SU Football Notebook: Hornets’ revamped secondary will be tested against N.C. Wesleyan

Weldon Gilchrist Jr.

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s inexperienced linebackers jumped into a tough situation in the season opener last week against Gallaudet’s triple-option offense. The Hornets’ revamped defensive secondary will get its turn in its first true test in Week 2.

SU travels to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on Saturday night to take on North Carolina Wesleyan in a non-conference matchup. A Hornet secondary that returned just one starter from last season expects a much more balanced attack than what SU’s defense saw a week ago – Gallaudet attempted only 11 passes – despite N.C. Wesleyan’s lackluster showing last week in a blowout loss to perennial Division III power Mount Union. The Bishops gained just 149 yards and failed to score.

“I think it’ll test us a lot,” senior cornerback Weldon Gilchrist Jr. said on Wednesday. “It’ll show what we’ve been working on. It’ll show if our new secondary is up to the task of fulfilling that old secondary we had last year.

“I’m very confident. The biggest thing that I try to stress on the secondary is communication. You can’t go wrong with communicating. So as long as we do that, we have the athleticism to play ball with this entire conference, not just North Carolina Wesleyan.”

N.C. Wesleyan no longer has the pass-catching services of Malik Adams, who graduated as the school’s all-time leading receiver, but the Bishops return most of the core that gashed Shenandoah’s defense for 517 yards in a 31-13 N.C. Wesleyan victory in Winchester in 2016.

Javonte Rose

Quarterback Nate Gardner, now a junior, threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns in that win, while Brandon Leake and Trey Lancaster combined for nine catches, 184 yards and two touchdowns as most of SU’s defensive focus was centered on Adams.

Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said Wednesday he’s “getting more sleep this year” now that SU doesn’t have to account for Adams, but Gilchrist said he doesn’t see much of a drop off in the Bishops’ receiving corps this season with the return of Leake and Lancaster and the emergence of Ty’Traveon Roberts.

“Yeah, (Adams) was All-American and things like that, but all three of (N.C. Weslyan’s receivers) in my eyes can make plays,” said Gilchrist, the veteran in an SU secondary that features first-year starters Devontae Dunn, Nate Hill and Daquan Pridget. “They’re all capable of catching the ball, getting YAC (yards after catch) yards. It’s no particular person we’re keying on, we’ve just gotta be on the same page as a whole defensive shell to make sure none of those receivers get big yards after catch, big plays.”

Gardner completed only 8 of 25 passes for 37 yards and an interception against Mount Union last week. Yoder said Mount Union’s defensive backs were able to win the 50-50 balls against N.C. Wesleyan’s receivers, adding that similar success will be key for the Hornets’ own secondary on Saturday night.

“They like to throw a lot of deep balls,” SU senior safety Javonte Rose said, “so there’s a lot of fly routes to the number one receivers and a lot of quick passes as well. We’ll have to adjust to that.”

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Hornets sophomore linebacker Bernie Hayes III was voted the Old Dominion Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Week, the league announced on Sunday afternoon.

Hayes, who became a regular starter for SU over the final four games of last season, kicked off the 2017 campaign with a co-team-high eight tackles, including four for loss. Hayes also had a 36-yard scoop-and-score on a Gallaudet fumble – his first career touchdown – that gave Shenandoah the lead for good late in the first quarter, and two pass breakups.

Yoder said on Wednesday that Hayes is “just playing really fast.”

“And that’s the thing is he’s not reacting so much right now, it’s just letting his instincts go and he’s being coachable,” Yoder said. “But he played really fast on Saturday night, and that’s the key is just learn throughout the week and then on Saturday turn it loose and trust your reads and your keys, and that’s what he did. He had a really, really great game and was all over the field.

“That position we need a lot of production out of, so he’s gonna have to continue to have big weeks.”

Hayes’ strong performance was one of a handful from Shenandoah’s largely inexperienced linebacker group in the opener. Junior Andy Sartain matched Hayes’ eight tackles in his first start, and Kyle Dexter had six stops for SU.

“What I saw was guys running to the football,” Yoder said of the linebackers. “They knew their keys. Were we perfect? No. Did we make every tackle? No. But if you can run to the football and you can get there quickly, you’re gonna have a decent chance to be good.”

That position group continues to add depth, as sophomores Tyler Williams and Adrian Brisbon – both projected starters in the preseason – work their way back to full speed following injuries. Yoder sounded confident that Williams is ready to start this week, though he added that Brisbon (ankle) is likely another week away from being a full go. Both played against Gallaudet but did not start.

INJURY REPORT: Yoder said junior running back/slot receiver Jalen Hudson has looked “OK” this week as he continues to recover from an ankle injury suffered in a preseason scrimmage against Gettysburg on Aug. 25. Hudson did not play in the opener after tweaking the injury late last week.

Yoder added that he thinks Hudson’s chances of playing this weekend are “very good,” but that the injury could be a lingering issue that needs to be handled carefully.

“Now I think also you’re talking about from here on out, if he can play, we need him to play,” Yoder said. “So I think we’re gonna be as cautious as we can but right now I’m pretty optimistic. I think he plays for us.”