By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
This could well be the make-or-break week for Shenandoah University's football team, and the Hornets aren't even playing.
After officially opening play as the newest member of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference this past week at Bridgewater, the Hornets have a bye week to rest and recalibrate before diving into the brunt of the ODAC schedule.
It's also a week to stop, hopefully once and for all, the ongoing quarterback carousel which has been in full effect through the first four games this season. It started in the first week, a 26-16 victory over Stevenson, when senior Shawn Lloyd replaced ineffective starter Phillip Gardner and sparked Shenandoah to a comeback victory. A fake punt -- more on that later -- also played a prominent role.
Lloyd got the start for Week 2, a 14-7 loss to Ferrum, with Gardner also seeing time. It was back to Gardner when the Hornets hosted Christopher Newport, but an injury knocked the sophomore out in the second quarter and Lloyd finished up the 20-7 loss.
Against Bridgewater, Shenandoah unveiled its third starting quarterback in as many games when sophomore Corey Taylor trotted out to the huddle for the Hornets' first play. Suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules for Shenandoah's first three games this season, Taylor perhaps had the inside track for the starting job all along. Against the Eagles, he certainly flashed that potential with a modestly productive 9 of 16 passing effort for 125 yards and two rushing touchdowns. More importantly, Taylor didn't turn the ball over -- a welcome relief for the Hornets, who had thrown eight interceptions heading into that game.
Before the season began, Shenandoah coach Paul Barnes insisted that this year's group of quarterbacks was probably as deep as its ever been. It needed to be, with record-setting signal caller Danny Wright gone to graduation. So far, the production from that spot hasn't come close to matching Wright -- or Hornets punter Cory Gay, for that matter. Gay, after all, is 3 for 3 on fake punt pass plays, and SU is an unfathomable 5-for-5 on that trick play already this year.
Sustaining drives with gimmick plays can only work for so long -- or can it? -- and settling the instability at quarterback could go a long way toward helping the Hornets' youthful offense finally get on track.
On the one hand, it's not a bad problem to have -- all three Shenandoah QBs have shown some ability during their time on the field. Gardner is an added threat with his mobility, Lloyd is physically imposing and has shown a knack for extending plays, and Taylor flashed a combination of quickness and arm strength against the Eagles.
"I feel like we have three athletic quarterbacks that can really make a play on their feet if need be, but Corey definitely has, I think, probably the strongest arm out of all three of them," Hornets senior center Chris Lewis said after Saturday's game.
Bridgewater coach Michael Clark, for one, figures the Hornets may have found their starting quarterback on Saturday with Taylor.
"I told Paul afterwards I thought they made a good choice at quarterback," Clark said. "The young kid gives them a chance. Sometimes you've got to pick kids and people you can grow with. I think in the end, that was a good choice on their part."
That may be, or not, depending as always on performance. Taylor likely earned the next start for the Hornets, when they face Guilford for Homecoming on Oct. 6 at Shentel Stadium.
If he -- or Gardner, or Lloyd -- can settle that most unsettled of positions for Shenandoah, the Hornets could well turn around a disappointing start. The Hornets' defense has been outstanding (allowing 16.8 points per game), and special teams has gone above and beyond expectations already this year. Establishing a viable passing attack to relieve some of the constant pressure on Shenandoah's dangerous running backs, Carl Joseph and Andrew Smith, would do much good. Eliminating the flurry of turnovers which have plagued the Hornets this season would be even better, and Taylor did that Saturday.
It's a good start. Let's see what he can do with another one.
-- Sports editor Jeff Nations can be reached at email@example.com