ROME, Ga. — There has been a sense of urgency surrounding the Shorter Hawks football team for the past week for obvious reasons.
Most of it, of course, comes from the natural anticipation of starting a new season, one that for the Hawks begins Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Barron Stadium when Shorter hosts Paine College in the first home opener the program has had since 2006.
Not to be overlooked is the fact that the 2014 campaign will be the Hawks’ historic 10 th season and its first season as a full NCAA Division II and Gulf South Conference member, a status the team has patiently waited on for two years.
Above all else, however, what has driven the Hawks is their commitment to taste the fruits of victory immediately, something that took Shorter eight weeks to do a year ago, and answer many of the unknowns about themselves and what is the toughest schedule the program has had ahead of them.
“I really think that they’re focused and ready,” head coach Phil Jones, who has led the team since it was first created more than a decade ago, said about his take on the Hawks’ mind-set. “But we know we have some questions and unknowns heading into the game.”
Although Jones, his coaching staff and the Hawks themselves are ready to answer their own questions and unknowns, they will do so against an opponent that is even more of an unknown.
The Paine Lions – the Augusta school is playing football for the first time since 1964 – arrive in Rome as the proverbial “new kid” on the NCAA Division II block and will be playing its first full schedule as a member of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
And while the game against Shorter will be the first-ever collegiate game for their players – head coach Greg Ruffin’s Lions played an abbreviated club schedule last fall – Paine is even more of a mystery to the Hawks.
“We’ve tried to research everything we can get about them,” Jones said about Shorter’s first test of the year, “but you still aren’t able to see them play on any video and that’s a big factor. You don’t know for sure what they’ll do.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” the coach said. “What we do have is their roster, they’ve got a huge football team but also a young team. It seems like they’ve done a good job preparing for it all.”
One look what Paine will line up with in the trenches shows just how much bigger they will be against the Hawks, something Shorter will be faced with all season.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Lions tilt the scales averaging 300 pounds to form a formidable wall that is the foundation of a wide-open spread attack, while their defensive front – Paine operates out of a 4-4 set, is on paper even larger.
“But the biggest thing that jumps out at you are how big they are,” said Jones. “You hope we’re quicker and that we can get after them and overcome that.”
Quickness and youthful experience — only nine seniors are on the 2014 roster — is what the Hawks have and are ready to use with senior quarterback Eric Dodson returning to be the tip of offensive spear.
Back to take the starting snap for the third straight season, Dodson already owns the marks for career passing yards, attempts and completions – to name a few – and is just three touchdowns away from setting the record for career TDs thrown.
His has also proven his legs are just as potent as his arm that set a single-season 1,056 passing yards last year, as he rushed for 642 yards and a team-high 11 touchdowns. All told in the past two years, Dodson has provided more than 3,000 yards in total offense.
The Hawks, however, are poised to move the ball with an even more balanced scheme as sophomore fullback B.J. McCoy, who rushed for 390 yards on 87 carries last year in a reserve role, steps into the starting lineup; two of the fastest Hawks — senior Kirk Wilson and junior Devin Helvie — return to slotback after rushing for more than 300 yards in an injury-marred year last season; and sophomore Darius Turner, who led team with 15 catches for 268 yards and two touchdowns, is part of a deep and talented corps of receivers.
Best of all for the Hawks on offense, is the return of a seasoned and experience offensive line that includes seniors Ben Peterson, Tyler Bradford and David Richardson -senior Kendall Dials, who has started at tackle last two year will not play due to a preseason injury — and junior Chris Beno.
On the other side of the ball, the Hawks’ defense will start a lineup void of any seniors, most notable being the absence of linebacker Dominique Henfield, who has to wait until next year to cap his career after suffering a knee injury last spring.
The good news is that the Hawks still have already-tested veterans back, including junior safety Jordan Shaw, who led the team in tackles in 2013, cornerbacks Wesley Clay and Willy Dorcin, and defensive linemen Greg Carswell, Pat Field, Trevaris Horton and Howard Stephens.
All have encompassed a new defensive scheme implemented by first-year coordinator Julius Dixon, one that allows the Hawks to bring all their weapons to bear.
“We’re excited about finally getting to play,” Jones said. “We’re ready to go and get better.”
The game will be carried live on 99.5 FM The Jock and WGJK-Am 1360 and streamed on www.goshorterhawks.com and www.995thejock.com. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. and includes “The Phil Jones Show” and a preview of the game leading up to kick-off.