College Football Tab 2018: Shenandoah built for more success after back-to-back winning seasons

Shenandoah University head coach Scott Yoder enters his sixth season as the Hornets head coach. SU is hunting a third straight winning season. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER – The prerequisites for sustainability and, ideally, continued improvement were there for Shenandoah University’s football team as the Hornets headed into preseason practice.

SU welcomed back record-setting quarterback Hayden Bauserman, NCAA Division III’s leader in passing yards per game last season, for his fourth and final year as the Hornets’ starter. In front of him is an experienced offensive line flush with playing experience. On the other side of the ball, seven defensive starters return to a unit that head coach Scott Yoder said should be more experienced, wiser and feature more talent in 2018.

In each of the past two years, Shenandoah went 6-4 and remained in the hunt for the Old Dominion Athletic Conference title until the season’s final week. The Hornets’ goals for 2018 include another winning season – doing so would mark the first time SU has posted three consecutive winning seasons in school history, Yoder said – and once again being one of the final teams standing in the race for the conference crown come November. The Hornets certainly look like their built to tackle those goals.

“Certainly have some question marks just like everybody else,” Yoder said as he prepared to start his sixth season at SU in early August. “and you don’t know until guys show up and start getting out there, but I think we feel as good as we’ve felt in the five to six years we’ve been here.”

Bauserman’s presence alone is enough to instill plenty of confidence. As the quarterback of the ODAC’s most productive offense in 2017, the senior led the conference in passing yards (3,818) and passing touchdowns (41, to 12 interceptions), and his 381.8 passing yards per game average was tops in all of Division III.

Bauserman will have a veteran O-line – led by four-year starting center Caleb Hutson and guards Andrew Coffman and Jonathan Grammo, both three-year starters – to protect him, but his targets won’t be quite as seasoned.

Shenandoah lost three of its top six receivers from 2017 to graduation, including Michael Ashwell, who departed with the Hornets’ second-best career marks in receptions and receiving yards. Casey Stewart, who at 6-foot-4 emerged as a dangerous red-zone target as a sophomore last fall, and running back-turned-slot receiver Jalen Hudson figure to be Bauserman’s most experienced pass catchers this season after combining for 78 receptions, 941 yards and 12 TDs in 2017. Justin Ayres (24 receptions, 277 yards, two TDs in 2017) is also back.

SU lost its top rusher in Corey Bell, but the Hornets have for several years taken a committee approach to the tailback position in Stan Hodgin’s offense and will do so again with a mix that should include junior Mario Wisdom, who carried 72 times for 314 yards and two touchdowns last season.

“It might not be the same exact way we did it last year,” said Bauserman, who attempted 51 passes per game in 2017, of SU’s offense. “Last year we were really loaded at receiver with a lot of bodies and a lot of really experienced guys. That’s not to say we’re not gonna throw the ball this year a lot, and not to say we won’t throw it as much as we did last year because we probably will. But I think one of the things we’ve been working on more this year is kind of running the ball effectively. Not necessarily running the ball more but when we do run the ball, gaining more yards per carry and cutting up the defense a couple times on some long runs and things like that. I think with an experienced offensive line and an experienced backfield, I think that’s something we’re definitely capable of doing.”

On defense, Yoder said he expects improvement from a group that surrendered the most yardage of any team in the ODAC (462 yards per game) but also posted some of the conference’s best marks in pass defense (214.2 yards allowed, second in the ODAC), takeaways (25, tied for first), interceptions (14, second) and sacks (24, second).

Shenandoah’s top six tacklers from 2017 return, led by linebackers Tyler Williams (74 total tackles) and Kyle Dexter (66), though Dexter suffered an injury during preseason camp and is in jeopardy of missing the season, Yoder said.

Junior defensive tackle Randy Oliver is back to anchor the interior of the defensive line, and defensive ends Chris Grady and Jordan Heisen combined for 10.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss last fall.

The Hornets will feature two new starting cornerbacks after the graduations of Weldon Gilchrist Jr., a three-year starter, and 2017 All-ODAC first-team pick Devontae Dunn, but they have some veteran presence in the secondary with junior free safety Nate Hill (six interceptions in 2017), sophomore Daquan Pridget (1 interception, 2 pass breakups) and junior T.J. Heflin (63 tackles) returning.

Pridget, who started the first three games at strong safety as a freshman last year before suffering an injury and returning in a backup role for the second half of the season, is moving back to cornerback this fall, the position he was recruited to play at SU.

“I think we’re gonna improve there,” Yoder said of Brock McCullough’s defense. “We also have to be realistic, we are not a defensive-friendly offense. We’re trying to score as fast as possible. Our drives are usually five plays or less in some cases, so we’re gonna put those guys in some bad positions and we just have to realize, and we have as a staff, a couple stops, a sack and two turnovers might be enough to win the game.”

On special teams, SU enters the new season with question marks surrounding the kicking game after the graduations of veteran punter Christian Arias and kicker Jacob Newton, the school’s all-time leader in field goals and extra-points made.

Shenandoah opens the season with a road game at Methodist on Sept. 1 before returning home for five straight games at Shentel Stadium. The Hornets, who were 3-3 in conference play last season, return to a seven-game ODAC schedule this season with Ferrum’s addition to the conference.