WINCHESTER – No offensive position group on Shenandoah University’s football team experienced as much roster turnover as the wide receivers.
Three of the Hornets’ top six receivers from last season are gone, a group that included Mike Ashwell, who caught 80 passes in 2017 and graduated in second place on the program’s all-time receptions and receiving yards lists, and Leonard Scott, whose 18- career-touchdown catches are second-most in SU history. That duo along with Dershone Hayman, another departed receiver, combined for 143 receptions for 1,897 yards and 23 touchdowns last fall.
And yet, with a core group of returnees that includes players like Justin Ayres, Jalen Hudson, Casey Stewart and Jake Wallace, the Hornets are expecting to be just as talented at receiver as they were a season ago, when they lead the ODAC in passing yards per game (392.5) and passed the ball on 67 percent of their offensive snaps.
“I’m actually happy with how we’ve looked,” Stewart said on Sunday morning. “I know we graduated five or six from last year who played valuable minutes for us and I think that was a little concern coming into this year, was how we were gonna adapt to that. I know Justin getting his year back was pretty big for us. AD (Adrian DeNeal) has been playing some really good football. The freshmen, they’re playing. It’s kind of just getting them over the nerves … trying to get them in the right place at the right time, learning all the plays. But we saw a lot (last Saturday) in our scrimmage, a lot of good stuff, some stuff we need to work on.”
Of the Hornets’ returning receivers, Hudson, a running back-turned-slot receiver, caught the most passes in 2017, hauling in 46 receptions for 463 yards and six touchdowns. Stewart, a 6-foot-4 junior, emerged as a dangerous red-zone target last year and caught 32 balls for 478 yards and six touchdowns, and Ayres, who missed his freshman season in 2014 due to injury and was granted an extra year of eligibility in 2018, has caught 57 passes for 717 yards and seven scores in his SU career.
Wallace, who was slowed by injury in the preseason, is expected to take over Ashwell’s position in the slot after making 20 catches for 188 yards and a touchdown as a freshman last season, and fellow sophomore Brant Butler (10 catches, 119 yards in 2017) will bring more experience to the field once he returns to full action after recovering from offseason hip labrum surgery.
DeNeal, a Millbrook High School graduate, has played sparingly in his SU career but is a senior and is expected to play a significant role in the Hornets’ prolific passing attack this fall.
“Last year I would say we just had a lot of playmakers. We had guys who could come off the bench and come straight in the game and make a play. This year it’s kind of like we have the freshmen coming in off the bench other than our starting receivers,” said Stewart, a Front Royal native and Warren County High School grad. “But I think as the season goes on they will be able to take that next step and start making plays for us. … I’m excited to see what we can do and I think that if not being better than last year, we’ll be pretty close.”
If anything has held SU’s receiving corps back as the team prepares for Saturday’s opener at Methodist, it’s been injuries. Wallace, who did not play in the scrimmage at Gettysburg College last Saturday, is questionable to play this weekend, Yoder said on Wednesday, Butler could be a couple more weeks away from being a full-time participant and Stewart has been banged up but expects to play against Methodist.
Stewart also missed four days of preseason camp to fulfill his obligations as a member of the National Guard.
“Really, what we’ve just gotta do is get healthy,” Yoder said. “If we have Jake and we have Brant and we have Casey and we have Adrian DeNeal, and then we have a couple of those freshmen stepping up, we’re gonna be as good – I don’t know if we’ll be as productive, I don’t think we’re gonna just replace Ashwell, but we’re gonna be as good.”
The absence of some key players has allowed SU’s coaching staff to get a better look at some of the group’s more inexperienced receivers. Yoder said the Hornets’ young pass catchers “showed us something” in last weekend’s scrimmage, noting that freshmen Ethan Bigbee and Austin Ragan both played well at the inside slot position in Wallace’s absence and adding that Trammel Anthony, another Millbrook grad, showed off his athleticism and played well during camp.
For that young group, the last several weeks have been all about working out the kinks with senior quarterback Hayden Bauserman, who is entering his fourth year as a starter and completed 321 of 514 passes for 3,818 yards, 41 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2017.
“The timing’s gotten a lot better,” Bauserman said. “I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with guys like Jake Wallace and Tom Rahme and Trammel Anthony and those guys. They’ve been going out and making plays. We had a really good scrimmage (Saturday), a lot of young guys stepped up and played some big moments.”