By Jeff Nations -- email@example.com
WINCHESTER -- Paul Barnes and the rest of Shenandoah University's football staff had a hectic recruiting season, planting the seeds of the Hornets' impending move to the Old Dominion Athletic Conference into the minds of high school coaches, players -- and their parents -- across the Mid-Atlantic region.
Now the harvest, and early indications are it has been a bumper crop indeed for Shenandoah.
"I just think overall it's the finest recruiting class that we've brought in since I've been here," said Barnes, entering his 11th season as the Hornets' head coach. "Both academically and athletically, we're really happy with it. Our guys really worked hard. So I think the future is bright for us down the road if these guys continue to grow.
"... I'm not saying we're getting them all, but we're getting our share -- more than we ever have. A couple kids chose us instead of those other schools, and we haven't had that here before."
Shenandoah may not see the tangible, on-field benefits of that stellar recruiting class just yet. That could prove troublesome, as the Hornets face a daunting schedule loaded with familiar rivals and new conference opponents. Shenandoah will face two former USA South opponents in the first three weeks of the season when the Hornets host Ferrum and Christopher Newport in back-to-back weeks.
That's sobering, considering those two programs finished ahead of the Hornets in last year's conference standings and are the preseason No. 1 (Christopher Newport) and No. 2 (Ferrum) in the USA South this year.
"It's the toughest schedule that I think we've ever had here at Shenandoah University, by far," Barnes said. "It just happened. When we made the commitment to the ODAC, there wasn't much time. Everybody had their open dates filled, so we were caught in a bind. Again, I'll play anybody, anytime, but going to Stevenson and then coming home and playing Ferrum and then CNU, that is a tough non-conference schedule."
The Hornets, coming off a 6-4 season, aren't expected to fare all that well in the ODAC this year, either, judging by the preseason coaches poll. Shenandoah was picked to finish seventh, tied for last with Guilford in the poll. The Hornets open ODAC play on Sept. 22 at Bridgewater.
That's comforting, in the sense that Shenandoah is plenty familiar with the Eagles after having faced them in all 12 seasons since reestablishing the football program in 2000. A 1-11 overall mark against Bridgewater isn't so reassuring, although Shenandoah has historically played tough against Bridgewater and many of the other ODAC schools. SU has faced five ODAC schools, either in the regular season or in scrimmages, over the years.
"Nobody is going to say, when a new guy comes on the block, that they're going to be the best," Barnes said. "Nobody's going to say that, and rightly so. We've been very competitive with the ODAC, we've played a lot of close games with the ODAC -- we won some, we lost some, too. I think the advantage that we have going into this thing is we know what we're getting into. We have a feel. We're not going in there blind."
Maybe not blind, but considerably less explosive following the graduation losses of record-setting quarterback Daniel Wright and phenomenal wide receiver Rico Wallace. That tandem was particularly lethal for the Hornets last season. Wright rewrote SU's record book for a single season, setting new marks in completions (181), pass attempts (300), passing yards (2,371) and passing touchdowns (23). Wallace, now competing for a spot in training camp with the NFL's Carolina Panthers, shattered his own single-season records for pass receptions (67), receiving yards (1,241) and receiving touchdowns (14).
Finding Wright's replacement is the first priority, and Barnes likes what he's seen of sophomore transfer Phillip Gardner. Right now, Gardner is the projected starter.
"We wanted Phil to come here when he was a freshman," Barnes said. "We like him. He really can throw the football. He's a very good quarterback. He's just got to learn the system. Very sharp, wants to learn. We like what we see out of him."
Wallace simply can't be replaced, at least by one player. But Shenandoah is still in good shape at wide receiver with the return of senior Qiydaar Murphy. Last year, Murphy hauled in 58 catches for 609 yards and four touchdowns. Barnes is looking for others to rise up like graduated senior Kyle Feldman (33-382-3 TDs) last season. Among the contenders are Adam Tibbs, Calvin Wright, David Bell and possibly quarterback Devon Newton.
