FERRUM — A schedule that’s unique to just this year has Ferrum College’s football team waiting until Saturday, September 14 to play a game in which the result counts on its ledger.
The opponent in that first game is a foe the Panthers routed 81-0 last year: Greensboro (North Carolina) College.
Nine weeks of regular-season football with no off weeks in between will follow.
The Panthers begin Rob Grande’s fourth year as the Panthers’ head coach with the visit to Jamieson Stadium to play the Pride. A sophomore campaign in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) begins at home on September 28 against reigning league champion Randolph-Macon College, which advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs last season.
“With a good corps of upperclassmen back, I’ve got a good handle on what we have, and I’ve been able to evaluate the newcomers,’’ said Grande, who is 19-11 as Ferrum’s sideline boss.
Defensively, the Panthers are moving from a 4-3 base to the 3-4. There is good, veteran depth at linebacker with seniors and juniors, Grande said, adding that “there is a mix people who have played a lot of football for us.’’
Also, there are seniors and juniors in the secondary “who have played a lot’’ too, Grande said. There is good youth there as well.
“There are some good young players (in the secondary) who will push the guys who have been here. We’ve got nine or 10 first-year safeties and corners to go along with the veterans. There are seven freshmen inside linebackers and two on the outside,’’ Grande said.
“We moved to the 3-4 some last year and we’ve been running it all spring,’’ Grande said. “Our strength is in our numbers at linebacker...Moving forward, our personnel drove us to be more of a 3-4 defense. If you’ve got the players, you want to play them on the field.
The 3-4 is going to be our staple and we’ll get into even fronts from that. “It’s a flip of the script from years past.
The return of senior quarterback Zack Clifford, a third-year starter behind center, a record-setting running back Brian Mann, a senior, are the positives on the offensive side of the football.
Clifford has thrown for almost 3,500 yards in two seasons and Mann is 386 yards shy of the 5,000 mark for his career. He’ll likely exceed 6,000 yards by the time he’s finished baring unforeseen circumstances.
Mann, a second-team All-American as a junior and preseason All-American this fall, seeks to break the program’s single-season rushing standard for the fourth time.
In each of the last four years, from David Harper’s last year as head coach to Grande’s first three, Ferrum has had a rusher to surpass the 1,400-yard mark. A year ago, Mann led the ODAC in rushing as he posted the league’s fifth-best single-season total and he also was ranked nationally in NCAA Division III in a number of categories.
“Having Brian back for his senior year is huge. He’s the straw that stirs the drink (on the offensive side of the ball). He’s had a terrific career. He’s healthy and read to go,’’ Grande said.”He’s excited about his senior season.
“With him graduating, it was a priority for us to bring in some quality players (at running back),’’ Grande said. “...Brian is a special talent and what we want to do on offense is run the ball. We’ve got some good young ones here. They understand who Brian is and how they can learn from him and get ready (to play in the future).
“We want to develop them this year, give Brian some opportunities to stay fresh for then long run and prepare them for the future after he graduates,’’ Grande said.
“We want to (recruit) competitive kids who want to play and who are not afraid of who is already here,’’ Grande said.
Clifford led Glenvar, which is coached by his father to a state championship as a prep junior. His younger brother plays at the University of Virginia.
“Zack is at the top of the food chain...His playing experience weighs heavily on his ability to run the offense,’’ Grande said.
With a senior and sophomore quarterback in reserve, there are multiple freshmen who will provide depth and competition, Grande said.
Up front, Jordan Patti returns. He ranks as one of the best lineman in the ODAC.
“A lot goes into mixing all the parts together to get the best product on the field. We’ve got a lot of time between now and September 14 to do that,’’ Grande said.
Preseason camp ends Saturday with an afternoon scrimmage against former USA South Athletic Conference rival Methodist (North Carolina) University. Then, as Grande put it, “there is a natural transition into the school schedule.
“When the semester gets going, we’re (moving) into our in-season schedule even though we don’t play for two weeks after (the Methodist scrimmage),’’ Grande said.
The focus on Greensboro does not come any sooner or later just because the game is a week after many other openers.
“We try to plan for our first three games (Greensboro, Averett University and Randolph-Macon College) before we start camp — whoever the opponents are,’’ Grande said. “Whatever prep work we can do for those teams, we do. After those games, we’ll get a body of (current) film on the rest of our opponents, then you’ll get to see some changes that they may be doing.’’
There is junior varsity games scheduled for September 8 and September 15 too.
“With two scrimmages, two jayvee games and the season opener, we’ll have plenty of shots to see who we are,’’ Grande said.”After Averett, we get into the bulk of our ODAC schedule.’’
Besides Randolph-Macon, Guilford (North Carolina) College, Shenandoah University and league newcomer Southern Virginia University visit W.B. Adams Stadium this year.
Conference games against Washington and Lee University (W&L), Bridgewater College, Hampden-Sydney College and Emory &m Henry College are on the road.
“The ODAC is a very competitive league, week in and week out,’’ Grande said. “Anybody can beat anybody.’’
That was true last year. Case in point: Ferrum was the only teams to be both of the clubs that played for the conference championship on the final weekend of league regular-season play: Randolph-Macon and Hampden-Sydney.
Ferrum was 5-5 overall, 3-4 in the ODAC last year.
“Last year, we played two bad halves of football in my opinion: the first half here against Emory and Henry and the second half here against Bridgewater,’’ Grande said. “You’ll lose to any football team if you do what we did in those two halves.
“We beat a couple of teams that we in it at the end last year and we lost to a couple of teams (Guilford and Emory & Henry) that finished behind us in the standings,’’ Grande said. “A couple of plays here and there could have taken us forward two games or backward two games.
“Guilford has a returning quarterback. Emory & Henry will be strong and it will be a good game at the end of the season and Randolph-Macon has 30 seniors,’’ Grande said.
“Hampden-Sydney is going to be ready roll. W&L will be a tough game on the road and it’s their homecoming. Bridgewater took us to the woodshed in the second half last year,’’ Grande said. “Shenandoah comes here. They lost their quarterback, but their system will attract another good one. We’ll be in that situation next year.
“We’re going to have to make good decisions as coaches and our kids are going to have to be ready to play every Saturday for us to have a chance to win. But, I’ll take my chances with whom we have this year and see where we land,’’ Grande said.
“Our guys have put us in positions to win ever since I got here and I’m proud of that,’’ Grande said, “and as long as we do that, we’ll have a chance.’’