When a field goal attempt seems likely, Devan Stringer seeks out Chandler Staton on the Appalachian State football team’s sideline.
The senior linebacker, known as a boisterous leader to his teammates, always delivers reassuring words to Staton, who as a redshirt freshman assumed kicking duties about halfway through the season.
“When it’s third down or so, he’ll walk over and tell me to just knock it down or that it’s just another kick,” Staton said. “He always kind of reinforces the idea you always want in head that you’ll make the kick. You don’t want people saying, ‘No pressure,’ or anything like that. It’s little keys to keep my head there.”
Stringer’s infectious leadership and defensive playmaking, along with Staton’s reliable leg, have been keys to yet another successful season for the Mountaineers.
And tonight, the pair of Gainesville High graduates will display their talent on a national stage.
Stringer, Staton and Appalachian State will face Toledo in the Dollar General Bowl at 7 p.m. at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama. The game will be televised on ESPN and is a rematch of last year’s Camellia Bowl, which the Mountaineers won 31-28.
“It has been the same as usual for us. It’s not any different,” Stringer said of taking on the Mid-American Conference champion Rockets (11-2) for the second straight year. “We’ve been practicing hard for the last few weeks.
“We’re game planning and really just figuring out what they do well and what we can do to stop it, just like last year.”
The two Gainesville natives will likely need big performances if Appalachian State (8-4) is to stay unbeaten in bowl games since becoming eligible for the FBS postseason in 2015.
Stringer and Staton were never high school teammates despite graduating two years apart. Staton transferred to Gainesville High from North Georgia Christian School, which is now Lanier Christian Academy, following Stringer’s departure for Boone, North Carolina, in 2014.
But they’ve always been linked. Staton said both their fathers joined the Gainesville Fire Department in the same rookie class about 25 years ago.
“We’ve known each other all of our lives,” Stringer said.
By the time Staton wraps up his college career, the pair of former Red Elephant standouts will likely have something else in common — being four-year contributors at a Division I program.
Stringer blazed that trail first, immediately seeing action as a freshman before cracking the starting lineup midway through the 2014 season. The linebacker didn’t miss a start until he suffered a hamstring injury during the Mountaineers’ 23-20 win against Idaho on Oct. 14.
He sat out the next three games, two of which were losses. Stringer stayed upbeat despite the frustrating injury, though being confined to the sidelines took some getting used to.
“It was something foreign to me,” he said. “I wasn’t used to sitting out. I had made something like 39 straight starts. It was definitely different, and I had to adjust. The hardest thing was not being out there with my teammates, whether we won or lost.”
Stringer got the best of both worlds upon his return, which coincided with Appalachian State’s three-game winning streak to close the regular season. The third team All-Sun Belt selection hopes to make it four in a row, and the odds of that happening are strong when he’s on the field.
In his 45 games played, Stringer has amassed 213 total tackles (120 solo), 18 tackles for loss, six passes defensed, 5½ sacks and two fumble recoveries.
But for all his statistical exploits, Stringer’s leadership might be his best quality.
“You always know when Devan’s around,” Staton said, “He’s a lot like everybody else at Gainesville (High); it’s a dominant environment. If you’re not one of those people, you won’t fit in on the team very well. I know he was a leader at Gainesville, and he’s a leader here. … He’s definitely one of the guys to look up to.”
Naturally, Stringer was there to provide words of encouragement when his fellow Red Elephant got a chance to take control of the Mountaineers’ kicking job.
Staton acknowledged he didn’t perform well in fall camp, and returning kicker Michael Rubino kept the starting role to begin the season. But after Rubino connected on just 9 of 15 attempts, Staton got the nod for the team’s Oct. 28 game at UMass.
He drilled kicks of 40 and 30 yards in the double-overtime loss and hasn’t looked back since.
“I knew I was capable of it when I went in. I didn’t ever think I was going to miss,” Staton said. “ … “There was a little bit of a relief to get out there and knock in the first one. But it was kind of the same relief with every game.”
The 2016 Gainesville High graduate has made all six of his field goals along with a 27-for-27 mark on extra points. He credited the success to being more zoned in on his craft and fighting off the complacency in preparation that often creeps up toward the end of a season.
“He has handled it well, exceptionally well for how young he is,” Stringer said. “He has been in very pressure-cooking situations and comes out on the other end unfazed. I’m proud of him and how he handles it like that. He stays cool and doesn’t let nerves get the best of him when we need a big kick. He just goes out there and nails it.”
Staton can cement his status as Appalachian State’s starting kicker heading into 2018 with a strong showing in the Dollar General Bowl. Stringer, meanwhile, just wants to make the most of his final appearance in a Mountaineers uniform.
After likely making his 43rd career start, Stringer will return to Boone to train for pro day and complete his degree in finance, banking and insurance. He also hopes to receive an invitation to one of college football’s senior showcase games, though none have come yet.
For all the calming advice Stringer has given Staton before he trots out for critical field goals, the senior could perhaps pass on one more bit of wisdom to his fellow Gainesville product: Savor your time with the Mountaineers program.
“It flew by. Good Lord,” Stringer said. “I feel like we’re back on the first day of camp in August like it was yesterday. But it was a great year, and we came up here to finish strong.”