Ashwell brings versatility, toughness to Hornets

Shenandoah University junior Michael Ashwell has developed into a reliable receiver for the Hornets after undergoing a positional switch in 2015. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s football team was preparing to start spring practice last year when head coach Scott Yoder posed a question to Michael Ashwell.

The head coach wanted to know if Ashwell, then a running back buried in the depth chart behind All-ODAC performer Cedrick Delaney and others, would be willing to flip to the other side of the field and try his hand at outside linebacker, a position of need for the Hornets at the time. Ashwell, in Yoder’s words, politely declined.

Several months later, another SU coach approached Ashwell about making a position switch. This time it was offensive coordinator Stan Hodgin who called Ashwell two days before he was to report to preseason camp to float the idea of playing wide receiver. And this time, Ashwell had a different response.

“I thought about it and I was like I can definitely make the transition,” Ashwell recalled Wednesday afternoon. “… I think learning the plays was the biggest thing on my mind, but I knew I could make the transition. Then he said I’d be splitting time. I just wanted to get on the field and play. I thought it was a good fit for me and it turned out to be a good fit. I’m still doing it.”

A year later Ashwell, now a junior, is a starting receiver who is tied for the team lead with 10 receptions for 88 yards and a touchdown through SU’s first two games. But his impact runs much deeper than that.

Yoder repeatedly calls Ashwell one of the best football players on the Hornets’ roster this season, a nod to the junior’s versatility and toughness. Ashwell, who fought to earn a role as a special teams contributor as a freshman, hasn’t dropped that responsibility even after earning a starting spot on offense this fall.

Although Ashwell said he no longer competes on every special teams unit in an attempt to lighten his workload, he remains a part of kickoff coverage, kickoff return, the punt team and the hands team for onside kicks, and Hodgin estimated that Ashwell played nearly 85 snaps in last Saturday’s win over Ferrum.

“If you had 20 of those guys you could probably book reservations at Salem,” said Yoder, referring to the location of the NCAA Division III championship game.

Frequent trips to the training room, a devotion to the weight room and a focus on nutrition and healthy sleeping habits keep Ashwell in playing condition each Saturday.

Sophomore quarterback Hayden Bauserman praised Ashwell’s reliability as a receiver and willingness make the tough catches underneath the coverage, often in traffic with certain contact with a linebacker looming. Hodgin said Ashwell is equipped with a “football player mentality” that defies any specific position on the field.

“I think the first thing Mike brings to our offense is a toughness – a mental toughness, a physical toughness,” Hodgin said.

“He has that hardnosed, throwback, I-back mentality now at a position probably (more) finesse. So he has a unique skill set and a unique mentality.”

That skill set has meshed nicely in a deep receiving corps that presents opposing defenses with a variety of challenges. The Hornets boast a deep threat (Leonard Scott), a big-body target (Jalen Brisco) and a do-it-all back that can split out wide (Delaney), and the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Ashwell lies somewhere in the middle.

“I think that’s probably the one aspect that I like the most. I’m not great at one thing,” said Ashwell, a native of Woodbine, Maryland. “I like being diverse. It’s a fun thing to do.”

Ashwell’s style isn’t flashy, which likely leads to the junior often being overlooked as opposing defenses prepare the more explosive athletes on SU’s offense, like Scott, Delaney and running back Jalen Hudson, Yoder said. Ashwell doesn’t mind.

“Some teams probably don’t look at a short, little white guy as a threat,” Ashwell said. “But when game time comes they see it, that I actually am a threat.”

Not surprisingly, it took Ashwell some time to reach that status after making the initial position switch last season. He admitted to being “shaky” through the first half of 2015 as he attempted to learn all of the signals critical to proper execution in Shenandoah’s fast-paced spread offense.

Then came a breakout game in Week 6 at Guilford College, a loss in which Ashwell tied the school record with 12 receptions for 162 yards and a touchdown. That performance accounted for about half of Ashwell’s receiving production last season, as he finished with 29 catches for 324 yards and two touchdowns in 2015.

“It definitely shored up our connection and definitely strengthened it and definitely kind of set in motion what we have now,” said Bauserman, who has thrown for 568 yards while completing eight touchdown passes to six different players this season. “I mean he’s a good football player and he kind of put that on display for the first time in that game.”

With Scott dealing with a knee injury and very likely to miss Saturday’s home game against North Carolina Wesleyan (and possibly more), Ashwell said he expects an even bigger role in the passing game this weekend, adding that the same holds true for all of SU’s receivers.

“As a receiving corps we’re probably just gonna have to shoulder a little bit more,” Ashwell said. “Leonard’s hobbled, he’s probably not gonna play this week, so everybody has to step up as a whole. Not just one person, everybody. So I think that’s the biggest thing that we have to focus on is every series stepping up as a group.”

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