WINCHESTER – Even after leading the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in points and total yards per game last season, Shenandoah University’s offense is looking to maximize its productivity in 2018. That means being more effective in the running game, and doing so starts up front.
The Hornets’ offensive line has spearheaded a push to better establish a consistent running game, and initial perceptions following preseason camp, a joint practice with Frostburg State and a scrimmage against Gettysburg College are that SU is on the right path.
“There’s been just such an emphasis and it’s paid off,” Hornets senior left guard Andrew Coffman said on Sunday, the final day of SU’s preseason camp before heading into game week as the team preps for Saturday’s opener at Methodist. “In Gettysburg, we rushed the ball very well, and (against) Frostburg we rushed the ball really well against a defense that was, I think, Top 10 in the country in rush defense. That’s been the thing, it’s being nasty. (Offensive line coach Nick) Oakley … he has an emphasis on just being nasty and that’s something, especially (senior right guard Jonathan Grammo), that’s something we all kind of take to heart. We wanna be nasty.”
Shenandoah’s offensive line will also be experienced, with four players – Coffman, Grammo, senior center Caleb Hutson and junior offensive tackle Daniel Small – back after making at least seven starts in 2017.
The Hornets’ interior three – Coffman (6-foot-4, 285 pounds), Hutson (5-11, 225) and Grammo (6-3, 300) – are some of the most experienced offensive linemen in the ODAC. Hutson has started 29 of a possible 30 games since his freshman season in 2015, and Coffman and Grammo are entering their third year as starters. Coffman was a second team All-ODAC pick last season, while Hutson was a third-team honoree.
Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said Sunday that junior Brad Hoffman (6-0, 235), who made four starts last season, and junior Michael Davidson (5-10, 220) would likely fill out the starting five at left and right tackle, respectively, adding that Small (6-5, 280), who started the final seven games of 2017, would round out a six-man group that should take a bulk of the snaps for SU’s offensive line.
“We feel really good about the interior three,” Yoder said. “The whole O-line did a nice job at camp. Davidson probably had his best camp since he’s been here. He can play center, guard and tackle. Daniel Small also played a lot last year and had a good camp at tackle.”
Yoder added that sophomore Zachary Hirmer and freshmen Zachary Morris and Wyatt Schannauer had solid camps, and sophomore Tyler Deal should also add depth along the line.
Last season Shenandoah led the ODAC in offensive yards per game (495.3) but ranked sixth out of seven teams in rushing (102.8 yards per game). Coffman and Hutson both agreed that the Hornets’ pass-happy style at times lulled the O-line into a more passive state of mind, an issue they said has been corrected with the team-wide emphasis on being more physical.
“It’s kind of beating a dead horse because I’m sure everybody’s talked about physicality,” Coffman said when asked how the Hornets are curing their woes in the running game, “but just being physical and just looking your opponent in the face and just saying ‘you know what, I’m gonna move you five yards and there’s nothing you can do about it.’
“It starts with the (offensive and defense) lines,” he added, “so whatever we do kind of resounds throughout the team and I think that jump to be more physical, nastier has kind of spread.”
Coffman added that the Hornets showed they’re better conditioned across the board during preseason camp, and Hutson noted that versatility has been a key asset to the offensive line.
“I know both of us played every position on the line during spring ball,” Hutson said, referring to Coffman. “During camp everyone’s just been kind of mixing it up just in case. If someone gets hurt it’s really not that big of a drop off. Everyone can play there, just making sure everyone kind of knows everything about every position.”
Shenandoah also has added a tight end back into the mix, a position the Hornets have rarely used in recent seasons. Though Yoder said the Hornets’ tight ends will play multiple roles in the offense – freshman Joey Imperato is a converted tailback and Austin Ward was a receiver last season – blocking is their primary responsibility.
The commitment to fleshing out the tight end position was made to further SU’s mission to not run the football more often but to do so more effectively, Yoder said. Doing so would make a Hornets offense that averaged 40.1 points per game last season an even bigger nightmare for opposing defenses.
“I think we can repeat those numbers and be more balanced while we do it,” Coffman said, “which is really exciting for us to say.”