Appalachian State returned eight starters from a swarming, nationally ranked defense, including a pair of all-conference linebackers. Yet the Mountaineers’ most important defender might be an underclassmen who supplanted one of those starters and whose work often goes unnoticed except by players and coaches.
Nose tackle Myquon Stout inserted himself into the lineup with a superb summer camp. If early returns are any indication, the Mountaineers again field a defense among the class of the Sun Belt Conference, if not the country.
“I learned that our defense is pretty good,” Stout said, days after the Mountaineers went toe-to-toe with ninth-ranked Tennessee in a 20-13 overtime loss. “We’ve still got some improvement to do as a defense. Myself, I still have a lot of improvement to be a better player, to where I want to get.”
The next step comes Saturday on ASN in Boone, N.C., where the Mountaineers (0-1) play host to Old Dominion (1-0) in their home opener. App State crushed the Monarchs last season 49-0 in Norfolk, Va., in a matchup of programs transitioning into the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“We’ve got a bad taste in our mouth, not finishing the deal against Tennessee,” App State head coach Scott Satterfield said. “We’re excited to get back out on the field and prove we have a really good football team. … We know we’re going to get their best shot, from Old Dominion, because of last year. They have so many players back this year, but our guys will be ready to play and we can’t wait to get back on the field.”
Count Stout among them. The 6-1, 275-pound redshirt sophomore watched and learned his first two years at App State and had a breakout preseason camp. He was so effective that last season’s starting nose tackle, Tyson Fernandez, a converted offensive lineman, was moved back to the O-line.
“In a 3-4 defense, that’s where it starts, right there at the nose tackle position,” App State defensive coordinator Nate Woody said. “If you can get off blocks or command double-teams, you’ve got a chance to be really good. He’s the one, true defensive lineman we’ve got, from a size standpoint. He’s somewhere in the 270-280 range. But he’s got dynamic feet, he’s got good quickness, got great strength and he’s a really smart football player.”
Stout appears a bit light, in an era of 300-pound nose tackles. But he is uncommonly nimble and athletic for his size, and compensates with quickness and tenacity. He was a high school state champ in the shot put in China Grove, N.C., and throws the shot and discus for the Mountaineers’ track team. He was a three-year starter on the basketball team in high school, a fierce rebounder who rarely got moved off the blocks. The footwork, technique and explosion required in track and basketball, he said, carry over to football.
“If all you do is eat up space, then you’re going to be hurting a little bit,” Woody said. “You’re going to have to be able to chase the football. You’re going to have to be able to do something with more than one gap, and in order to take up more than one gap, you have to be able to move your feet. A 270-pound guy generally moves his feet better than a 300-plus pound guy.”
The Mountaineers’ 3-4 defensive scheme might be described more accurately as a 1-6. Their ends are in the 230-to-250-pound range – linebacker-sized players on many defenses – and their four linebackers weigh from 200 to 235 pounds. Stout is by far the heaviest starter.
“In today’s game, with spread offenses,” Woody said, “I think you need that speed because you’ve got to chase down quarterbacks that are athletic in space. You’ve got to be able to get pressure on them in the pass game, and we’ve got to be able to turn around and chase screen (passes), whether it’s the tailbacks or wide receiver screens out there. Offenses are so much more athletic and fast in today’s game, so we decided to put guys who might be a little undersized, linebacker-type guys, and play them at the end, and it’s worked for us.”
Indeed, App State has not been overpowered. The Mountaineers were No. 2 in the Sun Belt in rushing defense and 27th nationally a year ago (131.5 ypg). They were No. 1 in total defense (314.5 ypg), which was 11th in the nation. They led the country in red zone defense in 2015, allowing a 63.6-percent scoring rate.
App State is 17-3 in its last 20 games, with two of those losses to Clemson and Tennessee. In last week’s opener, they held UT to 127 yards rushing and just 3.0 yards per carry, limiting the Vols to fewer than 300 yards in regulation.
Stout had a good game that was nearly exceptional. He finished with three tackles and just missed a pair of sacks against Vols’ quarterback Joshua Dobbs. More important, he contributed to the inside linebacker duo of Eric Boggs and John Law totaling 16 tackles.
“It’s really about playing my role,” Stout said. “The defense, it doesn’t work without me. If I’m not in my gap and putting pressure on the center, the linebackers aren’t coming free to make tackles that need to be made.
“I feel really good when I occupy two blockers and I see John Law come up and make a tackle. I feel like I did a great job, and John even comes up and congratulates me and thanks me for helping him make the play.”
Stout is fine with teammates receiving more notoriety for their tackles and statistics. Those on the field appreciate his value.
“To me, you talk about glamour positions, that is a glamour position for me,” Woody said. “That’s the guy that makes it all work, because if that guy is getting knocked off the ball, or if that guy can’t fit a gap, then those linebackers don’t fit theirs, and it makes things real tough and you can’t stop the run. If you can’t stop the run in today’s game, you’re not going to win.”