While Devan Stringer watched the 2013 football game between Appalachian State and Georgia, a twinge of regret kept nagging at him.
No, it wasn’t because the then-senior standout at Gainesville High had allegiances on both sides as his future school took on the team he grew up rooting for. More than anything, Stringer simply wanted to be out on the field at Sanford Stadium in Athens.
“Growing up, I always wanted to play in Sanford, and I went to a few games as a young kid,” Stringer said. “ ... I was watching that game thinking, ‘I wish I was at Appalachian State already, that I found a way to go there early or something so I could play in that stadium.’”
Four years later, Stringer finally has his chance.
The Gainesville native returns to Northeast Georgia as a senior linebacker for the Mountaineers, who open the season against No. 15 Georgia at 6:15 p.m. Saturday in Athens on ESPN. Stringer expects about 15-20 friends and family members to attend, and his father told him even some areas referees who used to call his games will be on hand.
“The support from the community has always been a blessing,” he said. “I love the city of Gainesville.”
Appalachian State enters Saturday’s contest posing a real threat to the Bulldogs, especially after taking Tennessee to overtime in Knoxville to begin last season.
Stringer made seven tackles in the 20-13 loss, which was decided by a lucky bounce as much as anything. Former Volunteers running back Jalen Hurd recovered teammate Joshua Dobbs’ fumble in the end zone on the first overtime possession for the winning score.
But Stringer played a huge role holding Tennessee in check for much of the game — Appalachian State led 13-3 at halftime and 13-6 heading into the fourth quarter. Though the Gainesville native still seemed frustrated by the near-upset, he and his teammates are learning from it as they head into another intimidating SEC stadium.
“We feel like we can play on any field,” Stringer said. “Just showing the rest of the world what we have and that we come to play hard every Saturday, that was big for us. … The biggest thing from the Tennessee game is knowing we were able to show up in the moment.”
The Mountaineers’ last trip to Athens ended in a 45-6 blowout, but that was at the beginning of the school’s two-year transition period from FCS to FBS.
Stringer’s four years in Boone, N.C, have directly coincided with Appalachian State’s arrival on college football’s highest level, during which it barely missed a beat evolving from an FCS powerhouse to a member of the Sun Belt conference.
The Gainesville native has started 33 straight games since cracking the starting lineup about halfway through his freshman season. That came with a position change as the undersized linebacker moved from the interior of the defense to outside.
“I met with defensive coordinator (and outside linebackers coach) Nate Woody so many times throughout that week trying to learn a brand new position,” Stringer said. “The staff brought me up to speed, and I ended up earning the starting job. Most of that was preparation, mental things. I liked the move; it’s better for me being out in space.”
As a result, the lightly-recruited linebacker who made 152 tackles during his senior season at Gainesville blossomed into a key contributor for what has quietly become one of the nation’s top defenses.
The Mountaineers, meanwhile, proved their staying power in FBS by following a 7-5 year in 2014 with 11-2 and 10-3 records over the next two seasons. Appalachian State won the Camellia Bowl in 2015 and 2016, even adding a Sun Belt title to its trophy case last season.
“We worked really hard but didn’t really start out too strong. We started 1-5 and ended up winning six straight, ending 7-5,” Stringer said of his freshman year. “It wasn’t the easiest transition to make, but we caught on and have been playing pretty well so far.”
During that span, the 2013 Gainesville graduate has compiled 168 total tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 4 1/2 sacks and a defensive touchdown via fumble return. Stringer finished among the top four on his team in tackles in both his junior (71 tackles) and sophomore (63) seasons, and he enters his final year as a preseason second team All-Sun Belt honoree.
The 5-foot-11, 208-pound linebacker is a solid presence on a defense that ranked ninth in scoring defense (17.8 points per game) and 17th in total defense (329.7 yards per game) nationally last year. Those marks were both best in the Sun Belt.
Fitting, then, that the Mountaineers open the year against an offense overflowing with firepower.
Georgia has perhaps the deepest running back corps in the country, one headlined by seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. On top of that, quarterback Jacob Eason is expected to make big strides in his sophomore season.
“We can’t wait. We’ve been preparing all summer, been in the film room as much as possible,” he said. “They have plenty of weapons that they can utilize. We have to play fast and match their numbers, just play our brand of football.”
As Appalachian State has made clear over the last three seasons, its players won’t shy away from formidable challenges like the one the Bulldogs present.
Especially not Stringer, who has waited since childhood to run through the tunnel at Sanford Stadium.
“It’s always been a dream to play there,” the Gainesville native said. “Being able to come not too far from home and be able to take on those guys with my teammates and having family in the stands, it’ll be pretty special to start my senior season like that.”
“It’s a real blessing to finally have that chance and to come back so close to home.”