Young players to take over key roles on Hornets’ special teams

Shenandoah University's Brant Butler (86) and Jalen Hudson (7) will play key roles on the Hornets' special teams this season. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – For most of the past four seasons Christian Arias and Jacob Newton, when healthy, were the go-to guys when it came to the punting and kicking duties for Shenandoah University’s football team. That’s no longer the case.

Arias, a two-time All-Old Dominion Athletic Conference punter and the Hornets’ kickoff specialist, and Newton, the program’s all-time leader in field goals made and a first-team All-ODAC honoree in 2017, graduated in the spring. That means the Hornets will take the field for their opener against Methodist on Saturday without one or both of them handling the kicking responsibilities since 2014.

“It’s a big difference. Big difference,” Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said of moving on from Arias and Newton, who each battled injuries in their college careers but were mainstays when healthy. “We relied on those guys, not just being mature in the program, but we ran so many fakes with those guys and were so multiple, and now we’ve kind of gotta go back and teach and get those (new) guys right on the fundamentals and how they fit into our schemes.”

The Hornets could have a familiar face at punter in sophomore Brant Butler, a receiver who filled in – quite effectively – when Arias went down with an injury last season and averaged 37.4 yards per punt on 17 attempts. Butler underwent hip labrum surgery in the spring, though Yoder said the sophomore is healthy and could be ready to reprise the punter role as early as the opener.

If Butler is not quite ready to punt, Yoder said freshman Patrick Ritchie would handle that role in addition to being the Hornets’ starting placekicker. Ritchie, a Turner Ashby High School graduate, was 3-for-3 on extra-point attempts in a scrimmage against Gettysburg College on Saturday, Yoder said. The Hornets did not attempt a field goal against Gettysburg.

“I think he’s very consistent in staying within himself,” Yoder said of Ritchie, “meaning a lot of kickers get out there and (say) ‘I wanna kick a 40-yard field goal.’ Well, we don’t try too many of those. Focus on PAT/field goal and have great timing, get the ball vertically in the air – that’s usually how you get one blocked at our level, is if it’s a low kick. So that’s what he’s been working on, did a really nice job there. But there’s gonna be pressure kicks, and we’re gonna see some teams that do some good things with blocks, so he’s gonna have to continue to progress.”

Jack Massie, a sophomore linebacker with a “big, strong leg,” according to Yoder, will handle the kickoff duties and could be used on long field goal attempts. Massie is expected to have a regular role on SU’s defense, Yoder added, noting that the coaching staff has to be wary of the fatigue factor.

A tired Massie handling kickoffs could have the same adverse effect as when Arias went down with an injury last season, Yoder said.

“Christian did such a good job kicking off; it was such a huge weapon for us. When he got hurt we took a major step back on kickoff coverage,” Yoder said. “So we’ve gotta monitor how that affects Jack kicking off. But that’s obviously gonna be an ongoing thing.”

One question the Hornets didn’t need to address in preseason camp was who would handle kick and punt returns. Senior running back/slot receiver Jalen Hudson will once again be SU’s top return man, with Butler and fellow sophomore receiver Jake Wallace also handling some of the kickoff returns.

Hudson, a versatile athlete who led the Hornets with 1,378 all-purpose yards in 2017, is averaging 25.6 yards per kickoff return with two touchdowns in his SU career and averaged 9.1 yards per punt return last season.

“I think back, every year he’s made huge plays on special teams,” Yoder said, “not just the touchdowns but you also put some fear in people.”