By Brad Fauber - email@example.com
WINCHESTER -- After several weeks of fall practice, Shenandoah University will finally hit the football field for the first time in 2012 as the Hornets travel to take on Stevenson tonight.
The Hornets have plenty of motivation to begin the season on a strong note, the biggest key being to build some early momentum for SU's first-ever tour through the Old Dominion Athletic Conference schedule beginning in Week 4.
"We had two weeks of camp, and it was tough -- we've made it as hard as we have since I've been here the last eight years," said Hornets defensive coordinator Brock McCullough at Wednesday's media day. "We made it as hard as we could, and that's with intent -- intent for us to be harder nosed, a tougher football team. We're looking forward to seeing what we have on Saturday night."
The Hornets will also be driven by the absence of head coach Paul Barnes, who will not be making the trip to Owings Mills, Md., as he continues to recover from back surgery. It will be the first game that Barnes has missed in 10 seasons with the Hornets.
McCullough will handle the head-coaching duties.
"I know it hurts for him not to be out there," said sophomore quarterback Phillip Gardner of Barnes. "That's in the back of my head, as well as the rest of the team -- we're playing for him at this point."
Shenandoah should carry some momentum into tonight's contest with the Mustangs, a team in just its second year as a football program. The Hornets rolled over Stevenson in a 49-21 win at Shentel Stadium in the season-opener last season.
But this season's Hornets look significantly different that they did a year ago, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
Gone is standout receiver Rico Wallace, who put up school-record numbers last season in catches (67), receiving yards (1,241) and receiving touchdowns (14). Also gone is quarterback Daniel Wright, who re-wrote Shenandoah's record book while passing for 2,371 yards and 23 touchdowns last year.
Against the Mustangs last year, Wright and Wallace hooked up for five touchdown passes.
Gardner, a Moravian (Pa.) transfer, will get the nod at starting quarterback tonight, and the sophomore is excited for the opportunity to build a name for himself with the Hornets.
"I'm sure there will be a few jitters until the first snap's over, but it's just more excitement at this point," Gardner said. "I'm just trying to stay humble and trying to keep a level head, and just trying to keep focused at the same time. I'm just excited to play."
Gardner will have some weapons around. Senior receiver Qiydaar Murphy returns after catching 58 passes for 609 yards in 2011, including five catches for 48 yards against Stevenson. McCullough has also seen good things from junior Adam Tibbs and sophomore Calvin Wright at the receiver position in camp.
Tight ends Stephen Dellinger and Austin Barnes are both seniors, and senior running back Carl Joseph returns after leading the Hornets' ground attack last season with 776 yards on 154 carries.
Shenandoah's defense faced a dynamic quarterback in C.J. Hopson in last season's matchup with Stevenson, and the Hornets are prepared to face yet another dual threat QB on Saturday. Sophomore Anthony Reid is set to start under center for the Mustangs.
"Stevenson has a very athletic quarterback. They had one last year, but this one is a little more elusive," said senior cornerback Brandon Martin. "Last year he was their backup and he ran a lot of wildcat-type offenses and stuff."
McCullough said he doesn't think Reid will be the only quarterback the Hornets defense will face tonight. McCullough expects to see Mustangs senior Kyle Cool at some point, and maybe even a third quarterback.
"We certainly look forward to the challenge and, as we always talk about it, it's about us doing our job," McCullough said. "I hope like heck we see all three of their quarterbacks because that means good things for us, probably."
Shenandoah has a few tough games in weeks two and three as the Hornets face former USA South Conference foes Ferrum and Christopher Newport, respectively, before starting ODAC play on Sept. 22 at Bridgewater.
SU was picked to finish tied for last in the ODAC this season, and tonight's matchup with Stevenson is important if the Hornets expect to establish some early momentum before conference play.
"People are already doubting us as it is," Martin said. "We're just trying to come up and win these first three games to show people that we're not playing around."