Written by Chris Pendleton and Sean Dahlin
BUENA VISTA, Va.—As the Southern Virginia University football program heads into its tenth season, the Knights are optimistic that 2012 will be their finest year to date.
Armed with 12 returning starters and a solid incoming recruiting class, fourth-year Head Coach DeLane Fitzgerald, who has gone 11-22 (.333) during his first three seasons, is setting his sights on Southern Virginia football's second winning season.
"We have ten winnable games on our schedule," said Fitzgerald. "We've got to be mentally tough to win a few games on the road, and if we can be mentally tough enough to go on the road to win a few games we'll be just fine."
If Southern Virginia does finish above .500 in 2012, it will come five years after the Knights' inaugural winning season in 2007 when the team went 6-5, while setting nearly every offensive single-season record in program history with Fitzgerald as the team's offensive coordinator.
Coming off back-to-back 4-7 seasons, the 2012 installment of the Knights will look to its five senior captains—Steven Andreasen (Burley, Idaho), Dylan Hall (Redding, Calif.), Luke Herndon (Mechanicsville, Va.), Jeff Waldron (Costa Mesa, Calif.) and Robert Williams (Philadelphia, Pa)—for direction throughout the season.
In addition to these five senior captains, Southern Virginia is also returning four additional seniors—Dewayne Beamon (Eastern Wayne, N.C.), Brenton Estorffe (Mooloolaba, Australia), Brett Murray (Hollywood, Fla.) and Cameron Williams (Sacramento, Calif.). Fitzgerald believes that Southern Virginia's nine seniors will provide the team with stability and maturity during the upcoming season.
"We have a great group of seniors who have demonstrated leadership on and off the field," said Fitzgerald. "We'll look to them a lot this year for playmaking, as well as guidance for our younger players."
In 2012, Southern Virginia will return what, according to Fitzgerald, is possibly the most talented offensive team in school history. The Knights are fortunate enough to have their top quarterback back from last season—juniors-to-be Mitch Stevenson (Muskogee, Okla.).
Stevenson, who played quarterback in all 11 games for the Knights last year, was a key to the young team's success as the then-sophomore completed 52.6% of his passes (182-346-18) for 14 touchdowns and 2,084 total yards—the second most single-season yards in program history trailing only Luke Taylor's mark of 3,292 from the 2007 season. Fitzgerald will be looking for more consistency from Stevenson, however, as he also threw the most single-season interceptions (18) in program history during his first year as Southern Virginia's starting quarterback.
Despite last season's returning quarterback, Fitzgerald explained that the true strength of his offense next season may actually be at the running back position where the Knights return last year's first and second leading rushers, Jerry Washington (Gloucester, Va.) and Tod Workman (Queen Creek, Ariz.) respectively, while also adding Jamal Coates (Hickory, N.C.) at the fullback position.
Washington had a particularly stellar rookie campaign in Southern Virginia's backfield last season, leading the team with 906 rushing yards—second-most single-season rushing yards in program history—on 205 attempts, while also breaking the program's single-season record with 15 rushing touchdowns on route to becoming the program's first freshman to earn NAIA All-Independent Second Team honors.
"Even though he rushed for 900 yards last year, I don't think people realize how good Jerry Washington is or how good he can be," said Fitzgerald. "Jerry's going to have a big, big year for us at the tailback position."
Four of the Knights' five primary receiving threats from last season are also coming back for more fireworks in 2012. Slot receivers Chris Harper (Lynchburg, Va.) and Beamon, will pair with wideout C. Williams and tight end Waldron creating a formidable receiving core for the Knights.
C. Williams led last year's squad in receptions (35), receiving yards (506) and touchdowns (5), while Harper was the team's second-leading receiver with 28 catches for 335 yards and 2 touchdowns from the slot position. Beamon added 26 catches for 318 yards and 3 touchdowns and Waldron scored twice with 20 catches and 305 yards as Southern Virginia's fourth and fifth-leading receivers respectively.
