By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
BOONE, N.C. — The news out of Kidd Brewer Stadium last Saturday as Appalachian State took the field to play Samford in an important Southern Conference football game couldn’t have been much more stunning.
There in the starting lineup for the Mountaineer defense was a cornerback named DeAndre Presley.
Yes, the DeAndre Presley that led Appalachian State to a Southern Conference championship as the offensive player of the year and the top-seed in the NCAA Division I playoffs.
The DeAndre Presley who finished third in the Walter Payton Award balloting and was named to most Football Championship Subdivision All-American teams as one of the top quarterbacks in college football.
Even more shocking was the fact that a few plays into the game, Presley crushed Samford receiver Kelsey Pope, with his helmet hitting the ball with full force as Presley took Pope’s legs out from under him.
The ball rolled on the ground and was grabbed by linebacker Jeremy Kimbrough.
“I just want to help the team in any way I can,” said Presley, who has long been one of the most respected players in the ASU program.
Presley, who played mostly in Appalachian State’s nickel packages last week, finished the game with a starling six tackles, showing an aggressiveness you would have expected out of a senior defender, but not one who was playing his first game ever on the defensive side of the ball — his first defensive appearance at any level of football.
“When you talk about DeAndre Presley the defender, you better start talking about DeAndre Presley the person first,” ASU coach Jerry Moore said. “He’s a great person and a terrific athlete.”
Earlier this week, Presley made reporters wait long after ASU practice ended as he worked hard with several other players on his defensive back technique.
A day later, Presley was taking extra work again after the formal part of practice ended, this time fielding punt, after punt as he worked on a new position as a returnman.
“I voted for DeAndre as the offensive player of the year in our conference last year and now he is playing cornerback?” Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken moaned. “That shows you how much talent App State has on offense, if they can move an athlete as good as Presley to defense.”
We’ve seen many players over the years at the FCS level play multiple positions.
There was the incomparable Gordy Lockbaum, who played running back, receiver and defensive back for Holy Cross from 1984-88, finishing fifth in 1986 and third in 1987 in the Heisman Trophy balloting and as runner-up to Colgate running back Kenny Gamble for the first Payton Award in 1987.
Lockbaum was also second in the Maxwell Award voting in 1988.
Appalachian State even had a two-way player of its own in recent years when preseason All-American Daniel Bettis started both at tight end and as a defensive end at the beginning of the season for a team that went on to win a national championship.
Only an early-season injury and the quick development of some youngsters caused Bettis to return solely to offense as the season progressed.
And there have been players like Bethune-Cookman’s Rasheen Mathis, a future NFL All-Pro, who who set an NCAA single-season record for interceptions and won the 2002 Buck Buchanan Award, while also seeing action occasionally at wide receiver.
But you would be hard-pressed to find an athlete who has sacrificed his personal success for the sake of his team like Presley has.
Considered by many to be the favorite for the Payton Award at the start of the season and the first-team All-American quarterback on the majority of preseason lists, Presley frankly struggled through the first five games of the Mountaineers’ schedule.
Presley tore through the 2010 schedule with uncanny efficiency until a serious of nagging injuries began to take their toll as the season wore on. He finished with 2,631 yards passing, 1,039 yards rushing and was responsible for 35 touchdowns.
But when he returned for his senior campaign, Presley seemed to lack the confidence he had carried during the 2010 season and his decision making as became suspect.
On his second snap of the year at Virginia Tech, Presley mishandled a handoff to Cadet for a fumble, starting the Mountaineers on their way to a crushing 66-13 loss. He also tossed a pair of interceptions later in the game.
While Presley struggled for three quarters, his backup Jamal Jackson came on and fired a 46-yard touchdown pass to Brian Quick on his first possession running the attack and completed a seven-play, 80-yard drive later with a 15-yard scoring burst after a 41-yard pass connection with Tony Washington.
Presley led ASU to a 58-6 victory over North Carolina A&T and a 41-6 triumph against Savannah State, a a pair of weak Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference opponents, but the Mountaineer offense struggled without an offensive touchdown in a 14-12 win over Chattanooga and a 28-14 loss to Wofford.
Presley had rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns and had thrown for 761 yards and four more scores, but seeds of doubt had already been sown.
