Experienced O-line to spearhead veteran Shenandoah offense
WINCHESTER – There’s a consensus among the offensive players and coaches on Shenandoah University’s football team. There’s been a different vibe surrounding the team’s offensive line since the Hornets opened preseason practice two weeks ago.
A year ago SU entered camp with question marks abounding on the O-line, a group that returned just one starter in center Caleb Hutson. The Hornets no longer have the obstacle of inexperience to clear as they prepare for the season opener against Gallaudet on Sept. 2.
Shenandoah returns three offensive linemen – Hutson and fellow juniors Andrew Coffman (left guard) and Adam Ibrahim (left tackle) – who started all 10 games last fall. Another junior, Jonathan Grammo (right guard), started nine games.
Brad Hoffman, a sophomore who missed nearly his entire freshman season due to a back injury, emerged as the favorite to start the opener at right tackle and would be a newcomer to the group, but his backup, senior Kindal Fluke, started the final five games at the position and could reclaim a starting spot before the season kicks off, according to head coach Scott Yoder.
All of those friendly faces up front had junior quarterback Hayden Bauserman feeling at ease as he lined up to take the first snaps of preseason camp on Aug. 9.
“We couldn’t do anything without any of those guys and walking in and having five of those guys back that started last year, it’s a comforting feeling,” Bauserman, a three-year starter, said Sunday. “They’re crisper – crisper with checks, crisper with communication and stuff like that, so it’s comforting knowing that we can go at the pace we wanna go.”
Shenandoah, which led the ODAC in scoring a season ago, could roll out an even more dangerous offense behind that veteran offensive line in 2017.
In addition to Bauserman, who led the conference in passing yards (2,648) and passing touchdowns (27) and was a first team All-ODAC pick last season, the Hornets return four players who caught at least 21 passes in 2016, including senior receivers Mike Ashwell (57 receptions, 639 yards, six TDs; first team All-ODAC), Justin Ayres and Leonard Scott.
SU does have to replace Cedrick Delaney, who graduated as the school’s all-time leading rusher and accounted for 1,211 yards of offense and 13 touchdowns last season, but offensive coordinator Stan Hodgin said the Hornets’ experience up front has allowed the offense to have more success in the preseason than it did last year.
Hodgin added that an offensive line that is now a year older and more experienced as a unit has been performing at a higher level than at this same time last year.
“There’s a difference in knowing your assignment when you’re sitting in a classroom setting or a meeting setting or when you’re looking at your playbook and being able to execute your assignment when the bullets are flying. Major upgrade in that area,” Hodgin said of the offensive line, which averages 267 pounds in the projected starting five of Ibrahim, Coffman (6-feet-4-inches, 295 pounds), Hutson, Grammo (6 feet-3-inches, 300 pounds) and Hoffman. “I think that’s displayed mostly just by the confidence and the way they’re carrying themselves, individually and as a group.”
In order for the players along the offensive line to reach that collective sense of confidence, they first had to undergo growing pains that Hodgin said helped speed up the development of that unit. Those came early last season when, during a two-game span in Weeks 2 and 3 against Ferrum and North Carolina Wesleyan, Shenandoah’s offense netted a total of minus-2 rushing yards and allowed 10 sacks and 16 tackles for loss.
The Hornets spent the subsequent bye week simplifying the offense to mitigate the O-line’s struggles.
“I think it comes down to inexperience,” said Coffman, a third team All-ODAC selection last season. “We were young. We weren’t as confident as we should’ve been. During that bye week we kind of found ourselves as an offensive line.”
Shenandoah went on to average 140.3 yards rushing per game over its final seven contests of 2016. The Hornets have gone to greater lengths this preseason to prevent a similar slow start in the running game, which will lean more heavily on sophomore running back Mario Wisdom while Jalen Hudson, last season’s backup tailback, splits his time between the backfield and slot receiver.
Yoder, who is now coaching the offensive line after serving as his own defensive coordinator the last four years (former O-line coach Brock McCullough is now the defensive coordinator), said Shenandoah was more run-oriented in scrimmage scenarios during preseason camp for that purpose.
“Compared to last year, we’ve been a lot more focused on it during camp,” Hutson said of the run game. “It’s been a lot of inside run. We’ve been working a lot of run, a lot of five-steps, so when we get there we don’t have to worry about the struggles we went through last year.”
Shenandoah’s spread offense is at its best, however, when Bauserman’s arm is the central focus, and Yoder said the Hornets’ pass blocking is ahead of where it’s been in the past.
Given the weapons that return for SU – nine regular starters are back on the Hornets’ offense this season – the expectations are pretty high.
“I’m expecting a lot out of this offense,” Hutson said. “We have a lot of guys coming back. I don’t see a reason we should come out slow. We should come out guns a-blazing and just keep going.”