WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s defense went into spring practice and entered preseason camp earlier this month aiming to answer one question: can the Hornets play better against the run in 2018? SU’s players and coaches are hoping a combination of experience up front, and some schematic tweaks allow the Hornets to do that.
The pieces are in place along the defensive line for Shenandoah to improve on its 2017 rush defense, which allowed 247.8 yards per game on the ground, the second-worst mark in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference. The Hornets return three starters on the defensive line, including 6-foot-3, 260-pound junior defensive tackle Randy Oliver, junior defensive end Jordan Heisen and senior Chris Grady, who is technically an outside linebacker but plays more like a standup defensive end in SU’s 3-4 defense.
Between those three players, SU returns 134 tackles, 12.5 sacks and 28 tackles for loss from last season.
“I think we’re going to take a step forward on the defensive side of the ball with just experience and depth and guys getting a year older,” Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said following practice on Wednesday.
“Up front, there’s been a new focus – there’s always been a focus, but maybe a renewed focus since the spring on can we play a little bit better run defense, knowing in the conference we’re gonna see some teams that are ground-and-pound. Can we hold up to that week in and week out?”
Yoder added that SU’s defensive coaching staff has pared down its scheme this preseason, choosing to let the defense become sound in “two or three things early and let’s add from there” rather than taking last year’s approach to be as multiple as the unit could handle.
Shenandoah also took a team-wide approach starting in the spring to become more physical. The roots of that emphasis lie in the Hornets’ struggles to establish a consistent running game on offense last season, but it’s a focus that could certainly pay off on the defensive side of the ball as well.
Heisen said one of the defensive line’s biggest areas of improvement heading into the Sept. 1 opener at Methodist has been becoming a more “hard-nosed football team.”
“One part of stopping the run is just being physical in all aspects of the game,” he said, “just flying to the football, always running to the football, making big plays.”
Experience alone should help the Hornets cut down on the high rushing totals they allowed in 2017.
Entering last season, SU returned two defensive line starters – defensive end Thomas Whalen and nose tackle Gladimir Dupalis – and Dupalis, the team’s returning leading tackler, went down with a season-ending injury in the third game of the 2017 season. Neither Grady, Heisen nor Oliver had seen significant action before last fall, and they combined to make 27 starts last season.
Grady (48 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 11.5 TFLs) and Heisen (38 tackles, five sacks, 11 TFLs) went on to earn third team All-ODAC honors in 2017, while Oliver finished with 48 tackles, two sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss.
Oliver and Heisen also return to their natural positions after playing out of position last season. Following Dupalis’ injury, Oliver moved from defensive tackle to nose tackle and Heisen, a defensive end, moved in to take Oliver’s old spot.
“The injury of Gladimir hurt because we had to move some guys and that wasn’t our max potential,” Oliver said. “We couldn’t give what we were best at, so that kind of hurt us there. But now everybody’s back in their spots, everybody’s had that year to grow together.”
Though the Hornets posted poor numbers against the run, they did rank second in the ODAC with 24 sacks last fall. SU’s D-linemen accounted for 17 of those sacks.
SU lost Whalen (3.5 sacks, 7 TFLs in 2017) and Dupalis to graduation, and Yoder mentioned sophomore defensive tackle Nigel Duberry, junior Zach Brown and senior Joe Achour – three linemen with very limited playing experience – among the players who could see playing time along the defensive line in 2018. Yoder said a freshman, Mason Caldwell, was at the top of the depth chart at nose tackle on Wednesday.
“We’ll be playing a lot of different guys there, but right now Mason’s probably playing the best and the most consistently,” Yoder said.