WINCHESTER — Shenandoah University’s quarterback carousel seems to have officially reached its stopping point, with head coach Scott Yoder conceding after Saturday’s loss to Washington and Lee that “if I’m going to take my lumps, I’m going to take my lumps” with freshman QB Chris Sonnenberg with one game left in the 2019 college football season.
Sonnenberg, who has started the past two games and is the Hornets’ third different starting QB this season, has endured the ups and downs that are nothing foreign to a freshman playing his first major minutes at the college level, but Yoder confirmed on Saturday that Sonnenberg will make his third straight start in SU’s season finale against Methodist this weekend.
Yoder’s proclamation came shortly after SU’s 34-31 loss to W&L in both teams’ Old Dominion Athletic Conference finale, during which Sonnenberg threw four interceptions, including a pair of costly picks in the red zone that loomed large as the final whistle blew.
Sonnenberg’s up-and-down performance — he also threw four touchdowns and passed for 263 yards against the Generals — wasn’t enough to prompt Yoder to once again declare the starting QB job open for competition as it has been at multiple points this season.
“We’ve got to remind ourselves that as talented as he is, he’s a first-year player and even though he can and will play at a high level, there’s gonna be times where this is his first experience in this situation in college with this,” Yoder said on Saturday. “But at the same time, we have an expectation on offense. If you don’t meet that expectation you don’t play, so everybody who’s out there we feel has met the expectations. Whether that’s taking care of the football or doing the right thing — and I’m not talking just quarterback play. It’s everyone. If you’re out there, you’ve earned it, so we expect something of you. Hopefully (this is) a learning experience.”
Sonnenberg admitted after the loss that there is a “learning curve” to the situation he now finds himself in, and on Saturday Washington and Lee did some things defensively — mainly switching from cover 3 to cover 2 in the red zone, he said — that forced the first-year starter into some freshman mistakes.
On his first red-zone interception in the first quarter, Sonnenberg said he incorrectly threw a go route to senior receiver Casey Stewart, who was running a post to the corner of the end zone. On his second interception in the end zone, Sonnenberg tried to hit Brant Butler on a slant but his pass was batted in the air and picked by a defender playing underneath coverage.
Sonnenberg also threw an interception on a pass with 1:28 to play after Shenandoah’s defense forced a punt following SU’s failed onside kick in the closing minutes.
Stewart, who said he and Sonnenberg made an in-game correction to avoid further miscommunication in the contest, noted that the red-zone turnovers were “all things that you can fix.”
“Those are self-inflicted, and when tomorrow comes around we’re gonna watch film on them, we’re gonna fix mistakes,” Stewart said. “For him, this game and the next game, it leads on to next season, the season after that and he’s gonna continuously get better. I’m looking forward to coming back and seeing what he can do.”
Things weren’t all bad for Sonnenberg on Saturday. He seemed to settle in after his first turnover and at one point had completed 14 of 18 passes for 152 yards and three touchdowns before throwing his second interception. His fourth pick of the day came on the game’s final play, a last-ditch Hail Mary under pressure from the W&L 40 that had little chance of success.
When W&L seized an early 7-0 lead, Sonnenberg hit a wide-open Miles Moore down the sideline for the game-tying 46-yard touchdown pass after the defensive back slipped and hit the turf in one-on-one coverage. Sonnenberg also connected with Stewart for touchdown passes to keep the Hornets within striking distance, the last coming on a fourth-and-goal play from the 2-yard line that pulled SU within 34-31 with 3:12 left.
“I think what he does really well right now for our offense is number one, the ball gets out of his hand,” Yoder said of Sonnenberg. “We’re a rhythm, on-time offense, so the fact that the ball gets out of his hand really complements what we’re trying to do and everything around us. Number two, he’s extremely coachable, and whether it’s because he’s a first-year and he’s got to be coachable because all this stuff is new, he is taking the coaching in-game, he’s taking the coaching in practice, and (quarterbacks coach Hayden Bauserman is) doing a great job of just keeping it simple and not focusing on 15 things.”
Sonnenberg, in his brief stint as the Hornets’ quarterback, has proven he can successfully orchestrate SU’s pass-heavy offense.
Though his name hadn’t been previously mentioned as a major contender for the starting quarterback job, Sonnenberg was thrust into action early against Emory & Henry on Oct. 26 and went on to complete 34 of 62 passes for 340 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions as he tried to lift the Hornets out of a 24-0 hole in an eventual 41-31 loss.
Sonnenberg, a Bristow native and graduate of Patriot High School, made his first collegiate start the following week at Ferrum and was spectacular, completing 21 of 27 passes for 393 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions.
Over the past three games, Sonnenberg has completed 65 percent of his passes for 996 yards, 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
“Could be better, but everybody could always get better. I feel like we’re doing some things really well. I’m getting used to my receivers, the timing’s all getting ready,” Sonnenberg said.
“(I’m just taking things) one game at a time, just breaking down each team’s defense, seeing what will beat it, what won’t. Just trying to figure out the timing with our receivers. The coaches help me a lot. I feel like the coaches have really helped me get ready for each and every game.”
Sonnenberg figures to factor heavily into the future of Shenandoah’s offense, and Stewart, who has caught six touchdown passes from Sonnenberg over the past two games, spoke highly of the freshman’s future in the program.
“The kid’s gonna be good. He’s very smart,” Stewart said. “Obviously there are some wrinkles you’ve got to work out as a freshman, but to come in in a game like this against W&L, who’s known to be a really good defense and yeah, sure there were some mistakes but there were also some things that he did really well. Yeah I helped, I guess, being a security blanket for him but at the same time he trusts me to go up and make plays and I trust him to put the ball where it needs to be. … You can have someone and have a security blanket like me, per se, but at the end of the day he’s still got to make a good throw to give me a chance. For him to be able to do that, I think he’s gonna have a very bright career here.”