Experienced secondary could be key for Hornets

Shenandoah cornerback Weldon Gilchrist Jr. swats away a pass intended for Bridgewater's Peter Monteleone during a game at Shentel Stadium in Winchester last season. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – On the heels of a season in which Shenandoah University ranked near the bottom of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in most defensive categories, Hornets football coach Scott Yoder is pushing his defensive unit to perform better in what he deems critical situations.

Generating turnovers and delivering key defensive stops became a focal point for SU during spring practice, and members of the Hornets’ secondary, along with defensive backs coach Drake Woodard, took that emphasis a step further by implementing punishments for themselves if they fail to meet certain goals in practice.

“We have something that we call disciplinary action,” Hornets junior cornerback Weldon Gilchrist Jr. said last week, “where if we don’t get two picks in practice we run the hill. It’s kind of a mindset that we have to hold our standards to high expectations every practice so in a game it’ll come natural to us.”

SU’s defensive backs showed a knack for tracking the football out of opposing quarterbacks’ hands last season – the Hornets’ 11 interceptions ranked third in the ODAC in 2015 – but with Yoder labeling this year’s secondary likely the best he’s had in his four seasons at Shenandoah in terms of returning experience, that group is determined to shine even brighter this fall.

“We stay on each other,” said junior cornerback Josh White. “We make sure each other is doing the right things. We get on each other when we’re down.”

Much of Shenandoah’s success on defense could rest on the leadership of a veteran defensive backfield that includes a two-year starter in White (six career interceptions), senior Bayvon Young (25 games played in three seasons) and Gilchrist, who started all 10 games in 2015 and tied for fourth in the ODAC with three picks.

That trio helped SU rank fourth in the ODAC in pass defense (219.8 yards per game) in 2015.

“The big question mark is the linebacker spot right now,” Yoder said, “and the fact that the back end is pretty experienced and we can plug a lot of those guys in and almost make it as simple as possible for the linebackers, play a little bit more aggressive with them and put more (responsibility) on the secondary, that’s been huge for us.”

Shenandoah’s depth in the defensive backfield has prompted Yoder, who serves as his own defensive coordinator, to experiment with some schemes outside of his traditional 4-4 base defense and place four defensive backs on the field, a look the Hornets could use quite extensively against some of the pass-heavy spread offenses they see regularly in the ODAC.

Those defensive backs have proven to be versatile, as well. Sophomore Nate Hill – who is projected to start at safety in place of Cedrick Bridges, who did not return to SU for his junior season due to financial reasons, Yoder said – has been slowly eased back into action from a hamstring strain suffered on the first day of preseason camp, and White has worked as the primary safety in preseason practice.

Young and sophomore Deaquan Porter could also be used as an outside linebacker at times against spread offenses, although Yoder said Young will likely stick at corner once the season starts with Saturday’s 7 p.m. kickoff at Gallaudet.

“I think he’s the most comfortable there, makes the most plays there, but he’s an energy guy and we saw that last year,” Yoder said of Young. “He comes in and he kind of boosts the defense. He creates chaos and that’s what you want with energy guys that can get after the football and cause fumbles and interceptions, so we’ve gotta find a good role for him.”

Young joked that he thought his role this season would include some action on the defensive line (he played a snap there last year and made the tackle, he said) but the 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior is simply “too fast” for the position. He’ll settle for his traditional role as the physical counterpart to the electric style of White and Gilchrist.

“I wish I could catch more picks but I’m more of the big hits and forced fumbles, fumble recoveries,” Young said. “We’ve got Josh and Weldon, they key on catching picks and returning them to the house. It looks good, makes the secondary look good and the defense look good.”

The Hornets are hoping to look better as a defensive unit than they did in 2015, when they ranked seventh in the eight-team ODAC in points allowed (31.8) and yards allowed (427.7) per game.

“I think we have a better chance this year,” Gilchrist said. “We’re more mature, more wiser. We watch more film. There’s a lot of things that we do more now than we did last year.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com