Eight Keydets Earn Football All-SoCon Honors

side-by-side photos of four football players mid-play

Photo courtesy VMI Athletics.

The Southern Conference announced its 2023 Football Postseason Teams, with eight different Keydets earning All-Conference honors Nov. 21, 2023.

Both Aidan Twombly ’24 (offense) and Jack Culbreath ’24 (special teams) earned First Team honors from both the coaches and the media, while Evan Eller ’24 and Eric Rankin ’25 were named First Team Defense by the media and Second Team Defense by the coaches.

Hunter Rice ’25 garnered Second Team Offense recognition from both the coaches and media, with Justin Peterson ’24, long snapper, being named First Team Specialist by the media and Second Team by the coaches. Dorien Starnes ’25 was named to the All-SoCon Defensive Second Team by the media, and Ivan Thorpe ’26 earned All-Freshman honors from the coaches.

VMI, which was slated to finish last in the preseason polls, posted a 5-6 overall record and was 4-4 in the SoCon, just one year after being 1-10 and 0-8 in the league.

Jack Culbreath ’24 – Punter – First Team All-SoCon Special Teams/Coaches and Media

An All-American from 2021, Culbreath continued to add to his trophy collection this year, earning two SoCon Player of the Week awards, including an FCS National Player of the Week Award after he punted nine times for an average of 47.9 yards per kick as VMI defeated Wofford in rainy conditions. Booting a program-record 76-yard punt against Samford, Culbreath had 14 kicks of 50 or more yards and pinned teams inside the 20-yard line 17 times this year. Culbreath, who also handled the kickoff duties for VMI, finished this season with a punt average of 43.6, which ranked 12th at the FCS level. The Charlottesville, Virginia, native finishes his VMI career with the highest career punt average (42.9), ranking fourth nationally in career average and yards (8,541) among active kickers.

Evan Eller ’24 – Defensive Back/Rover – First Team All-SoCon Defense/Media – Second Team All-SoCon/Coaches

Eller, who capped off his VMI career with a SoCon Player of the Week honor, finished the season second in the league in tackles with a career-high 107, ranking 16th in the nation in that category (9.7 tackles per game). A linebacker who was second in the SoCon last season in tackles, Eller moved to a more hybrid rover role this year, helping VMI defense rank in the top half of the league all season and in the top 50 nationally in numerous categories such as passing yards allowed (27th, 187), red zone defense (40th), and first down defense (50th). The Roanoke, Virginia, native had at least 6.0 tackles in every game, collecting 11.0 or more five times.

Justin Peterson ’24 – Long Snapper – First Team All-SoCon Special Teams/Media – Second Team All-SoCon/Coaches

A key component to the punting and kicking game, Peterson had a flawless season at the long snapper position this year. Graduating this spring and commissioning into the U.S. Army, Peterson made the most of his opportunity to get on the field this year, playing a key role in wins over Davidson, Wofford, The Citadel, ETSU, and Western Carolina. Peterson, who serves as 1st Battalion Commander, collected tackles against Davidson, Bucknell, Mercer, and Furman.

Eric Rankin ’25 – Linebacker – First Team All-SoCon Defense/Media – Second Team All-SoCon/Coaches

Stepping into a storied position at VMI, Rankin’s 93 tackles (career-high) were fifth-best in the SoCon and 42nd in the country. The Mechanicsville, Virginia, native had five games in which he registered 11.0 or more stops, totaling 3.5 sacks and 10.0 tackles for loss (fifth, SoCon) on the year. Rankin’s 14.0 tackle performance against Davidson helped the Keydets hold on for a 12-7 season-opening win, while his 10.0 stops against Wofford allowed VMI to register their first conference win of the season. The junior finished the season strong, totaling 12.0 tackles (1.0 TFL) in a win over ETSU and 9.0 stops and a tackle for loss in the upset of No. 14 Western Carolina.

Hunter Rice ’25 – Running Back – Second Team All-SoCon Special Teams/Coaches and Media

Like Eller, Rice saved perhaps his best game for last, earning All-SoCon Offensive Player of the Week honors after a four-touchdown, 138-yard performance in a win over No. 14 Western Carolina. With 14 scores on the ground (fourth-most all-time in a season at VMI), Rice not only led the SoCon but finished the season fourth in the country in that category. Rice, who also threw for a touchdown against Wofford, had five multi-score games this season, including three games in which he rushed for three or more touchdowns. Instrumental in wins over Wofford, ETSU, and Western Carolina, Rice scampered for a career-high 208 yards as the Keydets nearly upset the No. 17 Chattanooga Mocs, totaling the 14th-highest rushing output in a single game at VMI. For his career, Rice now ranks fifth all-time in rushing touchdowns at VMI with 23 in three seasons.

Dorien Starnes ’25 – Defensive Line – Second Team All-SoCon Defense/Media

Coming off a solid sophomore season, Starnes was a force on the defensive line this year, finishing at the top in the league with 41.0 tackles in that position. Starnes was often a disrupter in the backfield, registering 3.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, two hurries, and two pass breakups. Starnes had one of his strongest games against FBS NC State, totaling 6.0 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss against the Wolfpack. The Waco, North Carolina, native collected a career-high 7.0 tackles twice this year, forcing a fumble against Chattanooga and recovering a fumble in a road win at ETSU.

Ivan Thorpe ’26 – Wide Receiver – All-Freshman/Coaches

Thorpe carved out a significant role in the VMI offense this season, providing sparks in both the passing and kick return game. The Philadelphia native finished his redshirt freshman campaign fourth on the team in receiving yards with 251 on the year, totaling 369 yards on kick returns. Thorpe, who had 101 yards returning against Mercer and 114 returning against Samford, became a bigger threat in the passing game down the stretch, totaling a career-best seven catches for 66 yards against Chattanooga before finding the end zone for the first time in a win at ETSU.

Aidan Twombly ’24 – Tight End – First Team All-SoCon Offense/Coaches and Media

Twombly paced the tight end position this year, collecting a team-high 557 yards receiving on 38 catches. The Waxhaw, North Carolina, native was a favorite target for Keydet quarterbacks all season, having at least two catches in every game and collecting receptions of 25-plus yards in five games this year. Twombly capped off his career in emphatic fashion, hauling in six catches for a career-high 133 yards in an upset win over No. 14 Western Carolina. Twombly, who found the back of the end zone three times this season, finishes his career with 995 yards receiving and five touchdowns.

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