NEW ORLEANS — Mark Ivey
enrolled at Appalachian State as a walk-on defender in 1991, arriving as a 206-pound linebacker to begin a college career that ended with three seasons as a starting nose guard.
As a defensive line coach for the Mountaineers, and now the interim head coach for the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, Ivey has overseen the development of several players who've taken similarly productive paths.
App State rotates as many as nine or 10 linemen along a three-man front with two ends and a nose tackle, and that group includes walk-on standouts such as Caleb Spurlin
, E.J. Scott
, George Blackstock
and Tommy Dawkins
Last year, former walk-on defensive end Caleb Fuller
closed his Appalachian career in memorable fashion with 1.5 sacks and 3.0 tackles for loss in a bowl shutout of Toledo, and the Mountaineers' tradition of walk-on success stories has continued this season.
"Any time I see a young man that comes in on his own determination, where nobody has begged him to come or is paying for his school, that this is where he wants to be and what he wants to do and nobody can stop him from doing it, I have a tendency to be drawn to that type of person," Ivey said. "I respect the effort and stick-to-it they have to have."
All-Sun Belt first-team pick MyQuon Stout
leads the way as a two-year captain at nose tackle, and he's been surrounded at the start of games by ends such as Elijah Diarrassouba
, Chris Willis
and Okon Godwin
. Spurlin and Dawkins, who missed the first eight games of 2018 with an injury, are among the regular contributors at end, while Scott and Blackstock have provided valuable depth behind Stout.
The philosophy of relying on three sets of three linemen (two ends, one nose) helps keep App State defenders fresh, and it works because of how well everyone has performed.
Twenty-three App State players have contributed in the tackles for loss category this year, and Spurlin has 1.5 sacks among his 18 tackles. Scott, who initially made the team via a walk-on tryout, has posted two quarterback hurries and also reached double figures in tackles with 12.
"When you first get here, it doesn't matter if you're a walk-on or not, (Ivey) wants you to be the best you can be no matter what you were at one time," Scott said. "We go out and fight every day."
Scott transferred to App State from Division II Shaw University with no guarantees that he'd be a member of the football team. The 5-foot-10, 255-pound Spurlin arrived from Galax High School in Virginia, while Blackstock is from Eden Morehead High School near the North Carolina/Virginia border, and Dawkins graduated from Cox Mill High School in Concord. His father was an App State standout before joining the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1987.
Spurlin delivered one of the biggest plays of App State's season when he recovered a fumble that he forced on a fourth-down, fake-punt completion against Troy in a first-place showdown on Nov. 24. With the Mountaineers ahead 7-0 in the first quarter, Troy punter Tyler Sumpter completed a fourth-and-3 pass for 10 yards close to midfield, but Spurlin ripped the ball away near the sideline, before the receiver went to the ground.
App State responded with another scoring drive to take a 14-0 lead in a 21-10 victory.
"If you can play, you can play, and that's the best thing about (Ivey)," Spurlin said. "He doesn't see stars, he just looks for who can perform."
Like Ivey, Spurlin was a Virginia native who changed positions not long after arriving at App State.
After seeing time at tackle, center, tight end, receiver, fullback and tailback in high school, Spurlin intended to play the equivalent of a fullback spot for the Mountaineers, and two weeks passed before Ivey expressed an interest in seeing him move to the defensive line.
Ivey, who moved to nose guard when Ruffin McNeill rejoined the App State staff as a defensive coordinator in 1993, received a scholarship about halfway through his college career. He said he made a positive impression by "not allowing anybody to tell you no." That mindset has rubbed off on some of his players and explains why they revere their position coach so much.
"He's really played a big part of my life here at App State," Spurlin said. "His attitude and mentality every day and love for the game and App State is just unreal. He comes with the same attitude every day of wanting to win. That's the biggest thing from him, preaching that you've got to love it, and that's what he truly lives by."