WINCHESTER — Shenandoah University’s defense prepared for the 2018 college football season determined to improve against the run. The steps the coaching staff took in an attempt to mitigate the problems in SU’s rush defense haven’t quite had the desired effect as the end of the Hornets’ season draws near.
SU appeared to have taken strides in the right direction early in the season, but since the start of Old Dominion Athletic Conference play, Shenandoah has looked little better at stopping the run than it was a season ago when the Hornets allowed nearly 250 yards rushing per game. The 2018 Hornets are allowing 212.5 yards on the ground per contest, a number that has gotten worse with each game against ODAC competition.
In five conference games, SU is allowing 257.8 yards rushing per outing, and Bridgewater’s 341 yards on the ground against the Hornets last week marked the second time an ODAC team has rushed for over 340 yards against Shenandoah this season (Ferrum ran for 353 yards against SU in Week 5). The Hornets are allowing 5.5 yards per carry in conference play, and the only ODAC team not to average more than 4 yards per rush against Shenandoah was Hampden-Sydney, which mustered 3.8 yards per carry in SU’s lone ODAC win.
“Yeah, it is frustrating,” Hornets defensive coordinator Brock McCullough said on Wednesday. “We have a great group of young men who keep working and keep doing their job. We just need to do better as coaches to put them in position to make plays. We’re trying to come up with good formulas to do that.”
The coaching staff has tried to find the solution in simplicity. The Hornets toned down their aggressiveness in the offseason and went more vanilla with their defensive fronts, opting instead to perfect their basic looks before progressing to more elaborate schemes. There also was hope that SU’s returning experience up front would mean a natural progression from a statistical standpoint.
Early signs indicated that the Hornets had made strides against the run. SU’s players and coaches felt good about the run defense in preseason scrimmages against Frostburg State and Gettysburg College, and in three non-conference games to start the season, the Hornets allowed 137 yards per game on the ground (though opposing teams averaged 348.3 yards through the air).
Ferrum more than doubled that rushing average in Shenandoah’s ODAC opener while running back Brian Mann piled up 260 yards, setting the tone for what was to come in conference play for SU’s defense.
Head coach Scott Yoder said the Hornets have made some strides against the run that haven’t shown up in the stats, particularly in a very offensive-heavy conference. But McCullough said the problem has been the Hornets’ gap fits and inability to consistently win one-on-one blocks, an issue that runs all the way from the defensive line to the linebackers and secondary.
Inexperience at nose guard — where freshman Mason Caldwell has started all eight games — hasn’t helped, and neither has a preseason ACL injury to senior linebacker Kyle Dexter that opened a revolving door at the weakside inside linebacker position.
Junior Adrian Brisbon and senior Andy Sartain platooned in Dexter’s absence at that Will linebacker spot through the season’s first half, and McCullough, who wanted to see more production from that position, said he might have found an answer in freshman Jahquan Collins, who started last week against Bridgewater and finished with 15 tackles.
McCullough added that senior outside linebacker Chris Grady would be used as more of a “wild card” in the run game to put an extra defender around the ball as Shenandoah prepares for two of the ODAC’s best rushing offenses in Guilford and Washington and Lee to close out the season.
“For us as coaches, I think we’re trying to add more bodies in there because we’re not quite winning the one-on-ones at the first, second level all the time,” McCullough said. “So now it becomes, where can we get an extra body? Can we add (safety T.J. Heflin) in? Can we do what I said with Chris Grady and maybe get him where the back is going? That’s what we’re trying to do; we’re trying to outnumber people now.”
That run defense will have its hands full in the next two games, starting on Saturday against Guilford tailback De’Eric Bell.
A fifth-year senior that McCullough said is built like a “fire hydrant,” Bell (5-foot-7, 190 pounds) has rushed for 1,049 yards, leads the ODAC with 17 rushing touchdowns and is averaging 6.3 yards per carry. He’s rushed for 122 yards or more in six of seven games and has scored multiple touchdowns five times, including a five-TD performance against Division I-FCS foe Davidson on Sept. 13.
In next weekend’s season finale, Shenandoah will face Washington and Lee tailback Josh Breece and the ODAC’s top rushing offense.
“The way you finish the year these last two games has gotta be huge,” McCullough said. “We feel like (in) the first half at Bridgewater we took some good strides. We had a chance to have a shutout almost into halftime. Now we’ve gotta find a way to close that out.”