Shenandoah to keep taking committee approach at running back

Shenandoah University's Mario Wisdom was the Hornets' second-leading rusher in 2017, carrying 72 times for 314 yards and two touchdowns. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – Not since the 2015 season has Shenandoah University’s football team used a true featured tailback on offense, opting instead to take a committee approach to the position. That won’t change in 2018.

Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said all preseason that SU would continue to use multiple backs in its high-powered spread offense, noting on Sunday that the plan is to ride a three-man rotation at the position throughout the season. The reasons for Shenandoah’s persistent by-committee approach, Yoder said, are two-fold.

“The big picture is that if you’re one guy and you’re leaning heavily on him, Week six, seven and eight, that guy’s gonna be beat up. The other thing is our pace,” Yoder said Sunday. “It’s just a fresh (runner) – certainly the defense can substitute but we’re bringing in another varsity kid (and) they don’t have eight to 12 deep on the D-line, varsity guys. So the fact that we can bring in a fresh guy but also just, you know, in the fourth quarter you can ride the hot hand, whoever’s having a good game and instead of having 30 carries on you, you’ve got 10 or 12 and you’re more likely to break the big one. And they all bring something to the table, so why have the third-stringer standing there for two hours when he can play?”

Cory Bell emerged as SU’s most oft-used tailback in 2017 and led the team with 131 carries for 605 yards and four touchdowns while adding 342 yards receiving and a pair of scores. Bell has since graduated, meaning junior Mario Wisdom, the team’s second-leading rusher last season, is in line to top the Hornets’ tailback rotation.

Wisdom carried 72 times for 314 yards and two touchdowns in 2017, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Asked if Wisdom, who is listed at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, is considered SU’s No. 1 tailback this season, Yoder replied, “Yeah, I think it really depends.”

“I mean we do some stuff with (senior slot receiver Jalen Hudson) in the backfield, so sometimes in certain sets Mario won’t be in, and Jalen will be the tailback,” Yoder said. “But I think Mario had a really nice camp, had a good scrimmage (last Saturday at Gettysburg College) but I think we’re gonna continue playing two or three guys in a rotation because they can all give us something.”

In the mix for playing time at tailback are sophomore Jordyn Hunter and senior Ibrahim Bundu – two players who saw limited carries last season (Hunter rushed 17 times for 56 yards and a touchdown, while Bundu had eight carries for 61 yards and a TD) – as well as freshman Rashadeen Byrd Jr., who scored a touchdown and “did some good things” in last weekend’s scrimmage, Yoder said.

None of SU’s four tailbacks is listed over 195 pounds.

Hudson (5-8, 185 pounds) is a versatile offensive weapon who also figures to contribute to Shenandoah’s running game. Hudson, a converted tailback who caught 46 passes for 463 yards and six touchdowns as a slot receiver last year, rushed 12 times for 110 yards and two scores in 2017. In 2016 Hudson had 106 carries for 365 yards and four TDs.

Yoder said Hudson remains the Hornets’ starting slot receiver this season but is the team’s primary running back in certain personnel groupings.

“That’s simply to put him in a spot where you can easily give him the football,” Yoder said. “He gets more touches that way. But also teams gotta defend him in all different spots, so that’s the thought there.”

Last season SU’s offense failed to establish a consistent running game and ranked sixth out of seven teams in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in rushing yards per game (102.8).

The Hornets have taken measures to be more productive on the ground this season, though Yoder said the coaching staff has to be careful not to fall into the trap of running the football “just to run it,” particularly with SU’s strength resting in a prolific passing attack led by senior quarterback Hayden Bauserman.

The general consensus in preseason camp was that Shenandoah’s running game has taken strides.

“We know we can run the football,” Hudson said, “we just needed to talk to the O-line, have a big core with that, see where our strengths and weaknesses (are) with that. How fast can we run the ball, how quickly we can do it, see where our strength and where the weaknesses are at. … We just try to take it day by day and see how it goes.”