By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
The buzz surrounding Shenandoah University's impending move to the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, made official this summer, has been building on campus for the past year.
Judging by Friday's release of the ODAC's preseason coaches football poll, the buzz among the Hornets' new opponents is just as excited, albeit for somewhat different reasons.
Shenandoah, newly arrived from the USA South Conference, was picked seventh -- tied for dead last in the eight-team ODAC -- in the preseason poll announced shortly before the league's teleconference media day on Friday.
Poor Guilford -- the Quakers, fresh off a 2-8 campaign that included a 1-5 mark in the ODAC, couldn't shake a tie in the preseason cellar with the Hornets. Shenandoah is coming off a 6-4 campaign that included a 5-2 mark in the USA South and a third-place finish in that conference last year.
"Certainly respect is earned," Shenandoah defensive coordinator Brock McCullough said. "We feel like going into the conference, we were picked probably where those guys think we are. And so we need to go out on every Saturday, compete and play well."
The Hornets garnered 11 points in the preseason poll. Hampden-Sydney is the coaches' preseason pick at No. 1 with 46 points and four first-place votes, followed by Randolph-Macon with three first-place votes and 44 points, and Washington and Lee with 37 points and one first-place vote.
Last season, Shenandoah went 0-2 in matchups with future ODAC opponents. SU lost to Bridgewater, 28-23, and at Randolph-Macon, 36-29, in a preview of the caliber of play they'll be facing this year.
"I think it's real exciting," Shenandoah senior defensive lineman Nick Erdman said. "I know when I was coming out of high school, I was recruited by many of the ODAC teams and visited many of them, and checked out all of their facilities and everything like that. So I have the utmost respect for all of them."
Gaining that respect in mutual fashion for Shenandoah will take winning league games, starting this season. And while the Hornets are coming off a solid campaign, they do have significant holes to fill in the starting lineup this year. Much of the concern is on offense, where SU must replace record-setting quarterback Daniel Wright and phenomenal wide receiver Rico Wallace, who is currently in training camp as a free-agent rookie with the NFL's Carolina Panthers.
"It's not going to be easy to replace him," McCullough said of Wallace, who rewrote SU's receiving records and capped off his career with a senior season that included 67 receptions for 1,241 yards and 14 TDs. "He is a guy who commanded a double team, he commanded a couple guys from the secondary to occupy him -- many teams used three guys. So that's something we might not be able to replace with one player, but we have a group that's going to be very deep."
Senior Qiydaar Murphy (58 receptions for 609 yards, 4 TDs) leads that receiving corps, while leading rusher Carol Joseph (720 yards, 3 TDs) is back to spearhead a reliable ground game. Replacing the left-handed Wright might be tricky, as the Hornets have no players on the roster who completed a pass last year. McCullough said sophomore Phillip Gardner, a transfer, has emerged as a contender to start but nothing is decided yet.
"I know our offense is kind of retooling after having both Danny Wright and Rico Wallace graduating and heading out, so that's going to change a little bit of our offense and how we attack different teams," said Erdman, a second-team all-USA South pick last year after amassing 35 tackles and five sacks. "So right now we're going to hang our hat on our defense and our special teams work."
McCullough said the benefits of joining the ODAC became apparent on the recruiting trail, as the school managed another impressive haul of incoming talent for the coming season.
"Going into this offseason and when you go into recruiting, we didn't really know what benefit it was going to provide other than we could say, you know, from the commonwealth that it was going to be a great opportunity," McCullough said. "But kind of the fruits of our labor has shown -- we have a great size recruiting class.
"Obviously hard work plays a part in that, but this great conference affiliation, being affiliated with the Old Dominion and great academic schools that we can sell from that perspective is a blessing."
Now SU is intent on showing the rest of the ODAC that they are ready to compete this year. Shenandoah opens ODAC play with a road game at Bridgewater on Sept. 22. The Hornets' first conference home game is against Guilford on Oct. 6.
"We're all really excited for it," Erdman said. "We're excited for some good competition."