"I think we have some capable wide receivers in our system, and we're bringing in some wide receivers in as freshmen that we like," Barnes said. "What we saw in the spring is they're capable of doing it. Now they've got to do it under pressure."
The Hornets can count on plenty of experience at tight end, where returning starters Stephen Dellinger (6-40-1 TD) and Austin Barnes (2-18-0 TDs) could see more passes come their way.
"We realize we don't have Rico -- everybody knows that," Barnes said. "But we learned to get the ball to everybody last year because teams were taking Rico away from us at the end. That's where Q and Kyle and other guys were coming through and making catches.
"So we realize we have to spread the wealth throughout -- the backs, tight ends, receivers -- if we're going to throw it, we've got to throw it to all of them. We can't just count on one guy. But Rico was so good, you could do that. He was so good, you could throw it into double coverage and get away with it."
Despite losing reliable running back Brad Martz (127 carries for 543 yards, 4 TDs), the Hornets are counting on a solid running game spearheaded by senior Carl Joseph. Last season, Joseph split time with Martz and still gained 720 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 154 carries. He also caught 10 passes out of the backfield for 50 yards and could be even more of a weapon this season.
"I like him a lot," Barnes said. "He just had to learn the system, and now he knows it."
P.J. Athey (5-foot-10, 230 pounds) also returns in a starting role at fullback. Junior Tommy Abel, a transfer from Southern Maryland, also impressed during the spring at fullback.
The Hornets can also look to a strong offensive line to provide protection and help move the chains. Senior offensive tackle Jacob Brent (6-7, 305) was a first-team all-USA South pick last year and returns along with fellow senior center Chris Lewis (6-3, 290) to anchor the front five.
"We've got to fill some holes, but we have some guys who we feel -- Matt Bounds, who has been injured the last year is going to step up, and then we have two freshmen who we think can get up there and play in Jonathan Hudson and Adam Scott," Barnes said. "We brought some good linemen in, but I think those front five or seven, that's a pretty stout line. They've just got to learn to work together, so we feel very, very comfortable there. We just need to give them some grass time."
On the defensive side, Shenandoah will have to find a few replacements off last year's USA South-leading unit.
Junior linebacker Josh Rogers, a first-team all-conference pick last year, is a consistent playmaker who totaled a team-high 87 tackles along with 14 tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception and three forced fumbles. Rogers would be a three-year starter.
The secondary also looks formidable, with junior free safety Byron Mitchell returning to headline the group. Last year, Mitchell tallied four interceptions to go along with 79 tackles, four pass breakups and a sack to earn first-team all-USA South honors. Junior Brandon Martin (27 tackles, 3 INTs) also returns as a starting cornerback, leaving Sean Blackman as a strong contender for the other starting spot. Junior Tijun Findley and Phillip Schoeffel should also see significant time in the secondary for the Hornets.
Along the defensive front, the Hornets have plenty of experience back led by second-team all-conference pick Nick Erdman (team-high five sacks, 35 tackles) at defensive end.
"We have a lot of guys coming back," Barnes said. "Our d-line -- Preston [Funk], Dustin [Rowland], Ian Griffin, Evan Griffin, Matt Andrews, Matt Bennett -- we've got seven or eight guys that we know can play.
"I'm telling you what, our d-line is a pretty good defensive line. Our linebacker corps is pretty good with Jujaun [Johnson] and Josh [Rogers] and John Luddon. We should be pretty good there."
The Hornets lost starting place kicker Andrew Lloyd to graduation, but starting punter Cory Gay is capable of handling that job, as well. Barnes would rather find two specialists, however. Byron Mitchell likely will resume his role as the Hornets' primary kick returner.
"I think we have a good core group of upperclassmen coming back both defensively and offensively," Barnes said. "We're going to miss some people but our mentality is next man up, always. And if we can continue with that, I think we're going to be fine."