Fauber: Hornets’ ground game rolling

With nine returning offensive starters coming back for the 2014 college football season, Shenandoah was excited about the possibilities.

That group included all five starting offensive linemen from last season, senior quarterback Drew Ferguson and all of his wide receivers and tight ends. The one offensive position group that presented some question marks was running back. How would the Hornets replace the void left by the departure of Andrew Smith, who transferred to Division II Shippensburg (Pa.) University and left Shenandoah after setting the school record for all-purpose yards last season?

Hornets second-year head coach Scott Yoder didn’t seem too concerned how SU’s tailback spot would shake out when discussing the position during preseason practice. He praised the combination Shenandoah had in sophomores Cedrick Delaney and Dalaun Richardson and junior Kye Hopkins, although none of the three had significant college experience in the backfield. (Hopkins missed all of last season with an Achilles injury, Richardson was hobbled most of the year with a toe injury and Delaney worked as a slot receiver for the Hornets in 2013).

Through three games this season, Shenandoah has shown why Yoder was so optimistic about the Hornets’ run game.

Shenandoah (2-1) currently leads the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in rushing yards per game. The Hornets are averaging 284.3 yards on the ground per contest, the best mark in the conference by 45 yards. (Last season, SU’s offense ranked last in the league in every major statistical category). In last week’s blowout win over Ferrum, Shenandoah rushed for 420 yards and came up just four yards short of the school record for rush yards in a game.

Shenandoah’s offensive line — which consists of seniors Ivan Ayala and Jonathan Hudson Jr., and juniors Dustin Edwards, Marcus Jenkins and Forestt McDaniel — deserves a lot of the credit for the Hornets’ rushing success so far. Each one of those linemen said before the season started that they were eager to accept the challenge of helping the Hornets’ young running backs along while they found their footing at the college level. They have certainly done that so far, and SU’s running backs — plus Ferguson, who is a dangerous running threat in the Hornets’ read-option game — have credited their success directly to the play of the offensive line.

But those tailbacks and Ferguson have been impressive this season, as well. Delaney — whom Yoder touted as Shenandoah’s best offensive weapon prior to the start of the season — has thrived as the leader of the Hornets’ three-man running back rotation. Delaney has carried the ball 44 times for 312 yards and a touchdown, and has rushed for at least 130 yards in each of SU’s last two games.

Hopkins has rushed for 153 yards on 35 carries and has emerged as the go-to back at the goal line, as he’s scored a team-high four touchdowns, all on 1-yard runs. Richardson has rushed 29 times for 149 yards.

That trio of backs has undoubtedly been helped by the effectiveness of Shenandoah’s read-option attack, as well. Opposing defenses have to account for Ferguson, who is the team’s second leading rusher (36 carries, 217 yards, 1 TD), which adds yet another dimension to the Hornets’ run game and enables SU to keep teams off balance.

“They don’t know if I’m going to have the ball, if the running back’s going to have the ball or if it’s going to be play-action. All those things together have contributed to that success,” Ferguson said Wednesday.

Shenandoah will have to keep its rushing success going against Bridgewater in Saturday’s ODAC opener. The Eagles’ defense comes into the game leading the conference in tackles for loss and is third in the conference in total defense (307.7 yards/game) and rush defense (117.3 yards/game).

Yoder said it will be as important as ever for the Hornets to stay ahead of the chains and establish the high tempo that they were able to utilize so effectively against Ferrum two weeks ago.

“When we get going and we get a couple first downs, not only does our confidence grow, but our tempo can pick up. … If they [Bridgewater’s defense] get a couple three-and-outs and we don’t get a rhythm going, it’s harder,” Yoder said. “Then the advantages go to them because we’re not on the field and our guys are going to be sitting on the bench wanting to go out there. I think we’re like a snowball on offense. We get a couple things rolling and all the sudden other things start to open up and everything builds off each other.”

The games will certainly get tougher for Shenandoah beginning on Saturday, but the Hornets have confidence and momentum heading into the most critical time of the season.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com