SU fullback Athey making most of his opportunities
WINCHESTER — When Shenandoah University senior fullback P.J. Athey recalls his playing days at Goochland High School, he points out that he gained 1,210 yards as a fullback in the Bulldogs’ Wing-T offense in his senior year of 2007.
But he’s also quick to point out that during his junior year in 2006 — when most of his playing time came at defensive end and he didn’t get nearly as many reps at fullback — Goochland won the Group A, Division 2 state championship.
So as great as it was for Athey — a two-year starter — to see the fullback position used more than at any other time this season during last Saturday’s game against Hampden-Sydney, his individual performance wasn’t what pleased him most, even though he did score his first career touchdown.
What truly meant the most to Athey was just playing a role in the Hornets’ team success. SU lost 42-21 to Hampden-Sydney, but many associated with SU feel it was the team’s best offensive performance of the season. The Hornets’ point total and yardage (313) against a team that was nationally-ranked earlier this season were their highest since their season-opening 26-16 win over Stevenson.
“When I got on the field, I told [quarterback] Corey [Taylor] that I was going to do my best to make things happen, and that’s what I did,” Athey said. “It’s for my team. Just being out there with my teammates ... if I make a promise to somebody to do something, I’m going to do it.
“I’m going to give my blood, sweat and tears, and just get it done. If I know I’ve got to kick somebody off [the running lane], I’m going to kick them off. If I’m going to have to lead through the hole to hit the linebacker, I’m going to hit that linebacker. If I know I need to get that first down, I’m going to get that first down. And if you need me to get a touchdown, I can get a touchdown.”
Athey won’t experience any championships with the Hornets (1-6, 0-4 Old Dominion Athletic Conference), who will take on Randolph-Macon College (4-3, 2-2) in the home finale at 1 p.m. today at Shentel Stadium. But Athey’s effort in working toward wins has never gone unnoticed.
“He’s as team-first as you ever want to see in a young man, especially with the situation he’s been in,” SU head coach Paul Barnes said. “He has a really come on as a blocker, because he came in as more of a runner but he has really developed his blocking skills over the last four years.
“Off the field, he’s as good a young man as you’re ever going to find. He’s a hard worker, dedicated to his studies, and never been in any trouble. You like to have those guys. Those guys make up your football team. They bring their lunch pail to work every day, and he’s one of those guys. He might not be the most talented, but he gets the most out of his talent.”
Athey didn’t originally take his ability to SU. He started his career at Division II Virginia Union in Richmond.
Though Athey didn’t feel the overall environment at Virginia Union suited him, he did enjoy the football aspect. He spent the 2008 season on the scout team and got to learn from and compete against people at a high level.
SU had recruited Athey out of high school, and it was one of the few schools Athey reached out to when he was looking to transfer. They were the first to get back in contact with him, and Athey began playing with the Hornets in 2009.
Athey was credited with playing in six games in 2010, but last year was his first seeing regular playing time. Athey loved every minute of a 6-4 2011 season that saw the Hornets put up 32.6 points and 376.3 yards per game (both school records), particularly when a play called for former quarterback Daniel Wright to run into space on the option.
“He always made perfect decisions,” said Athey, who was credited with nine starts last year.
This year though, the Hornets lost five offensive starters and several other key personnel, and SU hasn’t relied much on formations that make use of the fullback. (Unlike last season, when he didn’t have a single rushing attempt, Athey does have eight carries for 17 yards this season.)
Taylor said Athey has always stayed positive about his situation.
“When we come off the field, he’s aways there to give us positive reinforcement, and to keep our heads up,” Taylor said.
SU senior running back Carl Joseph (462 yards and one touchdown) said Athey is never lacking for words of wisdom.
“He’s like one of those old country guys who sits on the steps and is always trying to drop knowledge on you,” said Joseph with a smile. “He’s a really cool guy, and he’s funny. He does the best he can to motivate us.”
It’s that attitude that made people like Joseph so happy to see Athey succeed against Hampden-Sydney.
The Hornets made significant use of the I-formation as opposed to their double pro sets against Hampden-Sydney, and they did well.
Athey provided solid blocking for a balanced attack (168 passing, 145 rushing), including one big one on a linebacker that helped spring Taylor for a 20-yard touchdown, which provided the first points of the game. Athey had a 1-yard gain on fourth-and-1 in the second quarter, and he scored from 2 yards out on third-and-goal to cut SU’s deficit to 28-21 with 11:43 left in the game.
“I was very happy for him [to score a touchdown], because he really did deserve it,” Joseph said. “He works very hard.”
Athey said it meant a lot to see how his teammates responded to his play Saturday.
“When I got in the game, my teammates were excited, and they wanted me to get my first touchdown,” Athey said. “It felt so good, just having that love and support from my teammates.
“And [scoring a touchdown] was the best feeling in the world, because it was a tight game, and it put us in a good position.”
There’s no telling what Athey’s role will be going forward, but there’s nothing he’d love more than to help his teammates again today.
“I feel I can help a lot,” Athey said. “It’s my last three games, and I’m definitely going to take advantage of them, and put everything I’ve got in my body on the field.”
— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at email@example.comFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1