"We expect another great season from our four returning receivers, but we're going to make a concerted effort to get Jeff [Waldron] the ball more," Fitzgerald explained. "Jeff is a tank and is talented enough at the tide end position to continue playing after college and our quarterbacks just didn't find him enough last season."
The Knights offensive line will be anchored by returning junior-to-be Tyler Condiff (Spring, Texas), who will get help from sophomores Stephen Jensen (Wake Forest, N.C.) and Jacob Lee (Mount Olive, N.C.), who are both returning to the program after a one-year hiatus.
In addition a solid group of offensive returners, Coach Fitzgerald is returning five of his eleven defensive starters from last season.
According to Fitzgerald, Southern Virginia's defense will be anchored by its two interior defensive linemen—Hall and Herndon—who are both captains this season and were a large part of the team's defensive production last season.
"In Dylan [Hall] and Luke [Herndon], we have two of the best defensive linemen in our program's history returning for their senior seasons," explained Fitzgerald. "I expect great years from both Dylan and Luke. I think that pair will give opposing offensive lines all they can handle season."
As a three-year starter, then-junior Herndon was a force in the Knights' front line last season finishing second on the team in total tackles (62) and earning 2011 NAIA All-Independent Second Team honors. Entering his senior campaign, Herndon already ranks second all-time in Southern Virginia football history in quarterback sacks (7.0), fourth all-time in tackles for loss (17.5) and fifth all-time in assisted tackles (55).
In the middle of the defense, Fitzgerald will move Dakoda Winsor (Richland, Wash.) from outside linebacker, where he played last season, to middle linebacker. Winsor has big shoes to fill as he'll replace Tommy Davidson (Paradise, Calif.), who last year set both Southern Virginia's single-season tackles record (133) and career tackles record (342) on route to becoming the Knights' first ever NAIA Independent Defensive Player of the Year.
Fitzgerald believes that Winsor can not only replace Davidson, but that he can also increase the overall speed of Southern Virginia's defense as the junior-to-be will also return kickoffs for the Knights again this season.
"Tommy [Davidson] was definitely one of the best players that has ever come through this program," said Fitzgerald. "We'll definitely miss him, but Kody [Winsor] will add speed and quickness to our middle linebacker position."
In last year's Nov. 11 season finale, Winsor's returning skills helped Southern Virginia pull out a thrilling 27-24 comeback victory at home over Ave Maria. After the Knights fell behind 10-0 to the winless Gyrenes mid-way through the second quarter, Winsor broke off a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and completely changed the game's momentum. Winsor's touchdown return was easily one of the most exciting plays of Southern Virginia's season, as well as the Knights' first kickoff return for a touchdown since 2004 and only the second in program history.
Winsor will be flanked in the defensive backfield by Andreason, who converted from running back to linebacker last season after the addition of Washington, and Robert Robbins (Glendale, Ariz.), who played for the Knights in 2008 and has recently returned from a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During his freshman season in 2008, Robbins recorded 48 total tackles (30 unassisted, 18 assisted) before leaving on his mission.
Fitzgerald will look to senior captain R. Williams—the Knights' top cover corner a season ago with 3 interceptions for a team-high 61 interception-return yards—to shut down opponent receivers and lead the Knights' secondary. Southern Virginia's coaching staff is also enthusiastic about the addition of Snow College transfer Jake Palmer who will help solidify the Knights' secondary at the free safety position.
"I expect us to be very solid on defense," stated Fitzgerald. "I expect us to play with gap integrity and run to the football."
The Knights are also experienced in the kicking game with both their kicker and punter—Murray and Estorffe—from last season returning after solid junior campaigns.
In the return game, Winsor will again return kickoffs and Andreason is in the lead to take the punt return duties, but will have to stave off the competition from teammates this fall.
"We are very excited for the upcoming season," said Fitzgerald. "We have a great group of guys, who perform with integrity in the classroom and on the field. I think that will translate into a very successful tenth year of Southern Virginia football."
Southern Virginia will open its 2012 football season on Thursday, Aug. 30 at Morehead State.