VMI Football: 2023 Season in Review

football player diving into endzone

The VMI Keydets reclaimed the Silver Shako in the Military Classic of the South, defeating The Citadel 17-13 Oct. 14, 2023.—Photo courtesy VMI Athletics.

Coming off a 1-10 season in which they were winless in the SoCon (0-8), the VMI football team made its presence felt in year one under Danny Rocco, head coach, as the Keydets posted a 5-6 record and were an even 4-4 in league play.

This fall marked just the fourth time in the last 20 years in which VMI has won five games and also the fourth time in 20 years the program has won four conference games. Three of VMI’s four conference losses came to teams that made the FCS playoffs (Mercer, No. 17 Chattanooga, and No. 2 Furman). The team’s victory over No. 14 Western Carolina was the first win over a ranked opponent since the Keydets beat Chattanooga Oct. 9, 2021. On Oct. 13, 2023, the Silver Shako came home to Lexington as VMI beat The Citadel 17-13.

Awards and accolades came steadily all season, as Jack Culbreath ’24 was named National Player of the Week Sept. 25, 2023, and three players—Culbreath, Evan Eller ’24, and Hunter Rice ’24—collected SoCon Player of the Week recognition. In November, eight players—Culbreath, Eller, Rice, Justin Peterson ’24, Eric Rankin ’24, Dorien Starnes ’25, Ivan Thorpe ’26, and Aidan Twombly ’24—earned all SoCon honors. Rocco likewise was recognized, being named a National Coach of the Year finalist.

The Keydets faced a tough test right from the jump, hosting a Davidson team that was coming off three straight FCS playoff appearances and a 2022 season in which the Wildcats were ranked in the top 25. VMI proved quickly it was up to the task, holding one of the nation’s top offenses to just 184 yards and seven points, scoring a 12-7 win. With the win, Rocco became one of just two active coaches to earn wins at four different FCS programs.

After a trip to Bucknell and one to NC State, the Keydets turned the page to conference play, defending the home field with a gritty 17-14 win in rainy conditions against Wofford. Rice would rush and throw for a touchdown, while the Keydet defense (two fumbles) held strong down the stretch to secure the win. In the process, Culbreath earned national and SoCon Player of the Week honors.

After stumbling at Mercer, VMI righted the ship in the Military Classic of the South, defeating The Citadel 17-13 for the program’s first victory in the series since the COVID-19 spring season. Similar to a lot of its wins in 2023, VMI took the lead late in the fourth and relied on the defense to close out the ball game and reclaim the Silver Shako trophy.

After the Keydets nearly upset No. 17 Chattanooga (L, 23-24)—behind Rice’s 208 yards and three touchdowns—VMI returned to the road, once again relying on some fourth-quarter magic, outscoring ETSU 17-0 in the last period for a 31-24 win.

With one game left to play, a 7-2 (5-2 SoCon) Western Carolina team traveled to Lexington, where the Keydets would defend the home field one more time, coming out with a 27-24 victory over the 14th-ranked Catamounts. Rice couldn’t be stopped, rushing for 138 yards and four touchdowns, while high school teammate Eller (16.0 tackles, forced fumble) recorded his first career interception, leading to the duo being named the league’s Offensive and Defensive Players of the Week.

Following the season, Rocco was named a finalist for the Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year Award for the seventh time in his career (four different schools) and inked an extension to keep him in Lexington through 2028.

The next day, eight members of the 2023 squad earned All-Conference honors. Culbreath, Eller, Peterson, Rankin, and Twombly all registered both First and Second Team honors (media, coaches), while Rice and Starnes collected Second Team recognition, and Thorpe was named to the All-Freshman team.

As a team, VMI ended the season ranked in the top 50 in a variety of national categories. The Keydets rank sixth in fewest penalties per game (4.45) and ninth in fewest penalties (49), leading the Southern Conference in both categories. The team was 22nd in fewest penalty yards (480) and penalty yards per game (43.64) and 28th in passing yards allowed (187.0). In addition, the Keydets ranked 32nd in kickoff return defense (17.87 yards per carry), 40th in red zone defense (0.778), and 44th in fumbles recovered (seven).

Following the success of the 2023 campaign, there is no doubt the future of VMI football looks bright.