Red Dawn rises for SU football

Posted: August 26, 2013

The Winchester Star

Shenandoah University first-year head football coach Scott Yoder hopes to turn around a Hornets’ program that has just one winning season in the last eight years. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)
Shenandoah University quarterback Drew Ferguson looks for an open receiver during the Hornets’ scrimmage at Shentel Stadium on Saturday. Ferguson, a transfer from Mount Union, is battling with former Millbrook standout Justin Neff for the Hornets’ starting quarterback position. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — As the Shenandoah University football team modeled their 12 potential uniform combinations for this year on Thursday in the middle of the college’s campus, it was evident that senior free safety Byron Mitchell was particularly pleased with his ensemble.

Mitchell was wearing the Hornets’ alternate red uniform top, and the one item of clothing that was brand new to SU’s wardrobe this year — red pants.

“It’s something that’s kind of screaming at you, you know?” Mitchell said.

Welcome to #RedDawn.

That’s the team motto that Hornets personnel are including on their Twitter posts. Part of it refers to the fact that the Hornets do have all-red uniforms they can trot out, but it’s also something of an homage to the message portrayed in the movie “Red Dawn.”

The original in 1984 involved a group of American teenagers coming together to stop invading Soviet forces; the remake in 2012 involved teenagers fighting off a North Korean invasion.

Essentially, the characters in those movies weren’t going to back down from a challenge.

“It’s just kind of that underdog mentality,” said new offensive coordinator Stan Hodgin, the man who came up with the #RedDawn idea.

As the Hornets head into their second year in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, they are unquestionably underdogs. SU is coming off a 1-9 season, and the Hornets are still searching for their first ODAC win after going 0-7 in league play last year.

The word “dawn” also brings to mind something else for SU — the beginning of something. And if the beginning of first-year head coach Scott Yoder’s career is any guide, perhaps a Hornets program that has achieved just one winning season in the last eight years will be able to start screaming with joy over victories in addition to screaming at opponents with their uniforms.

“It’s a new head coach, new system, it’s a new era for Shenandoah,” Mitchell said. “#RedDawn is just something to let the ODAC know that we’re here, and new things are going on here at Shenandoah.”

Sunday was media day at Shentel Stadium, and for the first time since the Hornets resurrected their football program in 2000 Paul Barnes is not part of the coaching staff. Barnes was an assistant for two years before taking over as head coach for the last 11, winning conference championships in 2003 and 2004 before SU’s struggles commenced.

Yoder was hired in January after spending 12 years as an assistant at Hobart College, the last six as defensive coordinator. What he’s done since has earned high praise from the veterans of an SU team that brings back six starters on defense, three on offense, and will apparently open the year with a first-year SU player at quarterback for the second straight year. Mount Union College transfer Drew Ferguson, a junior, and freshman Justin Neff, a Millbrook graduate, are vying for the job. Phil Gardner, who played in three games last year, did not return to school.

“He’s definitely encouraging,” said Mitchell of Yoder. “When people mess up, big plays or little plays, he never puts you down. He tells you what you did wrong, and he gets you better at it. No matter how much you mess up, he’ll always find the little thing that you did well.

“I think being encouraging is a big part of being a head coach. You’ve got to let your players know that you might have messed up, but you can learn from this, you can get better from it.”

Senior cornerback Sean Blackman said Yoder has made it clear that he expects more from the upperclassmen though. As veterans who went through spring practice, they’re expected to know the right and wrong way to do things, and Blackman said he appreciates how detail-oriented Yoder has been.

“I just feel the whole organization of the team is better,” said sophomore defensive lineman Jake Payne.

One example of that is how the offense and defense relate to each other. Payne said he felt like there was a separation between the offense and defense last year.

“This year, we all work together,” Payne said. “This year, if the offense does good in practice, we’re not saying, ‘Screw the offense.’ We’re complimenting — ‘Oh, that was really good.’ We can see offense and defense working together. Last year it was offense and defense, this year we’re one team.”

Mitchell said another thing that helps the team work together and stay on task is the pace at which they go out about their business.

