LEXINGTON — This figures to be a pivotal season for the VMI football program.
The Keydets snapped a 25-game losing streak by beating NCAA Division II member Tusculum last November, but it was their only win of the season. They have lost 26 straight games to Division I foes, including 22 straight Southern Conference games.
This would be an ideal season for the Keydets to show improvement. Coach Scott Wachenheim is entering the fifth and final season of his contract, although he said he isn’t feeling any job-related stress.
“I don’t feel any pressure at all whatsoever,” Wachenheim said this week. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been this year going into the season. I have the best staff I’ve ever had. I have the most talented team I’ve ever had, and I’m very excited to go attack the season.”
The Keydets went 1-10 overall and 0-8 in SoCon play last season.
Wachenheim is 6-38 at VMI, which has not enjoyed a winning season since 1981.
“I enjoy what I do every day, and I’m just focusing on today,” Wachenheim said. “The future is the future. You can’t control it. So you just do the best you can with what you got.”
Does Wachenheim need to win a certain number of games this year to keep his job?
“Coach Wachenheim continues to be deeply invested in VMI and committed to advancing our football program. His work is greatly appreciated,” athletic director Dave Diles said in an email. “The evaluation is comprehensive and certainly not connected to any number of wins for the 2019 season.”
The Keydets return seven starters on offense and eight on defense, but they face a daunting schedule.
Even though the Keydets have enough trouble beating fellow FCS programs, Diles has scheduled not one but two games against FBS foes.
The Keydets will open with an Aug. 31 visit to Conference USA power Marshall. They will visit Army, which won 11 games last year, on Nov. 16 for their first meeting with the Black Knights in nine years.
VMI will reap $275,000 for playing Army and $350,000 from Marshall.
“The revenue game for the ’19 season is Marshall; however, Army West Point provided a unique opportunity for our team, VMI and our alumni,” Diles said in an email.
VMI is playing 12 games this year instead of the usual 11, so the Keydets do have two nonleague home games (Robert Morris and Division II member Mars Hill) to balance out the two nonleague road games.
The Keydets have been picked last in the SoCon’s preseason coaches poll. Two of VMI’s eight league rivals are ranked in the STATS FCS preseason Top 25 poll, with another five receiving votes.
Last year, the Keydets lost four league games by seven points or less.
“We had a lot of close games, and this year we want to come out on the winning side of those games,” junior quarterback Reece Udinski said. “The experience we kind of lacked last year, I think we have a lot [now]. … When those close games get tough, we kind of want to lean on our experience.”
Wachenheim said the No. 1 way for VMI to win close games is to play better on special teams. So he has added former Virginia punter Nicholas Conte as an assistant coach. The Patrick Henry High School graduate has been put in charge of the punters, place-kickers and snappers.
Special teams is hardly the only area that needs improvement.
VMI ranked last out of 124 FCS teams in scoring defense (48.2 ppg) and 121st in total defense (509.7 ypg).
“This year we want to be more proactive and dictate things to opposing offenses — moving around, playing multiple defenses, giving them more things to look at,” Wachenheim said.
Tackling was not a strong suit for the defense last year.
“Having experienced linebackers playing is really going to improve tackling,” said fourth-year junior linebacker Elliott Brewster, a Pulaski County graduate.
VMI also needs to do a better job of protecting Udinski. VMI tied for last in the FCS in sacks allowed (50).
“The offensive line, under the leadership of [new offensive line coach] Kyle Jolly, has taken a newfound pride in running the football and protecting the passer,” Wachenheim said.
Udinski flourished in VMI’s Air Raid offense. He ranked eighth in the FCS last year with a school-record 3,082 passing yards.
But the Keydets ranked 121st in rushing offense (58.5 ypg).
“I don’t think we ran the ball particularly well last year, so it’s been a point of emphasis this offseason,” Wachenheim said.
Quan Myers, who rushed for a team-high 381 yards, has joined Mars Hill as a graduate transfer.
Salem graduate Alex Ramsey, who rushed for 317 yards last year, will take over for Myers as the starting running back. Wachenheim said the fourth-year junior would have been the starter this season even if Myers had stayed.
“Anytime they need a run play, I can execute, and they won’t just have to rely on the pass game,” Ramsey said.
Myers was not the only player who switched schools in the offseason.
Receiver Kris Thornton, a 2018 All-SoCon second-team pick who led the team in catches (87) and receiving yards (1,003), has transferred to James Madison.
“We’re going to miss Kris,” Wachenheim said. “This is a day and age where young men transfer.”
Backup receiver Devone Humphrey (27 catches) transferred to Delaware State. Starting cornerback Collin Loftis transferred to Tyler (Junior) College in his home state of Texas.
But plenty of other Keydets have opted to stick around.
“The people that stayed, they’re my brothers,” said junior safety A.J. Smith, a 2018 All-SoCon second-team pick. “It just wouldn’t feel right if I left them because we’ve all been through so much.”
“It’s a brotherhood here,” Brewster said. “I do it for them.”