By Brad Fauber
The foundation for Shenandoah University's football program was planted last fall. Now the Hornets have to continue to build on the progress that was made in 2013.
That's the message that second-year head coach Scott Yoder will be passing along to his team this season.
Shenandoah made some big strides in its first year under Yoder in 2013, as the Hornets went from a program that had won just one game two years ago to a team that went 4-6 (3-4 ODAC) last season and finished tied for fourth in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference.
The Hornets claimed several marquee victories last season -- including an upset of eventual ODAC champion Hampden-Sydney -- but also suffered from inconsistencies that hindered Shenandoah's ability to carry momentum from one game into the next. Yoder wants that to change in 2014.
"I think the No. 1 thing that we have to continue to work on is our collective confidence," Yoder said. "We certainly made some strides with that last year and now it's building on the consistency, because we have the proof. We know we can play with anybody in the league on any Saturday but now we have to prove to ourselves that we can do it week in and week out. That's the next big step we have to make."
On paper, Shenandoah looks like a team built for another year of improvement.
The Hornets' offensive and defensive schemes that Yoder installed upon his arrival last year are no longer brand new, and Yoder said he hopes the upperclassmen can take advantage of that luxury that SU didn't have a season ago.
There is also the returning experience -- plenty of it -- particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
Shenandoah returns 10 offensive starters this season, including its quarterback, the entire offensive line and all of its receivers. The Hornets struggled offensively in 2013, ranking last in the ODAC in scoring (21.8 points per game) and total offense (333.4 yards per game), but Yoder hopes that unit will be more comfortable in its spread offense in year two.
"We're coming off a year where ... we knew what we wanted to be but we weren't sure what we could be," Yoder said. "Now in year two, with a group that played well and knows they can play well, has 10 starters back, doesn't have a lot of question marks, has some freshmen coming into it that can contribute... I know we're smiling and we're just trying to do everything we can do to make sure that we get the most out of that group."
The one major question mark for Shenandoah's offense lies at running back, where the Hornets will have to replace the output of Andrew Smith, who transferred to Division II Shippensburg (Pennsylvania) University. As a sophomore last season, Smith ran for 890 yards and nine touchdowns on 191 carries and caught 36 passes for 269 yards and three touchdowns.
Sophomore Dalaun Richardson, who was limited last year after suffering a dislocated toe in a preseason scrimmage, will play a more prominent role in the Hornets' backfield this season, Yoder said, and junior Kye Hopkins and Virginia Union transfer Morris Jackson should provide Shenandoah with some depth at running back.
Shenandoah will also be impacted by the loss of quarterback Justin Neff, who tore his ACL in the offseason and will be unavailable to the Hornets this fall. Neff shared time with Drew Ferguson in SU's two-quarterback system last season.
Neff's absence leaves Ferguson (81 for 157, 944 yards, 8 touchdowns, 8 interceptions last season) as the Hornets' lone option at quarterback.
"I feel really good about Drew Ferguson and he's going to be our trigger guy. The hard part for us is now we have to get another first-year player for us ready to play as a backup," Yoder said. "I'm not going to say we're going to have the two-quarterback system, but ... we're always going to need that second guy ready to go just in case. We're kind of back to square one as far as that's concerned."
Defensively, Shenandoah has some holes to fill, particularly in the secondary, but has a strong core of returning starters from a group that was last in the conference in scoring defense (33.5 points allowed per game) and total defense (443.3) yards per game.
Yoder said he expects everything in SU's 4-4 defense to begin up front with defensive ends Ian Griffin and Jake Payne. He added that the Hornets' linebacker group -- which features senior Sean Blackman and returning leading tackler Michael Messick -- is "probably the deepest and most talented position for us."
"I think the key for us is our secondary is going to be very young. We're talented, we have good athletes [but] we don't have a lot of varsity game experience. We've just go to get the pieces in the right position and get them reps because if we can get those guys up to speed I think we can be very solid on the defensive side," Yoder said.
Shenandoah, which was picked to finish sixth in the ODAC in the preseason coaches' poll, begins play on Sept. 6 at Gallaudet.
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD