Now, the Hawks hope they can take things to a new level.
The team reported Wednesday to begin a new season in which they will embrace the new challenge of putting the SU program on the NCAA Division II map.
And when the Shorter players take the field for their first practice today at Ben Brady Field, they will do so with much anticipation — much like their first season of football.
“We’re excited about it as we were in 2005 (when the program started),” Shorter head coach Phil Jones.
When asked about how the Hawks’ venture into their first full season on the Division II level mirrors what the program faced in its inaugural season.
“It’s another challenge, another step,” he said. “Yes, we know it will be tough and it will be a challenge for us.”
He noted that the Hawks’ first NCAA schedule includes their first season competing as a member in the traditionally tough Gulf South Conference. “But the players are excited about it. It’ll take people who want to make something happen.
“I guess, in a way we are pioneers,” said Jones. “We’re going to approach it in a positive way. It is an exciting time.”
Shorter opens the new season with a Thursday night game on Aug. 30 in Buies Creek, N.C., against Division I Football Championship Series member Campbell.
Jones and the Shorter coaching staff are well aware that the new tests ahead of the team will include new challenges for new faces as the Hawks will be missing 20 veterans from the 2011 squad that closed out the seven-year run of competition in the NAIA with a 6-4 record.
“There are a lot of holes to fill,” Jones remarked, “but we have a lot of good players coming back. They’ve all done the best job in the weight room we’ve ever had and did a great job during spring drills. They’re all very dedicated.”
When the Hawks gather on Ben Brady Field on Thursday, there’s little doubt that the Hawks will be looking for some new weaponry for their offensive attack, especially in the backfield where a void exists with the departure of four starters who combined at quarterback and fullback to account for more than 2,000 total offensive yards and 17 TDs last year.
Also of preseason importance for the Hawks is creating a new front along the offensive line that lost four starters – including a three-time All-Conference award winner – to graduation.
Still, the Hawks are optimistic about what lies ahead thanks to a core of veterans ready to step in. Taking over behind center this season will be sophomore Eric Dodson, a high-touted quarterback from Thomasville, who as a freshman last year made a quick adjustment to the college level and has the potential to become the most versatile signal-caller Shorter has ever had.
“He got some good experience last year,” Jones said of speedy and elusive Dodson, who saw action in five games in 2011and rushed for 50 yards and a pair of touchdowns. “He’s got a lot of ability and is a very intelligent, and he’s the fastest quarterback we’ve had.”
“He worked as hard in the weight room to improve himself physically as anyone on the team,” Jones went on to say. “I think Eric will have a good year. We’ve never had a threat to run and throw as Eric does. He can do it – we just have to see if it happens.”
Experience and youth will combine to take over the chores at fullback, a position that is the cornerstone of the Hawks’ vaunted option run game. The offense ranked as one of the top ground offensives in the nation last year when Shorter averaged just under 300 yards a game.
Ready to eat up the yards will be senior fullback T.J. Telfair of Savannah, who played in five games last fall. “He’s strong and has the experience to do the job,” lauded Jones of the 5-foot-10, 220-pounder.
Two true freshmen may give the Hawks some immediate help at fullback as the SU coaching staff will be giving extended looks at veterans of the same option offense who were successful on the high school level – Coffee County product Tony Clark of Douglas and Zac Rovig of Cautala who prepped at Harris County.
“I feel good about our recruiting class,” Jones said about the Hawks’ first Division II recruiting class. “I think we have some guys coming in who can make some noise.”
In the trenches, the lone starter returning comes back to literally be the heart of the line is senior center Steven Powell (6-0, 240). The native of Thomasville is back to provide the snaps, but he already has a strong bond with a group of lettermen who played in reserve roles last season and are set to get their starts. Seniors Josh Clements (6-3, 245) of Oak Grove, Ala., and Michael Ozment (6-0, 230) of Silver Creek have already proven themselves on the field; redshirt sophomores Ben Peterson (5-11, 260) of Marietta and Kendall Dials (6-1, 250) of Powder Springs are in the hunt for playing time; along with redshirt freshmen Chris Beano (6-0, 270) of Newnan and Ryan Robinson (6-2, 250) of Waco. The coaching staff will also be looking to build the depth up front from a number of other players who are already familiar with the program, as well as some newcomers who join the team, such as freshman Tavious Bridges (6-2, 300) of Belle Glades, Fla.
For added measure, the Hawks have the services of senior Quay Boddie (6-0, 220) of LaGrange at tight end, where he has seen considerable action for the last two years.
“We’ve traditionally been smaller than a lot of teams we play. But we’re based on the offense we run, so we’re quicker up front,” said Jones. “They are a really, really committed group. We’re just concerned about experience. Some of them haven’t had a lot of snaps.”
