SU football hopes defensive changes yield results
WINCHESTER — When it comes to his defense, Shenandoah University football coach Scott Yoder doesn’t worry about statistics.
But he is concerned about making sure he’s putting his best players on the field, and putting those players in positions that can best benefit the team.
As a result, expect the Hornets (1-2, 0-0 Old Dominion Athletic Conference) to look a little different when they take on Bridgewater College (3-0, 0-0) in their ODAC opener at 7 p.m. Saturday at Shentel Stadium.
Though Yoder isn’t focusing on stats, the non-conference portion of the Hornets’ schedule did see them struggle to slow opponents down. SU ranks seventh among the eight ODAC teams in scoring defense (31.3 points), last in total defense (396.7 yards), last in rushing defense (269.3) and last in opponents yards per carry (5.4, a yard higher than any other team), and last in turnovers forced (three).
Against Christopher Newport — now ranked No. 22 in the D3football.com poll — SU gave up 471 yards (239 rushing, 232 passing) in a 34-6 loss to the Captains in Newport News.
In hopes of shoring up the run defense, SU is moving defensive backs Byron Mitchell and Sean Blackman to the outside linebacker spots. Mitchell (25 tackles), normally a free safety, has been moved down to outside linebacker in certain situations since the first week of the season, but Saturday will mark the first time that it will be his primary position.
“We’re doing that to stop more of the outside runs that we’ve been having problems with,” Mitchell said. “And just to get better playmakers in the box. We just need good tacklers down there when the ball bounces outside. We have to set the edge and keep the ball more inside instead of letting runners getting to the sideline.”
In the secondary, senior Bayvon Young will continue to be counted on as a cornerback, and now players like junior David Wilburn, junior Henry Howell and senior Charles Basil will be counted on even more at the corners. At free safety, Yoder has faith that freshman Darryll Gadsden can take on a larger role in Mitchell’s absence, and senior Buddy Findley and Wilburn will also play at that spot.
The players say they are comfortable playing in Yoder’s 4-4 defensive scheme, and Yoder says he sees that too. It’s just a matter of playing faster and more consistent, and Yoder feels like these personnel moves can help in that regard.
“If we can eliminate big plays from happening — big throws down the field, missed tackles that lead to touchdown runs — we’re going to be fine on defense,” Yoder said. “It’s my job to get us there.”
Yoder said before the season he was counting on the defensive line to play a big role, and senior nose guard Preston Funk hopes that the new defensive adjustments will aid their efforts. Bridgewater will certainly be a good test of that — the Eagles are averaging 48.7 points and 478.3 yards per game.
“I think our defense is getting better every week,” Funk said. “I think we’re going to learn from our losses and come back strong.”
In SU’s first two games, the Hornets fell behind 14-0 after eight minutes and 10 seconds and 11:16, respectively. SU was down just 3-0 after one quarter against the Captains, but less than three minutes into the second quarter the Hornets found themselves down 17-0.
Given SU’s offensive struggles against the Captains, it was probably asking a lot for the Hornets’ defense to keep CNU off the scoreboard. (The Captains’ second and third touchdowns came on 83- and 53-yard touchdown passes). Four of SU’s first five drives were three-and-outs, and the other drive lasted four plays and went for just 16 yards.
“Talking with the staff, we feel like our group, as a team, kind of in a negative way, tries to feel out the other team too much,” Yoder said. “I don’t know what that’s a product of, but we kind of wait until they take it to us [before we realize], ‘Hey, now it’s a game.’
“We can’t do that. We can’t start slow. We focused a lot in the last two weeks on starting fast. We did a lot of competition between [first-team players]. We just said ‘Offense vs. defense, let’s go.’ Because we need to be ready to play right from the get-go. That first drive defensively, getting the three-and-out and getting some momentum, and offensively, getting some first downs and trying to get points on the board on the first drive. So we definitely addressed that.”
As always, Bridgewater has a number of players from local high schools who are figuring prominently so far.
Junior running back Jordan Hartman — a Millbrook graduate who was The Winchester Star Offensive Player of the Year in 2010 — is listed as the Eagles’ second-string running back, and he has 21 rushes for 108 yards. Hartman has had a greater impact as a kick returner, taking back six kickoffs for 153 yards (a 25.3 average) and seven punts for 93 yards (a 13.3 average).
Sophomore Chandler DeHaven, a James Wood graduate, is Bridgewater’s place kicker. DeHaven has made 15 of 16 extra points and 5 of 6 field goals, with a long of 39 yards. for a total of 30 points.
Junior Mason Gray (6-foot-1, 280 pounds), a Handley graduate, is the Eagles’ No. 2 right tackle.
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