“[Yoder] keeps things going,” Mitchell said. “At practice, we’re more up-tempo, we’re fast-paced. The breaks are shorter, but it’s what we need. We’re never sitting around, we’re never standing around watching each other. Everybody’s always doing something.”

If you want to play football at SU, you can’t afford to relax, even where there’s no official practice.

On the first day of practice on Aug. 15, Yoder had a conditioning test for the players — 16 110-yard sprints. The timed runs ranged from 16 seconds to do each sprint for skill position players and 19 seconds for linemen, and there was a 30-second break in between each one. Players that didn’t pass had additional running assigned to them.

“The big focus is that everybody on the team has to be in shape,” Payne said. “You can’t win as a team if you’re not in shape.”

Blackman said there were several veterans and rookies that couldn’t complete the assigned task on the first day. What matters more than passing that test though was how those players would respond, and Blackman said the work they and everyone else has put in since will benefit them — and the team — in the long run.

“It’s all hard work, and it’s all going to pay off in the end,” Blackman said. “First game, Gallaudet, it’s going to show.”

“We’ll be prepared,” said Payne of the Sept. 7 season opener, which will take place at 7 p.m. at Shentel Stadium.

In the meantime, the Hornets’ players will continue to fight for time on the field.

The most interesting battle to watch will be at quarterback as SU looks to upgrade an offense that ranked last in the ODAC in total offense (284.8 yards per game) and scoring offense (15.3 points per game) in 2012. Yoder said he doesn’t expect a name a starter until at least one week from today.

Ferguson graduated from Atlee High School in Mechanicsville, Va., in 2011, starting for the last two years. As a senior he had 2,100 passing yards, 800 rushing yards and was an all-district selection.

Ferguson spent two years at Mount Union. He started for the JV team as a freshman, but after his sophomore year when it was clear he was going to be second-string at best, he decided to look elsewhere. At SU — which recruited him in high school — he found an ideal situation. It’s close to home, it’s the one school in Virginia that Ferguson said had exercise science for a major, and it was a school where he had a chance to win the starting job.

Ferguson said it was still a great experience at Mount Union, because he got to compete with and against some of the best Division III players in the country, and he learned a lot. Now he’s enjoying being at SU immensely, and has been impressed with the personnel the Hornets have. He’s already familiar with the offense — Ferguson said the spread/I-formation attack that SU runs is the same he ran at Atlee and Mount Union.

“I go out there, I’ll relax, I’ll do the right reads against the defense, and I’ll throw the ball where it needs to be thrown,” he said. “I won’t force anything. I’d rather throw away or run.”

A two-year starter at Millbrook, Neff passed for 2,200 yards, 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while completing 50.7 percent of his passes.

Despite being a freshman, Neff said he didn’t come to SU simply expecting that he would only watch and learn this year, even though he has learned from watching Ferguson. So far, things have gone well.

“I knew the speed of the game would be faster, so the toughest thing has been getting used to all of that,” said Neff, who ran a very similar offense to what SU is doing at Millbrook. “I’ve been trying to work on composure, and my willingness to learn is helping me out a lot.”

Hodgin said the experience both quarterbacks have with SU’s style of offense has showed. He said while Neff has the stronger arm, Ferguson’s ability to see the field and read defenses has been impressive, and Yoder expressed similar thoughts.

“[Neff] has a live arm,” Yoder said. “The kid can throw the ball, and he’s a good athlete. What he just needs to understand is where he fits in the offense. You’ve got to know when to throw the ball away, know when to check in to a run, that maybe you have to punt after, and a punt’s a great play. He doesn’t understand that yet, but we’ll teach him that. He will get there.

“Drew is completely different. He’s more mature … in that he’s been through the ringer before. He went to a college, he competed at a high level, and he transferred. He’s embraced more of a leadership role just because he’s older and guys look up to him. He understands college football a little bit better just because he’s had more reps at it. I think he makes good decisions, has got a good arm, [but] I think he’s probably not as athletic as Justin is right now.”

No matter who their quarterback is, it’s full speed ahead for SU — and hopefully the dawn of a successful era.

“It’s a new beginning,” Payne said. “We’re not looking back at last year at all. Like the dawn is the beginning of the day, it’s a new era for us.”

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at rniedzwiecki@winchesterstar.com

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