By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- It's not too often that an offense returns as much playing experience as Shenandoah University's football team does this season.
The Hornets boast nine returning players who were regular starters on Shenandoah's offense last year, including seven who started all 10 games in 2013. In no position group does that experience run deeper than the Hornets' offensive line, where all five starters return for SU's second season under head coach Scott Yoder.
Of all the members in that group, which includes junior left tackle Forestt McDaniel, senior left guard Jonathan Hudson Jr., junior center Dustin Edwards, junior right guard Marcus Jenkins and senior right tackle Ivan Ayala, Hudson -- who missed one game while battling an injury -- was the only offensive lineman to not start every game for the Hornets last season.
That returning experience, along the line specifically, has Shenandoah's offense optimistic about improving on last year's 4-6 record.
"I guess what we're aiming for is just kind of building off the momentum that we got last year," said Hudson, a 5-foot-11, 255-pound Richmond native. "... Offensive line-wise everybody's back, our confidence is high and consistency is something that we're looking forward to. I guess over the summer all of us have been putting in the work. Practice-wise everyone is looking good."
All five linemen agreed that the offensive line as a unit has felt more cohesive so far in fall camp, a luxury that Shenandoah didn't have a season ago.
Several factors contributed to that lack of chemistry early on for Shenandoah's offensive line in 2013. For starters, the Hornets were learning a new scheme under new offensive coordinator Stan Hodgin. The line also was young and inexperienced, and Ayala was completely new to the SU program after transferring from Mount Union following his sophomore season.
The Hornets don't have all of that apprehension this season.
"I think chemistry-wise, it's amazing," the 6-foot-3, 280-pound Ayala said. "We know who's going to be there. You can trust the person next to you. It will probably be one of the greatest feelings ever, having everyone back."
Shenandoah is hoping that will lead to more consistent offensive production this season, as well. Last year, the Hornets' offense ranked at or near the bottom of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in every major statistical category, including last-place marks in scoring offense (21.8 points/game), total offense (333.4 yards/game) and rushing offense (127.9 yards/game).
"I think that year being together, with 10 guys returning, the maturity level has gone up," Jenkins said. "You saw last year, we won big games and we lost games we should've won. But I think we know how to handle consistency this year."
The Hornets do face the tough task this season of replacing the offensive output of departed running back Andrew Smith, who racked up 1,159 total yards of offense and 12 total touchdowns in 2013. But the offensive line is excited about the challenge of paving the way for this year's group of young backs that includes sophomores Cedrick Delaney and Dalaun Richardson and junior Kye Hopkins.
"It's definitely something that we're looking forward to, but the confidence is high. We have nothing but faith in the new guys that are coming in," Hudson said. "... In camp we've seen great things. All they have to do is trust us that we're going to get our job done and just hit those holes."
One focus of Shenandoah's offensive line this fall has been on developing a tougher, more physical approach on the field, which is a mentality that new assistant coach Art Garvey is pushing hard to instill. Garvey, who was an All-American offensive lineman during his senior season at Division III Hobart College (New York) in 2012, is serving as an offensive line coach alongside associate head coach Brock McCullough at SU this season.
Garvey said the line as a group is also continuing to improve its ability to maintain the quick tempo that Hodgin introduced to the Hornets' offense last season.
"One of the things that we do that we're really emphasizing this year is o-linemen chasing the play," said Garvey, who played at Hobart during Yoder's tenure as an assistant coach there. "A lot of times you get o-linemen at places that are spectators -- the play gets off in front of them and they kind of watch it and walk. We're working every drill and everything we do on getting down the field and getting ready for the next play. It's new to them, being that much emphasis and they're doing well with it, they're picking up on it."
All five linemen said that the up-tempo style was one of the biggest challenges of Shenandoah's new offense in 2013, particularly for the biggest guys on the field.
"You've just got trust in our coaches and trust they'll make the right call, but it's really hard for us big guys," said McDaniel, who is the largest of the five starting offensive linemen at 6-4, 290 pounds. "We've just got to keep going and keep going and not let the defense catch their breath or anything."
Yoder and the SU coaching staff made a focused effort to add depth to the Hornets' offensive line in the offseason, as Yoder said Shenandoah was "desperately thin" at the position last season, and the line is much deeper in terms of overall bodies heading into the 2014 season.
But it still all begins with the starting five linemen for Shenandoah, who are eager to erase those poor offensive numbers from a season ago.
"At the end of the day all that matters is that you get the win. But you're 4-6, that's not what we strive to be," Edwards said. "... We want to win the conference, nothing short of that. The stats, last in the conference, that does kind of get to you. I guess it gives you a little motivation for this year."
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org