By Jim O'Hara
ROME -- The time has finally come.
Not since that inaugural football season in 2005 has a Shorter University football team experienced such a mind-set. Ahead of the 2012 Hawks is uncharted territory, one that no other team before them has experienced and one that they know can help Shorter make an immediate splash as one of the newest NCAA Division II programs.
This time, however, head coach Phil Jones sees a huge difference between that first historic squad and this year’s Hawks that he leads on the field Thursday night at 7 p.m. when Shorter heads to Buies Creek, N.C., to begin the new season against the Division I Football Championship Subdivision Campbell Fighting Camels. This time the Hawks are far from being fledglings. They know how to fly.
“Some of the challenges that first year were tougher,” Jones, who has been at the helm of the Hawks since the program began and quickly took the team into the NAIA spotlight, said as Shorter begins its first Division II season as a member of the tough Gulf South Conference.
“We didn’t have anything when we started the team,” the coach went on to say, “and didn’t have the team come together until that first day of preseason practice, and then they had to start playing immediately. This time the challenge we have is to step up as better players and as a better team.”
The Hawks face off against the Camels – Campbell restarted football in 2008 after a 50-plus year absence and is one of two Division I FCS foes on SU’s schedule – having already proven they have some good players who have the experience and talent to make that step. Even better, is that the entire team has established a solid relationship bond, from savvy veterans to those who are getting their first shot at continuing Shorter’s winning ways.
“It’s coming together,” Jones said. “Defensively, we’re proud of what (first-year defensive coordinator Nathan) Burton and his staff have done, and our offense has become a tight group that motivates each other.”
When they line up on the defensive side of the ball, the Hawks will look to several well-tested veterans to set the tone for the unit that has embraced being under the wing of Burton.
Back to serve as the keystone of Shorter’s defense are a pair linebackers who could emerge as two of the best D-II players at the position – senior Demery Hawkins, an NAIA All-American last year, and sophomore Dominique Henfield, named the Freshman Defensive Player of the Year in the Mid-South Conference that Shorter once belonged to.
Behind them in the secondary are more experienced Hawks that include seniors Desmond Clark and Mason Strickland, and juniors Michael Peeples and Austin Ingram, while senior Jamal Denson returns at defensive end to head up Shorter’s defensive front.
When Shorter has the ball, the Hawks will be looking at some new faces in the lineup alongside some key returners.
Senior center Steven Powell, who anchors and will lead a new group of offensive linemen, will once again initiate Shorter’s offense with the snap of the ball. New quarterback, sophomore Eric Dodson, who saw some action last year will now make his first highly-anticipated start and has the making to be one of the most versatile signal-callers ever for the Hawks.
Behind Dodson will be newcomers to the fullback slot, with senior T.J. Telfair getting his first start on Thursday and sophomore Bradley Moon also expecting to get the ball. Moon makes the change to fullback after being a slotback last year, a move the Hawks could afford as Shorter has three veterans at the position who complement Shorter’s run-oriented attack – senior Caleb Collins and juniors Brandon Morten and Roderick Jones.
Even Shorter’s kicking game has an old-new combination that works as junior kicker Troy Postell is back to handle placements and sophomore Aaron Mize returns to his punting duties. The reyurn game willbe anchored by the duo of Morten and Jones.
“I think our guys enjoy the challenge of it and having the opportunity to excel,” Jones said. “They’ve been working very hard for this game.”
The Hawks, however, are aware that even harder work is needed against the Camels, a rare non-scholarship Div. I FCS program that will be playing under the lights at Barker-Lane Stadium and opening the season fresh from recording its first winning season (6-5) last year.
Located just south of Raleigh, Campbell competes in the Pioneer Football League – the PFL will have an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs this year – and returns some key cogs from 2011.
The Camels and head coach Dale Steele, who has directed the team since 2008, will be led by senior quarterback Braden Smith, who transferred to Campbell from Southern Methodist last year and immediately produced setting school records with 1,965 passing yards and 14 touchdowns.
Still, Campbell may be more deadly running the ball as the Camels led the PFL in rushing for the last two years averaging 210 yards a game.
Stopping the run was a bright spot for Campbell in 2011, holding foes to just 140 yards an outing but they gave up nearly 300 yards through the air, a figure the Camels are determined to diminish thanks to the return of two preseason all-league picks – senior defensive backs Brandon Chandler, a second-team all-PFL performer last season when he had 50 tackles with two interceptions, and Steth Monroe.
“After you study them and see what they do,” Jones said about Campbell, “you recognize how well they are coached. They appear very organized and operate efficiently. It’s going to be a challenge for us.”