Transfers, Charleston game determine heights Shepherd will reach
The same fabric that wore well enough to get Shepherd to last season’s national championship game has only a few thin spots for the fast-approaching 2016 campaign.
There were 13 wins . . . including playoff successes at Ram Stadium against Indiana, Slippery Rock and Grand Valley State. The only loss came in Kansas City in the national championship game.
Is such a win-filled journey again possible?
It is if the Rams can get another fistful of home games before the same overflow crowds that cheered nearly every move the team made in the 2015 playoffs.
Shepherd has one of the most effective players — at any position — in the nation in wide receiver Billy Brown. It has two inside linebackers of national prominence in James Gupton and Octavius Thomas. Ruan Venter is a valuable punter. C.J. Davis is a return specialist with game-deciding skills. Another season with the stingiest defense against the run in the country is also likely.
Not to be overlooked is long snapper Nick Barmoy whose consistency keeps Shepherd out of trouble from early September to early December. There are some areas where improvements or qualified new starters are necessary.
Allen Cross is gone from the thin corps of running backs. His replacement joins with Jabre Lolley, and Shepherd needs at least two runners to carry its ground-hugging load. Keon Robinson, Shaneil Jenkins, Isaiah Ross and Phillip Rhoden were seniors whose defensive help was considerable. Angelo Jean-Louis played sparingly but had six touchdown catches and Dalton Boyd caught 43 passes in the 14-game marathon season. Kicking specialist Ryan Earls was a senior last season.
In its recent seasons of win after win the Rams have been held aloft at times by their cadre of transfers. Transfers need to be plentiful and talented again this year.
There are four defensive linemen with ground-stopping abilities in Elijah Norris, Marshall Mundin, Myles Humphrey and Shaquille Melvin. The linebackers or multi-position players joining with Gupton and Thomas are Jaylen Johnson, Tre Sullivan, Connor Simpson and Cameron Reynolds.
Tre Anderson and Davis are experienced players in the secondary. A step-right-in corner or safety would be a forceful weapon.
Last year’s offensive line was very young and there wasn’t as much running room for Cross and Lolley as there had been, but they provided ample protection for quarterback Jeff Ziemba for the most part and Connor Jessop completed 15 of his 20 passes in the national semifinal, 34-32, win over Grand Valley State.
William Smith, Jacob Kingston, Lavonte Hights, Levi Lloyd, Brandon Wooten, Jaime Colon and Khalil Proctor are the linemen returning to the Rams.
Brown is now without peer in the nation’s NCAA Division II receiving ranks. He already owns Shepherd career and single-season marks even with another season ahead. Can the Rams find somebody to give help to Brown and Tony Squirewell. Tight end Jamie Deason had only three receptions last season and Wanya Allen did about the same. Is there a transfer or redshirt in tow to provide some relief for the heated coverage Brown is sure to see . . . and just as surely do well against?
The second game of the 2016 season has Shepherd playing at Charleston with just four days rest.
After opening at home against West Virginia Wesleyan on Sept. 3, the Rams play Charleston at Laidley Field on Thursday, Sept. 8. Charleston’s only regular season loss last season was to Shepherd. And the Golden Eagles received a bid to the national playoffs — where they lost at home to Indiana. Charleston also opens its season on Sept. 3.
Shepherd only rarely gets a freshman that hasn’t had a redshirt season on campus who shows enough play-making ability to help the team.
Finding a defensive back, receiver or runner of the substance needed to play against Grand Valley State, Northwest Missouri or a team from the PSAC would be akin to catching lightning in a bottle or marching through another unbeaten regular season and then hosting playoff games.
Seven teams reach the Region playoffs. Even a season with one loss would reward the Rams with a playoff date … but would they be given more than one game at overstuffed-with-Shepherd-fans Ram Stadium?