FERRUM — Two years ago, Ferrum won eight football games.

But last season, the Panthers dropped their final two games to finish 5-5.

They do not want another .500 record this year.

“We’ve got to … try to move the needle past that .500 mark, which doesn’t sit well with anybody in our program,” said coach Rob Grande, whose team opens the season Saturday.

Three of Ferrum’s losses were by single digits.

“We’ll have a chip on our shoulder to be better than 5-5 for sure and finish … those close games,” said quarterback Zack Clifford, a Glenvar High School graduate.

“It eats at me a lot,” linebacker AJ Camp said of the close losses. “Last year … not everybody was locked in like we should be. But this year, I think that everybody’s locked in.”

Ferrum was the only team in the ODAC to beat league champ Randolph-Macon last year. But the inconsistent Panthers also lost to ODAC cellar-dweller Guilford.

“We were a classic 5-5 team,” said Grande, who is entering his fourth season at the helm of the Panthers.

The Panthers went 8-2 overall in 2017, when they bid adieu to the USA South with a 5-2 league record.

But Ferrum’s inaugural ODAC season was not a success. The Panthers went 3-4 in league play, finishing in a four-way tie for fourth place.

“The ODAC was tougher overall than the USA South,” said running back Brian Mann, a Giles High School graduate.

Mann and Clifford are among six starters back on offense.

Mann rushed for a school-record 1,605 yards as a junior last year, earning second-team All-America honors from the American Football Coaches Association.

He ranked fifth in Division III in rushing (160.5 ypg) and sixth in all-purpose yards (191.1 ypg) last year. He already holds the Ferrum career rushing record (4,614 yards).

Grande would like to keep defenses from focusing on Mann. So Ferrum, which averaged 227.9 yards rushing and 184.8 yards passing last year, wants to boost its aerial attack.

“Our running game is something we’re going to continue to hang our hat on. … But some of the games we’ve struggled in, we haven’t been able to loosen the box up with the passing game,” Grande said.

“That’s certainly the elephant in the room this year, is to try to balance some things out. Brian gives you that opportunity because he’s going to bring more attention to the box. You’ve just got to be able to take advantage of some of the things teams are doing to reinforce the box.

“To move ourselves … beyond being 5-5, we need to be able to complement the run game.”

Clifford completed 122 of 220 passes (55.5 percent) for 1,601 yards and 17 touchdowns with six interceptions as a junior last fall.

“In camp he’s making better decisions with the football in the passing game,” Grande said.

Ferrum, which ranked fifth in the ODAC in scoring offense (33.5 ppg) last year, must replace starting receivers Johnny White and Nick Pearce.

But the receiving corps does welcome back Giles graduate Ryan Beidleman, who suffered a torn ACL in the first game of his freshman season last year. He has been cleared to return to action.

Other receivers of note include Quentin Wallace (25 catches last year) and Giles graduate Austin Pennington.

All-ODAC second-team pick Jordan Patti (Staunton River) is among three starters back on the offensive line. Cade Rouse (Rural Retreat) will be one of the new starting linemen.

Ferrum ranked second in the league in scoring defense (25.6 ppg) last year.

The Panthers must replace all three of last year’s starting defensive linemen, including All-ODAC first-team pick Johnathon Johnson.

Five starters are back on defense, including Camp, who made the All-ODAC second team; All-ODAC third-team linebacker Niccolas Helvy; and All-ODAC third-team cornerback Christian Johnson.

“This is the fastest our defense has ever been,” Camp said.

Other names of note on the first-string defense include linebacker Taylor Brown (Jefferson Forest), cornerback Jaquice Sydnor (Martinsville) and rover Dustin Swaine (Salem).

Ferrum has been picked fourth out of nine teams in the ODAC’s preseason coaches poll.

The Panthers were idle last week, so they are opening the season a week later than most Division III teams.

The early bye week means they will have to play 10 straight games without a break.

“I was kind of worried about that at first,” Clifford said. “But the more I thought about it, if you get momentum or something, you don’t want a bye week.”

Ferrum shouldn’t have a problem Saturday at Greensboro (0-1), which suffered an 81-0 loss to the Panthers last year.

But the rest of this month’s schedule will be a challenge. Ferrum will host preseason USA South favorite Averett (1-0) on Sept. 21; the Cougars beat the Panthers in last year’s season finale. Ferrum will host preseason ODAC favorite Randolph-Macon (0-1) in their league opener on Sept. 28.

Mark Berman covers Virginia Tech men’s basketball and many other teams at the university. He also helps cover other colleges, including Radford, VMI, Roanoke, Washington and Lee and Ferrum.

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