Of course, there were times during the 2010 season when those would have been Presley’s totals in two games.
“For whatever reason, DeAndre just wasn’t making good decisions,” ASU quarterback coach Brad Glenn said.
Presley was also hurt by unstable offensive line play.
When Presley suffered a (non-throwing) shoulder injury against Wofford, the Appalachian State coaching staff made the decision to rest him during a bye week and to prepare Jackson for a start against The Citadel.
“I knew if Jamal played well against The Citadel, he would be the starter when we played Samford,” Presley said. “I went to Coach Moore and said I wanted to help as a kick returner, at receiver, or on defense.”
Moore affirmed Presley’s sacrifice.
“He came to me and said ‘Coach, I want to be a part of the football team, I want to make a difference.'”
Jackson has long credited Presley with helping him develop as a quarterback and said that Presley was in his corner again, even though Jackson was replacing Presley as the starter.
“It’s competitive, but we help each other,” Jackson said.
It was the second time in his Appalachian State career that Presley had moved to benefit the team.
Presley spent his freshman year as a promising backup to two-time Payton Award-winner Armanti Edwards, even starting as the Mountaineers beat Western Carolina 35-10 in the regular-season finale.
Presley was forced into the starting lineup during the 2009 opener when Edwards suffered a deep cut on his foot in a lawn-mowing accident.
But in a game very similar to the Virginia Tech contest, Presley stumbled early, rushing 12 times for only 16 yards and one TD, while hitting just 7-of-15 passes for 101 yards and an interceptions as ASU fell behind East Carolina early.
Presley was replaced by Travaris Cadet in the second half and Cadet nearly pulled off an upset before the Mountaineers ran out of time in a 29-24 loss.
The decision was made to move Cadet to the backup quarterback position and Presley was moved to receiver for the rest of the season to utilize his athletic skills.
“Our thought was that, if we needed to bring someone in to replace Armanti (in 2009), that the ability Travaris had to run the ball gave us the best chance to win,” said Glenn. “We knew DeAndre wasn’t going to get much of a chance to play, so we felt like moving him to receiver gave us the chance to use his talent and keep him involved.”
When Cadet was switched to running back for 2010, Presley asked for another chance at quarterback and won a spirited battle with Jackson for the starting job.
Moore said that the unselfish attitudes of players like Presley and Cadet have made a huge impact on this year’s team.
“Cadet is one of the most unselfish players I’ve ever been around and so is DeAndre,” said the veteran coach. “Those are the type of things that are helping mold this football team.
Few on the team expected that Presley would find himself in a similar dilemma to 2009 as a senior.
“We never thought this would happen,” said ASU wide receiver Brian Quick, a player expected to be the top NFL draft choice from the FCS ranks in 2012 and a pass-catcher that had honed his skills with Presley’s help. “DeAndre is a hard worker and everyone sees that. I have more respect for him than anyone on this team.”
And though no one on the team is putting blame on Presley for the early-season offensive problems, there is no doubt that Jackson has been effective as the Mountaineers have rolled to a 49-42 victory over The Citadel and a 35-17 win over Samford.
“There were a lot of reasons we were not effective on offense,” said Quick. “Everyone has to take their share of the blame. But we’re starting to polish many things.”
Ironically, with a slew of NFL scouts in practice this week to primarily look at Quick, Presley earned their attention with his work on defense.
At one point, a scout asked Moore if Presley could be matched up against Quick to see how the two athletes would fare against each other.
“We’re both real competitive, so it was a good challenge to go up against him,” Quick said.
While Presley is working on a steep learning curve, he has done remarkably well in just over a week as a defensive back.
“I’ve been blessed with the ability to play whatever position I have to play,” said Presley. “It hasn’t been hard for me at all.”
Appalachian State team chaplain Reggie Hunt has been speaking to Presley about “embracing adversity” in order to learn life lessons that far exceed the lessons of the gridiron. It has been advice that Presley said he has grabbed with his whole heart.
“I don’t want to be the bad apple,” Presley explained. “I just want to win, I’ve never been a selfish player.”
And if needed, Presley is ready to fill his old role at quarterback whenever the coaches might call, even without studying an offensive game plan in the past couple of weeks, or getting any reps on offense in practice.
“I know the offense like the back of my hand,” Presley explained.