By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- Things seem quite a bit different for Shenandoah University senior quarterback Drew Ferguson this season.
Ferguson, who transferred to Shenandoah prior to last season after playing his first two college seasons at Division III powerhouse Mount Union, didn't have much stability in his first season with the Hornets in 2013.
He was a new player in a program that was transitioning into its first season under head coach Scott Yoder. The offensive players around Ferguson -- most of which were trying to learn a new system -- were young and inexperienced. And Ferguson spent the entire 2013 season sharing snaps with then-freshman Justin Neff.
All of that has changed this season.
Neff, who tore his ACL during a personal workout session this past winter, is unavailable for the Hornets this season, leaving Ferguson firmly entrenched as the undisputed starting quarterback in Shenandoah's spread offense. Ferguson has also had a year to get acclimated to the offensive schemes laid out by Hornets offensive coordinator Stan Hodgin, as have the other nine starters that return on offense for SU this season.
"I am definitely more comfortable and confident," Ferguson said Sunday. "I think I'm probably going to be a better leader than I was last year for the team. I'm going to try to lead the team to a bunch of wins this season, but I'm not going to do much different. Just manage the game, run the offense I know how to run and try to make the right decisions. If I do that, the team collectively will do great."
The opportunity to captain Shenandoah's offense is something that Ferguson is relishing, particularly after the string of events that led him to SU following his sophomore year.
Ferguson, who was a starting quarterback for two seasons at Atlee High School in Mechanicsville, was recruited to Mount Union, where he performed "really well" as a freshman until a sprained rotator cuff and biceps tendon in his right throwing shoulder set him back. Ferguson returned for his sophomore season but saw a decline in the number of reps he was getting, so he opted to transfer to Shenandoah in order to seize an opportunity for more playing time and be closer to home.
"It was challenging but I'm glad I transferred," Ferguson said. "I couldn't be happier here. The coaching staff is great and once we got to know each other we really figured each other out, how I play, how [Hodgin] coaches. I think that's the same way everybody is. Now we've really come together as a family between players, coaches."
Ferguson, who has been running the spread offense since high school, has been a natural fit for the scheme that Hodgin brought with him to Shenandoah last season.
Ferguson's running ability gives the Hornets an extra weapon in the ground game, particularly through read option plays. Last season, Ferguson was Shenandoah's second leading rusher, as he finished with 202 yards and three touchdowns on 66 carries.
"I think he does a really good job in the run game," Hodgin said. "We had very few hard call, absolute 'this is what we're doing' and the quarterback is put in a position that he has to make a decision on just about every play, in our run game especially. He handles that really well. ... What we ask our quarterback to do, No. 1 is manage the game, two being a good decision maker and three being a great leader. I think those three statements kind of describe Drew Ferguson."
Ferguson also completed 81 of 157 passes for 944 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2013. He said this season he is focused on making better decisions in the passing game, and Hodgin said that Ferguson made "tremendous strides" in spring practice and has demonstrated improved decision making so far in fall camp.
One issue that Ferguson and the Hornets' offense do face is the lack of depth at the quarterback position following Neff's injury. Shenandoah has no established backup, and the battle for that position is essentially still a wide-open race, according to Yoder.
Keeping Ferguson healthy will be a top priority for SU's coaching staff this fall, a feat that will be made even more difficult due to Ferguson's role in the Hornets' rushing attack.
Yoder said Shenandoah will "certainly not" use as many designed quarterback runs early in the season, although he added that the coaching staff will not shy away from using Ferguson as a runner if deemed necessary and simply rely on Ferguson's decision making.
Ferguson doesn't expect the current state of the quarterback depth to play much of a factor in his play style, and Hodgin said "to handle him with kid gloves, I think, would handicap him as a player and handicap him as a leader and we've got to let him play."
"Honestly it hasn't changed and I don't know how much it will," said Ferguson, who stands 6-feet and weighs 205 pounds. "I like to compete and if its third-and-10 and I'm running for the first down, I'm going to lower my shoulder. That's just how I play. I have been smart about getting out of bounds. If it's open field and someone's about to hit me I need to learn how to slide, just be smart. That will come with time."
Shenandoah, which finished last season with a 4-6 record (3-4 Old Dominion Athletic Conference) while finishing last in the conference in total offense and scoring offense, will look to improve on those numbers in 2014 behind Ferguson's leadership.
The Hornets open the regular season with a road contest at Gallaudent on Sept. 6.
"I'm just staying poised. Looking forward to the season, coming back with 10 other guys that I played with last year," Ferguson said. "I think it's going to be a great year. This camp, we looked great together as an offensive group. We'll see how it goes this year."
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com