Deep linebacker corps expected to help Hornets’ defense take step forward

Shenandoah University linebacker Tyler Williams led the Hornets with 74 tackles in 2017. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s defense is hoping for improvement after giving up the most yards in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in 2018. A deep group of linebackers could help the Hornets achieve that.

SU graduated only one starting linebacker – Javonte Rose, who began 2017 as a safety before switching back to outside linebacker – from a season ago, and with plenty of familiar faces who have played significant minutes for the Hornets, head coach Scott Yoder said the coaching staff heads into today’s scrimmage at Gettysburg feeling good about that position group.

“We have a lot of experience there, and that combined with the defensive line experience … that alone is gonna make us take a step forward,” Yoder said on Wednesday. “They’ve played very well in preseason and we’re hoping that translates into the games, obviously, but I think it will. I feel very confident that it will.”

The Hornets’ linebacker depth will be tested right away, as Kyle Dexter, the team’s second-leading tackler from a year ago, recently went down with an injury that Yoder said could keep the senior on the shelf for the entire season.

Yoder thinks the Hornets have the players in place to plug the holes, however.

Junior inside linebacker Tyler Williams is back after starting the final eight games and leading Shenandoah in tackles (74) in 2017. So is Bernie Hayes III (44 career tackles in 10 games played), who started the final four games as a freshman in 2016 and the first two contests of 2017 before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Senior Andy Sartain played in all 10 games last season, making one start and recording 36 tackles, and junior Adrian Brisbon saw action in each of his first two seasons (he was hampered by injury during the early part of 2017) and is coming off a good spring, Yoder said.

Senior Chris Grady, though he plays like a standup defensive end, also is occasionally used as an outside linebacker and led the team in sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (11.5) while also snagging an interception last season.

Yoder added that freshmen such as Jahquon Collins and Troy Hilliard, though not yet frontline names, have bright futures at the linebacker position.

“It’s never good to have an injury and I obviously feel horrible for Dex, but it just kind of puts a question mark of where do we kind of fit the chess pieces?” Yoder said. “I think we have the pieces there, just where is everybody gonna play the best together?”

Fortunately for the Hornets and defensive coordinator Brock McCullough, Yoder said SU feels it has a versatile crop of players at the linebacker position.

“Tyler’s probably the one that’s probably the best inside,” Yoder said of the 5-foot-9, 205-pound Williams, who had a sack, 9.5 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery last season. “But everybody else can kind of play multiple spots. And Bernie has done a really good job – pretty athletic kid that can play in a lot of space, so that gives us some options if we wanna play nickel packages or things like that with him. But I think it’s a very multiple group.”

Though Shenandoah posted the ODAC’s second-best pass defense last fall, the Hornets surrendered a conference-worst 462 yards per game. SU particularly struggled against the run, where the Hornets gave up 247.8 yards per contest, the second-most in the ODAC.

Tightening up its run defense has been Shenandoah’s biggest focus since spring practice, and Williams said the combination of returning experience among the Hornets’ front seven and an emphasis on becoming more physical across the board on both sides of the ball should lead to more favorable results this season.

“I think one of the biggest factors is just having our front guys returning,” he said. “We have a lot of returning D-line and linebackers and we all work good together and bonded. Another key thing is we hit the weight room hard and just getting strength and focusing on being a physical defense. That’s what’s really gonna help us stop the run.”