By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- Inconsistency at quarterback plagued the Shenandoah University football program during last year's miserable 1-9 season, as the Hornets used three different starting quarterbacks who combined for just six touchdown passes and 18 interceptions in 2012.
This season the slate has been wiped clean, and the starting quarterback job is open for several newcomers to the Shenandoah program. Freshman Justin Neff, a former standout at Millbrook High School, and junior Drew Ferguson, a transfer from defending Division III national champion Mount Union, are the front-runners to claim that spot, and the two currently find themselves competing for those first snaps when Shenandoah hosts Gallaudet on Sept. 7.
"We're definitely still competing. Truthfully, we should always be competing ... we should have the best players start each week," said Neff, who threw for 2,200 yards, 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions at Millbrook last season. "I love the competition, it brings the best out in me and I'm sure it brings the best out in him to the point where we can improve the team."
Neff and Ferguson may be competing for the right to be the primary signal caller in the Hornets' new spread offense, but the rivalry between the two is hardly hostile. Far from it, in fact.
The pair has developed a sort of friendly rivalry on the practice field, and both players try to help each other correct mistakes even though doing so could give one the upper hand.
Neff said he is constantly looking to pick up things from Ferguson, who has two years of college experience under his belt and has been a reliable source of information as Neff makes the difficult transition from high school to college football.
"He has a few years, a lot more experience than me, which is a great thing to learn from. He's a smart player, he knows what he's doing, so it's also good for me to watch him and learn stuff, take everything in," Neff said. "He's really precise, he's very good at decision-making. He learns plays really well and he knows the big picture of them, and that's where I'm trying to get. He also knows the speed of the college level, and I'm still trying to absorb everything."
The role as mentor is something that Ferguson has openly embraced during fall camp, and the Mechanicsville native said each player is always trying to push the other to get better.
"That's something that we help each other out with. If we make a mistake, I'll help him, he'll help me," Ferguson said. "It's like a good, friendly relationship even though we're competing for that same spot."
First-year offensive coordinator Stan Hodgin has taken notice of the friendly rivalry that has formed between Neff and Ferguson in practice, and he said that their attitudes directly reflect the effort by new head coach Scott Yoder to recruit high-character guys.
Hodgin said that both players bring valuable characteristics to Shenandoah's offense, and that the healthy competition has allowed the coaching staff to see the very best from Neff and Ferguson.
Hodgin raves about Neff's strong throwing arm and his ability to progress through his reads, although Neff still needs to get used to the game speed at the college level, according to Hodgin.
"He's a great fit for what we're trying to do. The fact that he has a big arm is an added bonus," Hodgin said. "That's not the number one physical attribute that we need. We need a guy that's accurate, and ball placement is something that he's done a nice job with through camp."
Ferguson, who ran the spread offense at both Atlee High School and Mount Union, brings some familiarity with the Hornets' new offense that most players don't currently have.
"Even though Drew doesn't have a lot of Saturday afternoon snaps, he's been in like circumstances now for the better part of four years," Hodgin said. "So he does have probably a slight edge in experience with handling certain situations."
Yoder said the plan early in fall camp was to name a starting quarterback as quickly as possible as long as there was a clear-cut favorite, but the competition between Neff and Ferguson has been so tight that Yoder decided to ease off that initial plan and let things play out.
Yoder said he intends to name a starting quarterback after Saturday's scrimmage with Gettysburg College.
"Whoever is starting on Sept. 7 at 7 p.m., they're going to be the guy who gives us the best chance to win," Yoder said.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org