Football Preview 2017: RB Hudson being asked to do more than run for Hornets

Shenandoah University's Jalen Hudson runs for yardage against Ferrum last September. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – Jalen Hudson was asked how his hands are in reference to his pass-catching ability before a recent Shenandoah University football practice. The junior running back held his hands in front of himself as if to examine them and, with a laugh, replied, “Eh, they’re getting there.”

Hudson has been asked to use those hands with more frequency as the Hornets prepare to kick off their 2017 season against Gallaudet on Sept. 2.

After spending his first two seasons playing behind and then alongside Cedrick Delaney, Hudson finds his own career taking a trajectory similar to that of the school’s now-departed all-time leading rusher.

Delaney, a converted receiver when he arrived at Shenandoah in 2013, returned to his roots last season and split playing time between running back and slot receiver. With Delaney gone, Hudson has been asked to assume that same role in 2017.

The shift is being made, head coach Scott Yoder said, in order to diversify ways of getting the ball into the hands of Shenandoah’s “most dynamic player” and give opposing defenses one more thing to account for.

Running back Jalen Hudson has been practicing at slot receiver this preseason to prepare for an expanded role in Hornets' offense in 2017. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

“He’s a kid that we’ve gotta go through a game and you’ve gotta have 10 to 15 touches for him designed,” Yoder said. “And if you’re not getting him the ball, if the throws aren’t coming his way you’ve gotta hand it to him because he’s gotta have a big impact on the game.”

Moving the 5-foot-8, 180-pound Hudson to slot receiver means that the junior has been asked to learn a brand-new position. Never in his football career, Hudson said, has he consistently lined up at receiver.

Most of Hudson’s preseason camp has been spent getting acclimated to his new role, namely, he said, discovering the importance of not dropping the ball and being wary of opposing linebackers as he crosses over the middle of the field during routes.

“It’s very different,” Hudson said. “You’ve gotta run routes, catch the ball and then look out for all the linebackers that’s coming because you got the ball in your hands. It’s weird for me but I’m starting to learn it every day, take it day by day.”

Shenandoah’s coaching staff first approached Hudson about the switch during spring practice, and Yoder said during the first week of preseason camp that the junior was working almost exclusively in the slot in order to get up to speed.

Catching the football is not entirely new to Hudson. Last season he had 24 receptions for 259 yards and a touchdown in addition to his 106 carries for 365 yards and four TDs, and was named second team All-Old Dominion Athletic Conference as an all-purpose back. Now he’s just being asked to do it in a different way.

“It’s been a struggle a little bit,” said Hudson, who also averaged 28.8 yards per kick return and scored a return touchdown in 2016. “Just gotta work on getting to my routes. I’ve been going too fast, I don’t know what yards to cut on. Just the little things.”

Yoder said the frequency with which Hudson lines up in the slot will be similar to Delaney’s usage last season, when the former SU running back split time between the two positions fairly equally (Delaney caught 40 passes in 2016, the second-highest mark on the team).

The difference, Yoder added, is that while Delaney often started games in the backfield before shifting to the perimeter, Hudson likely will start games in the slot, where he can take the handoffs on jet sweeps and motion into the backfield.

“We’re still trying to figure out exactly what the finer points of our offense are gonna be,” Yoder said, “so (Hudson’s) a big part of that.”

Hudson’s focus on slot receiver in practice has opened up opportunities for some of Shenandoah’s younger backs in the preseason. Yoder said sophomore Mario Wisdom, who carried 26 times for 100 yards in a limited role last season, provides SU with a change-of-pace tailback who brings more power to the backfield than the Hornets had last season.

Yoder added that transfer Corey Bell and freshmen Marcus Burton and Jordyn Hunter will find playing time this season.

How much Hudson ultimately factors into the backfield in 2017 remains to be seen, but he said he’s prepared to handle whatever workload he’s given after being Delaney’s understudy for two years.

“Talking to Cedrick and watching his film and just learning the stuff he did on the field, that was amazing (to) me. I just learned from him,” Hudson said. “He did it all here. He broke the records here, so I just wanna learn from him and do what I gotta do.”