WINCHESTER — Shenandoah University’s all-time leader in every major passing category is no longer throwing them the football, but the Hornets’ crop of receivers should still factor prominently in SU’s offense in 2019.
That’s hardly going out on a limb, considering the Hornets’ level of talent at the position.
Four players who caught at least 29 passes in 2018 are back this season, a list that includes 6-foot-4 senior Casey Stewart (54 receptions for 859 yards, 15 touchdowns), juniors Jake Wallace (63 for 687, five TDs) and Brant Butler (29 for 393, two touchdowns) and sophomore Ethan Bigbee (38 for 381, six TDs).
The graduation of four-year starter Hayden Bauserman, who led Division III in passing yards per game during the regular season in 2017 and 2018, left some uncertainty at the quarterback position, and SU entered the preseason with a three-man competition for the starting job. (That competition has since been whittled down to Ben Agostino and Ben Rhodenizer, and head coach Scott Yoder has yet to announce who will start against North Carolina Wesleyan next weekend, which will be SU’s season opener after Saturday’s home game against Methodist was canceled due to Hurricane Dorian.)
Hornets offensive coordinator Stan Hodgin said last week that the offense, no matter who is quarterbacking it, needs to be able to show it can still attack the area of the field that runs from sideline to sideline and 30 yards downfield and maximize the value of Shenandoah's receivers.
“Our stable of receivers is probably our most veteran position group,” Hodgin said. “It’s certainly a very productive position group, and we’ve got to make sure that we get out of them all that they have to offer.”
SU’s receiving corps has tremendous potential value from a production standpoint. Stewart’s 15 touchdowns last season tied for seventh nationally, and his 859 receiving yards and 15.9 yards per reception ranked second in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference; Wallace ranked third in the ODAC in receptions and fourth in receiving yards, and he had 14 catches for 195 yards and three touchdowns in a Week 3 loss to Hobart in 2018; and Bigbee, who also had 14 receptions in a game last year to match SU’s single-game record, tied for fifth in the conference in TD catches.
But perhaps just as valuable as the on-field production is that group’s presence in the offense. SU’s experienced receivers should be a source of comfort for a first-year starting quarterback throwing meaningful college passes for the first time.
“Our outside guys, for the most part, are long, they’ve got good length, but experience and just football IQ and understanding how to create separation,” Hodgin said. “For a young quarterback throwing into a very tight window, that can not always bring positive results, but our receivers are doing a nice job of increasing their ability to create separation, which creates much bigger windows for a quarterback. So now our margin of error is much larger. For … a first-year starter that’s not as experienced, it could certainly have a positive impact.”
Wallace, who said SU’s receiving corps is one of the best — if not the best — in the ODAC this season, said the receivers, particularly the older ones, have done what they can to ease the quarterbacks into their newer, expanded roles.
“Things that we’ve noticed in the past, maybe with Hayden before, if we see something in a game and they don’t see it, just going up to them right after the play and saying ‘Hey, I saw this, maybe look for this next time,’" Wallace said. "It’s just making sure you’re on the same page mentally and physically when you’re running routes.”
Wallace added that another of the veteran receivers’ primary focuses during the preseason was getting the young receivers up to speed. There are a lot of them — Shenandoah heads into the weekend with 24 receivers on its roster, 17 of which are freshmen.
With a handful of veteran receivers holding down the starting spots — Stewart and Butler (6-foot-2) on the outside, Wallace and Bigbee, whom Hodgin said has “really blossomed” as a slot receiver, on the interior — and Hodgin anticipating SU’s offense to return to a more balanced attack in 2019 after nearing 70 percent pass each of the past two seasons, there may not be many receptions available for the Hornets’ less established pass catchers.
Hodgin mentioned Nicholas Rauchwarg, a 6-foot-2 sophomore from Williamsburg, as one of SU’s lesser-known returnees who could emerge and take on a larger role in the receiving corps this season.
“I think he has benefited from a spring [practice] and now in his second season is playing a little bit faster, has a much better grasp of what we’re asking our receivers to do,” Hodgin said. “He’s an athletic, productive-type player.”
Shenandoah also hopes to use a tight end/H-back as another pass catcher in the offense this season, a position that hasn’t been a big part of SU’s game plan the past two seasons. Hodgin said junior Jack Massie has moved from linebacker to tight end and raved about his play in the preseason.
“He’s flourished in his new role,” Hodgin said. “I think he’s embracing it. Just a high-character guy that will certainly be a benefit of any group or any organization he’s ever a part of.”
Hodgin added that freshman Mac Padgett has a bright future as a tight end/H-back.
As good as Shenandoah’s pass catchers have been in the last two seasons, Stewart said the Hornets can always be better.
“It’s not so much the big things like routes or anything like that, it’s the small things like foot-firing at the line of scrimmage against press coverage, stacking a defender once you beat him deep so that way you have the leverage and he can’t get over top of you,” said Stewart, a first team All-ODAC selection last season. “High-pointing the ball is kind of a big thing for us that we hit on a lot, and being able to read a defense — zone, man. We’ve always been, I think, one of the best receiving corps the past couple years, but there’s always things you can work on, and the things that you’re really good at, you’re never too good at, so you can always elevate your game in that. For the things we do good, we’re looking at doing great. For the things we do great, we’re looking to do perfect.”