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Tight-knit Shenandoah secondary aiming to be ‘best in the ODAC’

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University free safety Nate Hill said the Hornets’ secondary seemed to possess a stronger familial bond this preseason. Sophomore cornerback Daquan Pridget agreed, noting that the defensive backs have been helping each other, watching film together and coaching each other up on the field with a pack-like mentality.

They’ve even given themselves a new nickname: “The Wolf Gang.”

“You’re like a wolf. You hunt,” Hill explained after practice on Wednesday evening. “You wanna go get that ball, like you see the ball in the air, you wanna get it. Get every turnover possible, get a forced fumble, picks.”

The Hornets’ secondary did a lot of hunting in 2017. Led by Hill’s six interceptions, SU finished the season tied for the Old Dominion Athletic Conference lead in takeaways (25) and with the second-most interceptions (14) in the conference. The Hornets also were the ODAC’s second-best pass defense, allowing 214.2 yards per game through the air.

Shenandoah’s secondary has undergone some turnover since then, however.

That unit has a new position coach this fall, as Drake Woodard stepped down as the defensive backs coach in June after spending five seasons under head coach Scott Yoder at SU. Former Hornet standout Byron Mitchell was hired in July to take Woodard’s place.

The Hornets also graduated both of their 2017 starting cornerbacks – Weldon Gilchrist Jr., a three-year starter, and Devontae Dunn, who snagged three interceptions in 2017 and earned the defense’s only first team All-ODAC honor. SU’s secondary isn’t exactly hurting for experience, though.

In addition to Hill, who had 62 tackles, seven pass breakups and 13 passes defended last season, junior T.J. Heflin, whom Yoder called the most physical player in the Hornets’ secondary, returns as Shenandoah’s run-stuffing strong safety after finishing third on the team with 63 tackles in 2017.

Pridget, who saw action in eight games as a freshman at strong safety last season, even starting the first three contests before suffering a knee injury, has moved back to his natural position at cornerback and brings some college experience to the position.

Yoder said Sunday that freshman Shean Rheams and sophomore Mike Amobi are also in the cornerback mix, as will be junior Terrell Wheeler – who had 16 tackles and one pass breakup in nine games last season – when he’s healthy.

Yoder added that Hill (hamstring) also has been battling nagging injuries during camp, and he and Wheeler were held out of Saturday’s scrimmage at Gettysburg College for precautionary reasons.

“The only thing that’s holding us back right now in the secondary is guys not playing consistently together because of injuries,” Yoder said Wednesday.

Those injuries haven’t prevented Hill from being a vocal leader in practice, a role that could prove valuable for what is a group of young defensive backs.

“In practice we do a lot more talking,” Hill said. “I know we’ve been talking a lot of smack to the offense, trying to get everybody hyped up because without that it seems like we’re a little low.”

Freshman David Agyei is another young corner that Yoder said the coaching staff is high on, and he added that sophomore Jason Utz has looked “really good” in the secondary after switching from wide receiver. At safety, Yoder said senior Mike Nguyen played well in Hill’s absence in the scrimmage and that sophomore Cameron Campbell had a “decent camp.”

Pridget said he’s “very happy with the talent we have.”

“We’re trying to lead the ODAC in turnovers and we’re just trying to be ball hawks and be dogs,” Pridget said. “I mean the defense, we’re trying to be the best defense in the ODAC.”

Hill, who said the Hornets’ secondary needs to cut down on the number of big plays allowed this season, added that all of SU’s defensive backs have a goal of earning All-ODAC recognition this fall.

“With two of our corners gone, we have a lot of young talent, and we wanna show that we’re still there,” Hill said. “We’re gonna make some plays. We wanna do everything we’ve gotta do to make our defense the best.”

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