SU Notebook: Issues along offensive line hurting Hornets

Posted: October 24, 2013

Jonathan Hudson
Byron Mitchell

WINCHESTER — Coming into the 2013 season, Shenandoah University football coach Scott Yoder said the coaching staff’s biggest concern was their lack of depth on the offensive line.

Fortunately for the Hornets, SU has avoided major injuries up front.

But for a variety of reasons, the unit hasn’t achieved the consistency they’d like to have.

There’s only one player who started last year who currently starts. There are no seniors on the two-deep depth chart. They’ve have to adjust to a new offensive line coach. And because of the lack of depth, playing through the normal aches and pains that come up during any football season means you pretty much have to fight through anything.

In short, the group hasn’t had it easy. Offensive linemen don’t get much glory when things are going right, but for SU to be the team it can be, the way they perform couldn’t be more important.

“Our O-line and D-line have to be keys for us, and right now, we’re struggling a little bit up front,” Yoder said.

Because of the aforementioned factors, it’s a lot more understandable that the offensive line is still looking for back-to-back strong performances as opposed to the defense, which brought back significantly more experience yet is still giving up 34.5 points and 459.2 yards per game, and has yet to give up fewer than 20 points in any game.

It might be understandable, but associate head coach and offensive line coach Brock McCullough said there’s never been any thought to giving in to those issues.

“Where we are right now is inconsistent,” McCullough said. “You can point to their youth but that’s no excuse. We’re six games into the season and we should be playing better every week. That’s what we’re looking for.”

In particular, SU needs to jumpstart its running game. Take away the Ferrum game in week 2, and the Hornets have just 466 yards on 163 carries, an average of 2.9 yards per carry.

Going back to the end of last year, there’s been a lot of change on the offensive line.

Three starters were lost to graduation, then fifth-year offensive line coach Joe Jacoby moved on to Handley High School. McCullough, SU’s former defensive coordinator, moved over to the O-line in Jacoby’s place. The Hornets were counting on sophomore Phil Pasco to start at right guard, but in the preseason he was lost for the year with an anterior cruciate ligament injury.

What SU is left with is just 13 offensive linemen. That doesn’t sound bad, but you also can’t just put in people if they’re not ready or not up to the task, so the Hornets aren’t using all of those 13. McCullough said SU — which is making the offensive line a priority for the next recruiting class — is particularly thin at tackle.

“Those guys not being 100 percent [healthy], and not having a rotation and backups, it’s hurting us,” Yoder said.

Some things that McCullough likes is that the Hornets’ linemen have exceptional chemistry, and he’s also been impressed with how well they process information.

A big thing for SU — which in addition to returning starter Jonathan Hudson (junior, 5-foot-11, 280) is also led by tackles Forrestt McDaniel (sophomore, 6-4, 300) and Ivan Iyala (junior, 6-3, 280), center Dustin Edwards (6-1, 270) and guard Marcus Jenkins (6-0, 230) — is making the most of their solid body frames.

“These guys are really intelligent, and can handle a lot,” McCullough said. “Where we’re not as strong as we need to be is just that — [being strong]. We need to get stronger in the weight room, do a better job of being more physical so we’re able to handle guys who are physically more mature than us.

“We’ve got to get better at technique because we have young players, but also physically, we have to mature. Making sure we put the right things in our body and lifting hard, because that position is so important as far as being able to handle the physical rigors. We have to be able to win the line of scrimmage, which we’re not doing right now.”

Hudson said it was definitely a transition moving from Jacoby — a four-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle with the Washington Redskins — to McCullough, whose coaching career has mostly been spent on the defensive side of the ball, because Jacoby could provide more first-hand experience.

But Hudson also feels McCullough has done a good job keeping the line on the right path, and he feels SU’s line has improved a great deal since spring ball.

The Hornets feel the ability on the line is there. SU gained 472 yards (298 on the ground) in a 43-29 win against Ferrum, and the Hornets scored 22 points in the first half en route to a 29-20 win over Bridgewater. It’s just a matter of putting it all together.

“We know what we’re doing. It’s just being consistent,” Hudson said. “It’s always little things here, a little thing there. It’s more on us than the other guys across from us.”

No changes at QB

Yoder said last week that SU would end its quarterback rotation and that freshman quarterback Justin Neff would play most of Saturday’s game against Catholic, and that turned out to be the case.

But after playing the entire first half and the first two series of the second half, Neff was taken out in favor of backup Drew Ferguson with the score 30-7 with 1:34 left in the third quarter.

Ferguson executed a nine-play, 32-yard drive that ended on a backward pass that hit the ground and resulted in a Cardinals fumble recovery on a fourth-and-9 play at the Catholic 15. Neff then came in for one series before Ferguson led SU to a 13-play, 57-yard drive that ended with an incompletion on fourth-and-goal from the CU 8.

Neff finished 10 of 15 for 48 yards and Ferguson finished 5 of 11 for 42 yards, with 33 yards on the ground.

Yoder said SU is continuing with the same approach.

“If we need a kickstart, or we need something, we think [Ferguson] can provide it,” Yoder said. “He’s done a good job in preparation. They both practice about the same as far as reps. I think you’re going to see the same plan as last week as far as quarterback play.”

Scouting the Tigers

With Hampden-Sydney College on the schedule Saturday, the Hornets (2-4, 1-2 Old Dominion Athletic Conference) might be facing their toughest challenge of the season.

The Tigers (5-1, 3-0) were the preseason favorites to win the ODAC, and they have yet to do anything to suggest they won’t follow through on that projection. H-SC leads the ODAC scoring offense (33.0), total offense (467.5 yards), scoring defense (13.7) and total defense (231.5).

H-SC also features the prolific duo of quarterback Nash Nance (148 of 233 for 1,729 yards, 12 touchdowns, eight interceptions) and the nation’s leader in receiving yards per game in Holton Walker (138 ypg, 828 yards total, 57 catches, seven touchdowns).

Nance threw for 287 yards and a touchdown and Walker had 146 yards on eight catches in last year’s 42-21 win over SU.

SU senior defensive back/linebacker Byron Mitchell said the Tigers are mostly going to feature empty-backfield sets after they’re done motioning — sometimes with four receivers on side of the formation — and the main focus is on trying to limit Nance and Walker as much as humanly possible. Mitchell said Nance will often throw to Walker when he’s on the backside of the formation.

“We have to make sure we have an eye on [Walker] all the time,” Mitchell said. “Our key focus is getting there in the backfield and knocking [Nance] off his game as best as we can.”

Yoder added defensive back Buddy Findley will see more snaps to help fortify the defense and will play linebacker or safety depending on what offensive set the Tigers are in. Bayvon Young will be matched up on Walker as much as possible, though Yoder said Walker moves around the formation too much for Young to be on him on every play.

Yoder is also impressed with the Tigers’ defense, which includes Sherando graduate and Tigers junior Scott Markland as the starting nose guard. Markland has 18 tackles, including four for loss.

“They’ve got a good linebacker crew, good defensive line, and they love to blitz,” Ferguson said.

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at  rniedzwiecki@winchesterstar.comFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1