Shenandoah focusing on being more physical on offense

Shenandoah University head coach Scott Yoder works players in a drill during practice on Monday. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s football team boasted the Old Dominion Athletic Conference’s most productive offense in 2017, finishing the season as the conference’s leader in points, yards and passing yards per game. But even the league’s most prolific offense had its weak spots.

The Hornets were sixth out of seven ODAC teams in rushing yards per game (102.8) last fall, were pedestrian on third down (fifth in the conference with a 37-percent conversion rate) and didn’t score as often in the red zone (75 percent, sixth-worst) as one would expect from a unit that averaged 40 points per game.

While discussing the areas in which SU’s offense needs to improve before the team opened preseason camp on Aug. 11, head coach Scott Yoder said third-down efficiency would be a focal point in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 1 opener at Methodist.

In spring practice and offseason workouts, however, an emphasis on the offense’s physicality took center stage when Shenandoah’s coaching staff challenged that unit to answer a question: could the Hornets stay true to its fast-paced, high-scoring, pass-happy style while still being more physical?

“That doesn’t mean we’re gonna turn into a ground-and-pound (team),” Yoder said earlier this month, “but if you look at the games we played well, yeah we run spread, we run up-tempo but we physically got after people. So there was a highlight on that in the offseason, which certainly carries into the weight room and that’s the reason why that was highlighted.”

Yoder said the Hornets didn’t make any drastic overhauls to their offseason weight training but strengthened their approach of adding as much “good weight” as possible. The coaches also showed the team video evidence of games in which SU was the more physical team and games in which it wasn’t. In those games where the Hornets were out-muscled, Yoder said, they lost.

The challenge during those study sessions was making sure the players understood that taking a more physical approach doesn’t mean the Hornets are changing their offensive identity, Yoder said.

“That was a hard part for us,” he said, “was the message had to be ‘we’re on the right track.'”

The general consensus seems to be that SU’s players have bought what the coaches were selling. Senior quarterback Hayden Bauserman said following the team’s third practice of camp that he was already noticing a difference.

“I think our offensive line has always had that, I just think they got kind of comfortable with what we were doing last year, throwing the ball around all the time,” said Bauserman, who averaged 51.4 pass attempts per game last season. “So far this year we’ve been running the ball extremely well and I look for that to kind of continue, and for those guys up front to continue to be aggressive and be mean and be nasty and just kind of get the job done.”

Offensive line figures to be a strong point for Shenandoah this fall, considering the Hornets return four players – senior center Caleb Hutson (a four-year starter), senior guards Andrew Coffman and Jonathan Grammo, and junior tackle Daniel Small – who started at least seven games in 2017.

In its four losses last season, Shenandoah averaged 66 yards rushing on 21.3 carries per game (3.1 yards per rush, compared to 4.2 yards per rush in its six wins).

Shenandoah’s emphasis on increased physicality was hardly specific to the offense, however. It was a team-wide focus, and one that the Hornets’ defense could certainly benefit from after allowing 247.8 yards rushing – the second-worst mark in the ODAC – last year.

“I’m pretty sure 90 percent of the guys, at least, have hit their numbers in the weight room,” senior defensive end Chris Grady said. “I know my guys that I’m with, they all hit their numbers, so we’re all feeling good. Our leadership this year from the D-line’s been bringing a whole different mentality – bringing the physicality, being the hammer, not the nail. I think it’ll carry through to the rest of the team.”