By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- Last Saturday's 31-20 loss at the hands of Gallaudet was a disappointing start to the new era of Shenandoah University football under the direction of first-year head coach Scott Yoder. But underneath the gloom of the Hornets' 10th consecutive loss lies a bit of hope for the struggling program.
Shenandoah received major contributions from several freshmen in key positions on both sides of the ball in Week 1, further strengthening Yoder's philosophy of putting the best players on the field no matter how inexperienced they are.
"That's what we want to be about, as far as an opportunity for young guys to play if they're good enough," Yoder said. "Hopefully three, four, five years down the line we're not starting as many freshmen because we've got a lot more depth, but we always want to have an opportunity if young kids are good enough, we're going to play them."
Yoder was particularly impressed with freshman inside linebacker Jason Hager, who wowed the Hornets' coaching staff with his play during fall camp and worked his way into a starting role. Hager led Shenandoah with 12 total tackles on Saturday, including one tackle for loss.
"I knew he was a good football player and I knew that he could play like that, but any time a freshman leads your team in tackles, that was nice to see," Yoder said.
On offense, three different freshmen played a direct hand in two of Shenandoah's three touchdowns on Saturday night.
Freshman tight end Miles Green caught a 27-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Drew Ferguson on a fake field goal attempt in the second quarter, and freshman starting quarterback Justin Neff and fellow classmate Qlyl Middelijn hooked up for a 16-yard touchdown strike late in the fourth quarter.
Neff, a former Millbrook standout, was 19-for-26 passing for 219 yards in his college debut, and Middelijn led all receivers with 147 yards on six catches.
"If you look at the offense right now, we're coaching next year's offense," Yoder said. "For the most part we're coaching next year's defense, as well. I'm not saying we're looking to next year, but when you look, a lot of guys are going to be around. We're not a senior-laden team. That makes me excited for the program."
TAKING THE GOOD WITH THE BAD: Though Yoder saw some bright spots in last Saturday's game against the Bison, the Hornets still have plenty to correct as they prepare to travel to Ferrum this weekend.
Shenandoah's defense was gashed for 390 rushing yards by Gallaudet's triple-option offense, but the Hornets' offense certainly didn't do Shenandoah's defense any favors. The Hornets turned the ball over three times on Saturday and were a miserable 0-for-11 on third downs.
"Offensively we were 0-for-11 on third downs, and we took a hard look at that and we realized that third down wasn't the problem, it was first and second down," Yoder said. "In those 0-for-11 on third downs, most of them were just really long yards. I think there were maybe four or five that were under six yards, so we've got to give ourselves a better chance on first and second down, not making a penalty or a negative play. I think you'll see improvement in those areas."
Shenandoah was also hit and miss on special teams. The Hornets were successful on two trick plays -- one on a fake punt and the other on the fake field goal -- but they also missed an extra point and weren't as sharp on kickoffs as Yoder would've liked.
"Special teams, there was kind of the best of times, the worst of times," Yoder said. "We missed an extra point, we didn't kick off the way I know we can. That was disappointing, because those things lead to field position and obviously that was a huge part of Saturday night. We can get a lot better and we've worked on that this week. But then we had some really good things -- we were aggressive, we did some fakes ... and we had some guys make some big plays. We've got to keep those positive plays going."
STILL SHARING THE LOAD: Yoder announced before the start of the season that the Hornets would employ a rotation at quarterback between Neff and Ferguson, and that will remain the case for the foreseeable future.
Neff saw a bulk of the action at the quarterback position last Saturday, as he attempted 26 passes compared to just five attempts by Ferguson, whose lone completion came on the fake field goal pass to Green.
Neff started the first two series on Saturday against Gallaudet and Ferguson played the third series before the two were used interchangeably based on the situation, and Yoder said that will be the case again against Ferrum.
"Right now that's what we're thinking, is to start off and see where we are and just from that point on after that third series go with the guy that gives us the best situation to win and see how the game plays out from there," Yoder said.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD