WINCHESTER — Shenandoah University’s defensive secondary, from a statistical standpoint, was at the same time one of the best and one of the worst in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference during the 2018 college football season.
On the one hand, the Hornets continued their tradition of being one of the ODAC’s leaders in interceptions. They snagged 16 picks in 2018, finishing second for the second straight year after intercepting 14 passes in 2017.
In each of the last two seasons a Hornet has claimed at least a share of the ODAC lead in interceptions; Daquan Pridget tied for the league’s top mark last season with seven picks, and Nate Hill’s six interceptions led the league the year before.
Since 2015, no ODAC team has more interceptions than the Hornets, whose 58 picks are seven more than anyone else in the conference.
And yet in 2018, SU also gave up 279.5 yards passing per game, a total that ranked 244th nationally out of 247 NCAA Division III teams.
“While it’s important to get your hands on the ball, you can’t win ballgames when you’re giving up yards like that,” Hornets senior safety T.J. Heflin said on Sunday. “We do take that to heart and that’s one of our goals this season, is to drastically drop that number and be the best in the ODAC when comes to passing yards.”
Experience in the secondary, which enters its second season under defensive backs coach Byron Mitchell, could help the Hornets do that.
Four players who started at least eight games last season return to the defensive backfield, a list that includes senior safeties Hill and Heflin and junior cornerbacks Pridget and Mike Amobi, who became regular starters at that position for the first time last fall. Hill, Heflin and Pridget were major players in Shenandoah’s secondary in 2017, a year in which the Hornets ranked second in the ODAC in pass defense.
Hill, who appealed to the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility (he missed 2016 with an injury) and was granted it earlier this week, has 110 tackles, 11 interceptions and 22 pass breakups over the past two seasons. He was a third team All-ODAC pick as a sophomore in 2017.
Heflin, whom defensive coordinator Brock McCullough called a “box safety” who plays more like a linebacker, has posted 110 tackles in the last two seasons, and he registered three tackles for loss, an interception and four passes defended in 2018.
Pridget started three games at safety as a freshman in 2017 and started all 10 games at cornerback last fall, netting third team all-conference honors after recording 54 tackles, seven interceptions and 16 pass breakups — also an ODAC-high — in 2018.
Amobi (45 tackles last season) made eight starts as a sophomore in 2018 , received high praise from McCullough for his play during a scrimmage against Stevenson University and Catholic University last week.
McCullough added that a pair of Winchester natives — freshman cornerback Treyven Mendel (James Wood High School) and sophomore Trammel Anthony (Millbrook), a converted receiver who will play corner, safety and linebacker this season — have worked their way onto the two-deep in the secondary.
“If there’s one thing in the last two years we’ve been elite at it’s turning people over, as far as interceptions, fumbles. … Now we need to figure out how to eliminate big plays, yardage and stuff like that,” McCullough said of the defensive backfield. “... It just allows you to do so many other things when you have some guys you trust.”
Eliminating those big plays — Shenandoah allowed 8.24 yards per pass attempt and 6.3 yards per play in 2018 — partly comes down to tackling. SU has addressed that need by bringing in former player Jake Shaffer as an assistant coach this season, with his role being that of tackling coordinator.
McCullough said he expects Shenandoah’s trend of hauling in interceptions to continue — four of the five players who snagged a pick last season are back this year — and Pridget said he anticipates the Hornets to have plenty of chances to do so in the offense-heavy ODAC.
“Teams are like, ‘We can throw on them’ because we gave up the most yards,” Pridget said. “We’re gonna get tested no matter how many turnovers we got last year.”
Shenandoah, whose high-powered offense turned more than a few games into shootouts last season, saw opponents attempt 339 passes against its defense. Only Randolph-Macon, which played two more games than SU and led the league with 17 interceptions, saw more pass attempts against it.
“It’s not necessarily hard,” Amobi said of playing in conference that features its share of pass-happy offenses, “because the team that we have, we practice against one of the best offenses every single day. They give us good competition. As a corner going against [SU receivers] Casey Stewart and Brant Butler, you get a lot of work. And they push you to be the best that you can be.
"And also, we’re getting older and this is becoming a lifestyle, playing in front of all these fans, winning clutch moments and stuff like that. Our experience has made us develop into a more confident corps. No, there’s no pressure. We’re always ready to go. Defense is never scared of any opponents.”