Skyline grad Grady to fill prominent role for Hornets’ defense this fall
Fellow Front Royal native Stewart also expected to make bigger impact for SU
WINCHESTER – Chris Grady’s first collegiate stop upon graduating from Skyline High School in 2013 was U.Va.-Wise, where he played that same year with the Cavaliers’ football team before his freshman season was cut short by a torn MCL.
Thinking his football days were over – he feared risking another injury if he continued playing, he recalled Sunday – Grady ended his career at Wise after one season and eventually found himself back home in Front Royal and attending Lord Fairfax Community College. A chance meeting with a Shenandoah University assistant football coach restarted Grady’s playing career.
Grady joined the Hornets in 2016 but another injury set back his progression on the football field. Two days before Shenandoah’s first intrasquad scrimmage last preseason, during an 11-on-11 drill in practice, Grady – who moved from fullback to defensive end as part of his transition to SU – was the unfortunate recipient of a missed crack-back block that ended with a broken right hand after it was smashed between the helmets of two teammates.
“At first I was climbing the depth chart really fast. When that happened I sat back down,” Grady said Sunday. “I ended up getting cleared the day of the first game against Gallaudet and I got to play the last series or two up there. From there on out I had to play with a club (cast on his right hand). It was probably until Week 5 or 6 I had a club. It was limited but I still got to get into games.”
Grady’s impact for the Hornets during his sophomore season in 2016 was minimal. Though he appeared in seven games for Shenandoah, he did so in a reserve role and finished with eight tackles and a sack.
“He was probably a splash guy in preseason camp until the injury,” Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said of Grady. “He was popping on the field. The problem with, OK you can wear a cast, but a defensive player, when you can’t grab with one hand it just changes how you play. You watch in the NFL all the time, you can still be effective, but when you can’t use your one hand to get off blocks and to tackle and do those things it’s frustrating. I’m sure it was frustrating for him and you could see kind of at that point his play kind of leveled off.”
Grady, now unhindered as Shenandoah prepares for its season opener against Gallaudet on Sept. 2, is expected to take on a much larger role for a Hornets team that will break in seven new defensive starters in 2017.
Yoder listed the 5-foot-10, 220-pound junior as the Week 1 starter at defensive end opposite senior Thomas Whalen during Sunday’s media day. Rather than lining up like a traditional defensive end, however, Grady’s role will be that of a stand-up edge rusher, a D-end/linebacker hybrid who can drop back into coverage on occasion.
Grady is one of multiple players on SU’s roster, Yoder said, that possesses a linebacker-type body with the speed and power to make life difficult for big offensive linemen.
“He’s our best pass rusher,” defensive coordinator Brock McCullough said. “He probably runs a 4.6 40(-yard dash), plus he’s strong as heck. He creates a lot mismatches.”
As limited as Grady’s 2016 season was, he said he learned plenty on the field that should carry over into his junior season.
“It was a big thing just to get experience in the ODAC, get experience, play defensive end and learning how to pass rush against those big guys,” Grady said.
“I feel like this year will be a really good year all around. I think the whole team’s gonna be good and I think individually I should have a pretty successful season.”
Grady won’t be the only Front Royal native expected to see an up-tick in playing time this fall. On the other side of the football, receiver Casey Stewart – a 2014 Warren County High School graduate – is on that list as well.
“Casey’s got kind of a unique skill set to our outside receivers,” Hornets offensive coordinator Stan Hodgin said of the 6-foot-4, 200-pound sophomore. “That group for the most part are long and got some height and some long arms, and Casey certainly is in that category, but he runs so well.
“What Casey has done over the last 12 months is become a much better route runner, and so what we have noticed in camp so far this year is he’s doing a much better job of separating against man coverage and creating space for himself, so when he catches the ball he’s able to turn a 10-yard catch into a bigger gain with yards after the catch. He’s developing really nicely.”
The Hornets aren’t hurting for depth at the receiver position, where seniors Michael Ashwell (first team All-ODAC in 2016), Justin Ayres and Leonard Scott bring experience and proven production. Nevertheless, Hodgin said he expects Stewart, who played in nine games – mostly on special teams – and had one reception for 21 yards last season, to be a “big contributor” to Shenandoah’s offense this fall.
“In a normal rotation we’re gonna play at least two deep at every position, about 50 percent of the reps for each player,” Hodgin said, “and I certainly see Casey in that top tier and probably playing the outside receiver on our right side splitting time with Dershone Hayman.”