchdowns through and 59.7 yards per game on the ground) while splitting reps with another QB. His arrival in Boone does more to signal the type of player they’re looking for at the position than anything else. He’s built very similar to Burger – both 6’3” and within ten pounds of one another, and he has the ability to use their legs when things and create off-script.
The current landscape for App State suggests that Burger will be given the opportunity to lead the team at the start of the season. However, things were close enough in Spring Camp that there has not been an official declaration for the starting job. The two played well enough that transfer (and former Texas State QB) Brady McBride decided to retire from football, in concession of the top two spots.
If the quarterback play for the Mountaineers is consistent, a conference championship is within reach for this team. Nate Noel returns at RB with some new faces in the rotation behind him, and all four of the leading receivers from last season return in 2023. Christian Horn led the team in yardage, while Dashaun Davis led the team in receptions. However, the overall target share was very flat last year, with Horn, Davis, and Kaedin Robinson all within 1.1% of one another in team target percentage.
It remains to be seen if this team will continue to lurk under the radar this offseason, but with the case laid out so clearly, don’t be surprised to see a few of their players positioned as viable assets in CFF leagues this Fall.