What is a plus for the offense is a group of slotbacks who put up strong numbers in 2011. Redshirt junior Roderick Jones of Hinesville returns after rushing for 400 yards (11.8 per carry) and two touchdowns last year, while senior Brandon Morton of Brunswick is back after running for over 200 yards in 2011. Adding even more depth at the position will be veterans senior Caleb Collins of Savannah and junior Bradley Moon of Conyers.
“They’re all solid players,” Jones said of the players who have multiple offensive roles for Shorter. “We just have to keep them healthy.”
At wide receiver, the Hawks welcome back senior Kareem Hawkins of Dalton (99 receiving yards and a TD catch in 2011) and junior Gary Tiller of Lawrenceville as the top of what Jones believes is a talented and deep receiving corps.
“As a group,” said Jones, “they’re probably the most talented group we’ve ever had.”
“One thing that can help us is having a different offense that teams don’t see a lot,” Jones pointed out about how Shorter’s run-option offense will fare in the Division II ranks. “They try to formulate a plan to defend against it, but it’s still new to them.”
What’s new for Shorter on the defensive side of the ball is the arrival of first-year defensive coordinator Nathan Burton, who brings to the table multiple looks for a seasoned Hawks defense to use.
Making the transition a smooth one will be the return of two of the NAIA’s top inside linebackers who can make some noise in the NCAA this season – senior Demery Hawkins (6-1, 240) of Lyons and sophomore Dominque Henfield (6-3, 230) of Savannah.
In his first season last year, Hawkins earned NAIA All-American and Mid-South Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors after averaging 11 tackles a game and racking up 2.5 sacks. Henfield’s debut at Shorter was just as impressive as he was right behind Hawkins with 78 total tackles on the way to being named the Mid-South Conference Defensive Freshman of the Year.
“They are probably the greatest strengths we have on defense,” Jones said of the pair of backers, adding that junior Josh White of Calhoun is back from injuries, reminding that he was a starter as a freshman.
Experience is also seen in the Hawks’ secondary, notably at safety with the return of seniors Desmond Clark of Rome and Eric Stallworth of Kennesaw, both who were honorable mention all-conference selections last year when Clark posted 54 tackles and had returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown and Stallworth had 46 tackles and a pair of picks. Expected to help give the position some young depth are a pair of freshmen who will get a preseason look, former Rome High standout Jordon McClure and Santavious Bryant from Wheeler High in Marietta.
Experience and depth gives SU a strong point at cornerback. Junior Michael Peeples of Mableton is back after leading the team with three interceptions last year (one returned for a TD); junior Austin Ingram of Senoia, who stood his ground with 27 tackles; senior Mason Strickland of Calhoun, who made 25 stops a year ago and has the versatility to also play safety; and redshirt freshman Wesley Clay of Royston.
There is clearly plenty of experience and talent at outside linebacker for the Hawks when they start the new season. Leading the way is a group of proven players in redshirt junior Zach Mann of Fayetteville (28 tackles in 2011); junior Jake Thompson of Leesburg, who moved from safety to OLB last fall and made an immediate impact; and sophomore Kedron Aker of Calhoun, who in his first season at SU had 20 tackles.
Given the task of defending the end of the line will be the prime duty of four players who have been tested in battle. Senior defensive end Jamal Denson (6-1, 240) of Tifton returns after registering 29 tackles last year; senior Richard Hyde (6-4, 215) of Cartersville rolled up 18 stops in 2011; sophomore Logan Masley (6-3, 240) of Calhoun got some needed playing time on the field a year ago; and senior Tabias Walker (6-0, 275) of Tifton rejoins the Hawks after sitting out last year and is eager to regain the form he had in 2010 when he recorded 33 tackles, six of those for losses.
Back to anchor the defensive front will be sophomore Damien Riden (6-0, 310) of Carnesville, who was an all-conference pick last year after 53-tackle season, while senior Kyle Farmer (5-10, 240) of Chickamauga, junior Nate Newborn (5-11, 305) of Cartersville, and redshirt sophomore K-Sun Manzano (5-11, 285) of Alabaster are back after seeing action in 2011.
The special teams benefit with the return of junior placekicker Troy Postell of Powder Springs, who hit four of six field goals (his longest going 45 yards) and nailed 21 of 22 extra points last fall, and sophomore punter Aaron Mize of Chickamauga, who averaged nearly 39 yards a boot.
Though Jones knows that there are new challenges ahead for the Hawks, what gives him plenty of optimism is the core essential the program still lives by – relationships.
“That’s the essence of it all – our relationship first and foremost with the Lord and our relationship with one another,” Jones said. “It’s our framework and our foundation. That’s who we are.”