WINCHESTER — Shenandoah University offensive coordinator Stan Hodgin said he’s stood in front of the entire Hornets squad multiple times and identified the offensive line as the most important component of the team.
That’s quite a title for a position group that, outside of the quarterback spot, has been the most severely impacted by roster turnover as the Hornets prepare for the start of the 2019 season.
Four offensive linemen who started at least eight games for SU last season are no longer with the program, a list that includes Andrew Coffman, Jonathan Grammo and Caleb Hutson, a trio of interior linemen who graduated after combining for 95 collegiate starts.
Luckily for the Hornets, they do return a pair of seniors in Michael Davidson and Daniel Small who not only have extensive playing experience but also have embraced the leadership roles that SU lost to graduation.
“There is a loss of leadership, so guys like me and Daniel Small have to step up,” Davidson said Aug. 29. “We’re seniors, we’ve played before, kind of mentor those guys. It is big to lose those guys. It’s more challenging this year for, say me, who last year was stepping up between those 100-plus start guys, and them guiding me to now me having to guide other people. It’s an interesting role change but I embrace it. I love doing it and I love being around the guys.”
Davidson, listed at 5-foot-10, 220 pounds, made five starts as a junior last season and has played all over the offensive line, primarily seeing action at center and offensive tackle.
Small, who is anything but that at 6-foot-5, 280 pounds, is the most experienced of the two after making seven starts at right tackle in 2018.
No one else projected to start the season on the two-deep on the offensive line has made a collegiate start, though Hodgin said players like junior Zach Hirmer, sophomore Zach Morris, Chuck Frizzelle (in 2017) and junior Tyler Deal have seen playing time in past seasons, whether that be on the O-line or in a special teams role.
“Most importantly, we made it through the hardest part, which is camp, pretty much getting everyone mentally tough,” Small said of the progress of the offensive line. “Me, I’ve been trying to just make sure I’m a good leader and role model for these guys because I’m the one that has the most experience on the line, so pretty much just making sure that we do the little things right … because it’s all about building good habits. That’s my biggest thing. And also making sure we protect who’s behind us. … As coach likes to say, as long as we show up ready to play, usually good things happen because we’re half the offense. If we’re locked in and loaded, good things usually follow.”
The pressure is on Shenandoah’s offensive line to reload and withstand the challenge that awaits it in 2019.
The Hornets entered preseason camp needing to find a replacement for former four-year starting quarterback Hayden Bauserman, and SU had yet to name a Game 1 starter — the competition had been whittled down to Ben Agostino and Ben Rhodenizer — heading into last Saturday’s scrimmage against Gettysburg College.
An O-line that will be breaking in three new starters itself also faces the challenge of helping whoever wins that QB job into his new role. Shenandoah’s offensive line in 2018 surrendered just seven sacks on Bauserman's 555 pass attempts.
“They know what they’re doing but our main job is to keep them upright, give them the easiest decision they have to make,” Davidson said of the quarterbacks. “We want to make sure there’s nobody in their face. Whether that’s me as the center communicating pass protection or telling them run plays, checking the plays, telling them to check out of even fronts, odd fronts, it really doesn’t matter as long as those guys are protected, feel comfortable. That’s our biggest priority, is protecting them, making them have an easy day in the backfield.”
While Small’s spot at right tackle is solidified, the rest of Shenandoah’s starting offensive line didn’t yet appear to be set in stone last Thursday.
Davidson said that while he primarily played center in preseason camp, he’ll also see time at tackle.
Hodgin said Hirmer (5-11, 250), who has been playing next to Small at right guard, has had a good camp and is a player that, despite not having any starts under his belt, has a significant amount of game experience. Hodgin added that Morris (6-2, 300) has looked good at the other guard spot, and from there that’s where the offensive line starts delving into its younger and/or inexperienced members.
Evan Couch, a 6-4, 245-pound freshman, played well as an offensive tackle in camp, Hodgin said, and Hodgin added names like freshman Xavier Wright (a 6-2, 240-pound guard), Deal (6-3, 295), Frizzelle (center/guard, 6-0, 240) and freshman guard Vaughn Bolden (6-3, 250).
“Our first goal for that position group is ultimately you’ve got to get five guys working in unison, as a unit of one,” Hodgin said. “And so developing that cohesion, that relationship, where they learn to trust the guy to their right and their left, who they have had very limited snaps with. I think we’re on the right track in developing that. I like where we are with that.”
While Shenandoah’s backfield is experienced — the Hornets’ top two rushers, Rashadeen Byrd Jr. (581 yards, six touchdowns) and Mario Wisdom (377, five TDs), from 2018 are back — SU ranked sixth (out of eight teams) in the ODAC in average yards per carry in 2018 (4.3) and fifth (out of seven teams) in 2017 (3.8).
Shenandoah also leaned heavily toward the passing game the past two seasons, nearing a 70 percent pass rate both years, and that figures to change with Bauserman no longer taking the snaps.
Small said posting better numbers in the run game should be a byproduct of what he considers three pillars for SU’s offensive linemen: improvement, execution and work ethic in the weight room.
“Everyone can benefit from the weight room, everyone can benefit from execution,” Small said. “We look back on things last year, there were things where maybe if we would’ve held this block a little longer it would’ve cut up for maybe two more yards, and that two more yards get us a first down, things like that.
"And then also just having a nasty aspect about it. That’s what it always comes down to. If you make a mistake, as long as you’re going 100 miles an hour, being a little bit nasty, we can work with that, rather than trying to just give a soft shoulder or be a little bit more timid when it comes to making a play. That’s what usually gets those missed assignments, and that’s when the whole offense suffers.”
“Really it comes down to a mindset — you’ve got to be nastier than the person across from you,” Davidson said. “We pride ourselves on being the nastiest O-line in the nation. We love the nasty. We embrace it. It’s just a mindset of turning that switch on, never turning it off and just going at your opponent with everything you have every play.”