Written by Sean Dahlin
BUENA VISTA, Va.—Coming off a 5-6 2012 season, the Southern Virginia University football team recently capped a self-improving five-week spring campaign beginning on Mon., Mar. 18, through Fri., Apr. 19.
"I'm very pleased with the way our entire team improved this spring," said fifth-year Head Coach DeLane Fitzgerald. "I'm excited to go to battle in the fall with one of the best core groups of scholar-athletes I have coached."
In conjunction with the team's motto of "Family, Focus, Finish," Fitzgerald challenged his squad to look after each other, focus on the task-at-hand and finish everything in order to attain the ultimate goal of winning as a unit.
"Each of our players has larger priorities in life other than football such as family, faith and academics for example," said Fitzgerald. "For those few hours a day we worked together as a unit this spring, however, we made marked improvement in our ability to focus and finish."
At the end of spring practice, Fitzgerald announced the captains for this upcoming fall as well—seniors-to-be Jake Palmer (Highland, Utah) and Dakoda Winsor (Richland, Wash.) along with juniors-to-be Jamal Coates (Conover, N.C.) and Robert Robbins (Glendale, Ariz.).
Coach Fitzgerald mentioned that with newly-appointed offensive coordinator Tye Hiatt, who was promoted in March, the offense's emphasis is consistency.
Three of the Knights' top four rushers from the fall—Coates, Jerry Washington (Gloucester, Va.) and Tod Workman (Springerville, Ariz.)—returned in the spring as standouts in the running game while also battling for time on the field next season.
Recently-elected co-captain Coates led Southern Virginia in 2012 with a team-high 402 yards on the ground and three touchdowns plus seven receptions for 41 yards.
Washington, a 2011 NAIA All-Independent Second Team selection, rushed for 295 yards and a touchdown while grabbing eight passes for 30 yards through the air before being hampered with injuries midway through the year. Workman added 184 yards and a score through nine contests in the backfield.
"Our running backs had a great spring and will be a significant part of our offensive scheme," said Fitzgerald.
For the first time in Fitzgerald's seven-plus years at Southern Virginia, all five starting offensive linemen from 2012 have returned this spring.
Anchored by senior-to-be Tyler Condiff (Spring, Texas), Jake Behan (Carterville, Ill.), Jonathan Curtis (Appomattox, Va.), Stephen Jensen (Wake Forest, N.C.) and Tyler Mysyk (Alberta, Calgary) bring a wealth of experience on the offensive line.
"We're excited to be bringing back five solid offensive linemen," said Fitzgerald. "Their experience playing together last fall and in the spring puts us strides ahead of where we were at this point last year."
According to Fitzgerald, there will be a battle for the starting quarterback position in the fall between returners, newcomers and incoming recruits.
In 2012, Eisenhauer completed 12-of-23 passes for 165 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and a 132.4 efficiency rating.
Junior-to-be Michael Goering (Agency, Iowa) made his presence known this spring at wide out, looking to be a primary target for Southern Virginia quarterbacks next season. Newcomer Kenyatta Ruai (Salt Lake City, Utah) showed promising skills at receiver as well.
Hoping to build upon the 2012 record-breaking defense,—setting marks in points allowed per-game (24.7) and pass break-ups (46)—Coach Fitzgerald and his coaching staff are strongly encouraged with the returners on defense.
"This core group of defensive returners has the potential to lead us to an even better year than last season," said Fitzgerald.
According to Fitzgerald, Southern Virginia's defense will be anchored by its linebackers—junior-to-be Colter Evans (Wayan, Idaho), Robbins and Winsor—who were the first, second and fourth leading tacklers in 2012.
Upon returning from a two-year mission, Robbins recorded a team-leading 100 tackles (44 solo, 56 assisted) for the fourth-most single-season tackles in program history last year while Evans, who moved from safety to outside linebacker midseason, finished with 69 total tackles and 2.5 tackles-for-loss.
At middle linebacker, Winsor—fourth in program history with 189 career tackles—finished second on the squad with 86 tackles (43 solo, 43 assisted), 6.5 tackles-for-loss, two interceptions and led the Knights with 470 kick return yards in his junior campaign.
"Dakoda, Robert and Colter have the potential to be one of the top linebacking corps in school history after everything's said and done," said Fitzgerald. "They were leaders this spring and made improvements in the weight room and on-the-field."
The Knights' defensive secondary returns starting safeties Jake Palmer (Highland, Utah) and Matt Gregory (Staunton, Va.), who both led the team with two interceptions apiece and were the third and eighth leading tacklers last season respectively.
"Jake had a solid spring and we expect him to be a leader on-the-field as one of our captains," said Fitzgerald. "After a pleasantly surprising sophomore season, Matt showed marked improvement this spring. We're excited to see what he does in the fall."
At the cornerback position, returning junior-to-be Jacob Evans (Wayan, Idaho) along with newcomers Trevor Campbell (Staunton, Va.) and Jonathan Barrett (Richmond, Va.) will fight for playing time according to Fitzgerald.
Southern Virginia's defensive line returns Matt Strickland (Manassas, Va.), who has recovered from an injury that sidelined him last year.
This spring also brought a few new faces to the program, an exciting topic for the coaching staff.
One such example is Keaton Epps, a transfer from Snow College, who joined the Knights' at defensive end, will be looking to wreak havoc on opposing offensive backfields.
"Keaton brings great athleticism to the team and will also help us on special teams at long snapper," said Fitzgerald.
Another encouraging newcomer is kicker Davis Cragan (Layton, Utah), who according to Fitzgerald performed well this spring.
"Davis has a strong leg and learned our kicking game philosophy quickly. He executed the necessary kicks in our varying formations," said Fitzgerald.
The provisional NCAA Division III member Southern Virginia is also preparing to enter the New Jersey Athletic Conference as a football-member only effective July 2014. Coach Fitzgerald is excited to join the NJAC. His focus, however, is on the task-at-hand.
"It's a great time to be a part of the Southern Virginia football program as we prepare to enter the NJAC and move fulltime into NCAA DIII," said Fitzgerald. "But, right now, we're focused on doing all we can for what we hope to be the most successful season in program history."