Hornets rebuilding defense under new DC McCullough

Shenandoah University senior defensive end Thomas Whalen is one of four returning starters on a Hornets defense that is rebuilding under new defensive coordinator Brock McCullough this season. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s football team is replacing seven starters from last year’s defensive unit, and is doing so under a new defensive coordinator.

Brock McCullough, a longtime Hornets assistant who spent the last four seasons as head coach Scott Yoder’s offensive line coach, was moved back to defensive coordinator in the offseason, a position McCullough had held from 2008-12 under former head coach Paul Barnes.

McCullough has been tasked with rebuilding a defense that lost five of its top seven tacklers from 2016, will break in three new starting linebackers and returns just one starter in the secondary. But senior defensive end Thomas Whalen, one of the few veterans of that defensive group, said that unit has gelled nicely since opening preseason camp two weeks ago, adding that the coaching staff shakeup has gone smoothly.

“(McCullough and defensive line coach Kalvin Oliver) have the same mindset of we want 11 guys around the football,” Whalen said of the defense, which Yoder himself coached during his first four seasons at SU. “We’re gonna do similar stuff, not changing too much. Just the intensity has really picked up. In practice every day has just been way more intense. I don’t know how to put it any other way, that’s just how it’s been. It’s been good for us, getting out and hitting again.”

The Hornets had mixed success on defense on their way to their first winning season under Yoder in 2016.

Shenandoah University senior cornerback Weldon Gilchrist Jr. is the lone returning starter in the Hornets' secondary this season. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

SU, the Old Dominion Athletic Conference leader in turnover margin (plus-12), tied for the league’s top mark with 24 takeaways and ranked third among the league’s eight teams in pass defense (198.5 yards allowed per game). But the Hornets also ranked in the bottom half of the conference in points allowed (fifth, 29.5 per game) and total yards allowed (sixth, 435.1 ypg) and had the ODAC’s worst rushing defense (236.6 ypg allowed).

McCullough said during Shenandoah’s media day on Sunday that this season’s defense would be “super multiple” and line up in at least a dozen different defensive fronts. The idea, McCullough said, is to “live in the backfield” and increase the number of tackles for loss, quarterback hurries and sacks by bringing additional pressure from linebackers and defensive backs, and outnumbering opposing offenses in the box to speed up the mesh between running back and quarterback in the running game.

Yoder added that quarterback play in the ODAC is “not elite right now,” further adding to Shenandoah’s commitment to stopping the running game and making teams beat them through the air.

“We have a great position because we’re not gonna be starving for points, I don’t think,” said McCullough, referencing a Hornets offense that averaged 35.2 points per game last season, the top mark in the ODAC, and returns nine starters. “I think we’re gonna spin the scoreboard so as a defensive coordinator we can be aggressive. Not to the point where we’re unsound or silly, but in the same breath go be aggressive, go create some turnovers and then create some momentum and excitement.”

That aggressiveness, however, could put more stress on an inexperienced secondary, where lack of depth at cornerback has the coaching staff “concerned,” Yoder said.

Senior cornerback Weldon Gilchrist Jr., a second team All-ODAC selection last season, is the lone starter back from a season ago. Devontae Dunn, a senior with just nine total tackles over the last two seasons, is stepping into a starting cornerback role opposite Gilchrist this fall and senior Javonte Rose (90 career tackles) has moved from outside linebacker to strong safety, giving the Hornets a versatile defender who can play inside and outside the box, Yoder said. Sophomore Nate Hill is expected to start at free safety for the first time, and McCullough added that freshman Daquan Pridget is in the mix for significant playing time there as well.

“I think the biggest thing for us,” Gilchrist said of the defensive backs, “is just trying to get that experience, trying to get that knowledge of where I’m supposed to be, what I’m supposed to do, things like that. But other than that they can play. They can play football.”

The Hornets also will feature three first-year starters at linebacker, and Yoder said Sunday that the frontrunners for the starting spots were sophomores Tyler Williams, Adrian Brisbon and Bernie Hayes III, a trio that saw action in backup and special teams roles last season.

Though Yoder said linebacker was the position group he’s most excited about, he added that comes with an asterisk as that trio had yet to play a snap together in preseason camp as of Sunday. Williams suffered a hip pointer and facial injuries in a personal watercraft accident and has done nothing but rehab this preseason, Yoder said, and Brisbon has been slowed by an ankle sprain.

“We’ve got a plan to get them all back,” Yoder said. “I hope to have them for Gettysburg scrimmage (on Friday). We’ll see.”

Up front, Whalen (three sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss in 2016) and senior defensive tackle Gladimir Dupalis (62 tackles, three sacks, 6.5 TFLs) return to anchor a defensive line that will add junior defensive end Chris Grady – a Skyline High graduate – and sophomore Randy Oliver to the starting mix.