By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- Shenandoah University freshman quarterback Justin Neff received just about the greatest birthday present he could ask for.
Shortly after celebrating his 18th birthday on Monday, Neff -- who had been in competition in fall camp with junior Drew Ferguson for the starting quarterback spot -- received a phone call from Hornets head coach Scott Yoder informing the former Millbrook standout that he would be Shenandoah's starting quarterback for Saturday's season opener against visiting Gallaudet.
"I was driving to my house because I had just had a birthday party and coach [Yoder] called me and he was like, 'How does starting on Saturday sound?,'" said Neff, who will become the first freshman quarterback in Hornets history to start a season opener and the first freshman quarterback to start a game for SU since 2002. "I just turned 18, and that's the best thing that an 18-year-old kid could ask for. Truthfully, I'm more excited about being able to start than being 18."
Yoder and his staff came to the conclusion to start Neff over Ferguson -- a transfer from defending Division III champion Mount Union -- following last Saturday's scrimmage against Gettysburg, although Ferguson still figures to see plenty of time leading the Hornets' new spread-I offense.
Yoder said the plan is to use both quarterbacks interchangeably this season, with each quarterback working a certain number of series based on opponent, individual performance and game situation.
Neff will work the first two series against Gallaudet on Saturday night before giving way to Ferguson for the third offensive series, Yoder said. After that, Shenandoah's staff will go with whichever quarterback is best suited for the current situation.
"It was as close a quarterback competition as I've seen in 13 years, and really just looking at the whole situation after the scrimmage, practices, the intrasquad, all of the evaluations -- both of them can help us win," Yoder said. "We just feel that right now naming Justin the starter is the right thing to do. In the body of work that we've seen, he's moved the team efficiently and most effectively. But Drew is going to play and he's going to help us win games this year."
Shenandoah struggled with inconsistency at quarterback last season as three players combined for just six touchdown passes and 18 interceptions, but Yoder insists that a two-quarterback system is the "best thing for our team" this season.
Neff is also on board for sharing the quarterback responsibilities with Ferguson.
"I like it. It keeps a lot of the pressure off of me to do absolutely everything," Neff said. "He's also a very good quarterback and he deserves to have half of it. He's worked just as hard as me through camp and everything to get it."
STANDING OUT: Last Saturday's scrimmage against Gettysburg allowed Yoder to see his team in live action against an opponent for the first time in fall practice, and Yoder said several players stood out with their individual performances.
Sophomore wide receiver Brandon Adams was the first name out of Yoder's mouth when discussing impact players on Wednesday. Yoder said Adams made an impression on offense and special teams last Saturday, further solidifying Adams as a go-to threat for the Hornets this season.
"He had a really nice punt return in the scrimmage and made a couple guys miss on a screen pass and scored a touchdown," Yoder said. "I don't think that's a surprise to us. He was a kid who in the spring was probably one of our best receivers. I know he didn't get a lot of time last year, but we knew he was going to be big for us, and I think playing against other competition and how he performed just kind of solidified what our thoughts were."
Yoder also had high praise for freshman inside linebacker Jason Hager, a 5-foot-7, 195-pound Fredericksburg native who has wowed the SU staff with his play so far in fall camp and will start in the middle of the Hornets' 4-4 defense against Gallaudet.
"He's a kid who has played himself into a starting position," Yoder said. "The thing that I would say about him is that kid's a football player. He's not the tallest kid, he's not the biggest kid, but when the lights come on and he's got to go make a tackle, that kid does it."
PLAYING FOR PACKY: The Hornets football team and the entire Shenandoah University family mourned the loss of former Hornets defensive back Patrick "Packy" Purcell in May after Purcell lost his battle with cancer, and SU will be honoring Purcell this season by bringing his No. 26 jersey onto the field for each football game.
Purcell, a Herndon native who graduated from Shenandoah in 2012, played football at SU for four seasons alongside his brother, Sean.
"We're going to take that jersey out onto the field and that's how we're going to kind of honor him and his family, SU football and the university," Yoder said. "We're a big family here and we had a significant loss ... that's what our players and our captains want to do, and we're going to do that. I hope that brings us together even tighter, and brings the whole community together, because that's important."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org