Rams need wide receivers, not much else
There may never be another wide receiver like Billy Brown – catching passes in crowds, always drawing the fullest attention from defenses and scoring a load of touchdowns against Mountain East Conference rivals.
Brown is now gone off to training camp with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Shepherd has to scramble to find anybody even remotely capable of doing what he did for the nationally-ranked Rams.
But there should be no gnashing of teeth or wringing of hands in the Shepherd camp.
After an undefeated regular season in 2015 and another unbeaten regular season just last year, Shepherd comes into 2017 with more quality, playmaking individuals that just might produce a third straight season without any losses until late in the NCAA Division II playoffs.
Linebacker James Gupton, quarterback Connor Jessop, defensive end Myles Humphrey and punter Ruan Venter should all draw national attention – even before the season opens at usually raucous Ram Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 2, against Notre Dame (Ohio) – a team that was 9-2 last year.
Gupton is a multi-year starter and has been almost mistake-free in his years of helping to win every regular season game since 2014. Humphrey has been Shepherd’s most consistent pass rusher for several seasons now.
Jessop will be a first-year starter, who already has the school record for touchdown passes in a game and passing yards for a single game. After guiding the Rams to an attention-getting playoff win over Grand Valley State in 2015, Jessop blistered West Virginia State in 2016 with his school-record performance.
Venter punted to a 44-yards per boot norm last season.
With Brown leaving, who can Jessop find to aim his passes toward? Only Ryan Feiss had a scattered few games where he bothered conference defenses.
Shepherd’s offensive line has experienced faces, but still needs improvement from those who are returning. Jaime Colon, Lavonte Hights and Levi Lloyd were starters as the Rams reached the national semifinals with playoff wins over Assumption, LIU Post and California.
If an adequate number of receivers can’t be found, Shepherd may return to the days where it crunched teams with its rushing attack. Sophomore Brandon Hlavach was a force from the beginning to the end of last year. Jabre Lolley is expected to return after not playing in 2016, and Deonte Glover made a difference at times.
Joining Gupton and Humphreys as defensive players from 2016 are Tre Anderson, Bruno Anyangwe, D’Angelo Niler, Scott Dixon and James King.
Tateh Ndeh was a two-way athlete who saw time both at fullback and on the defensive line.
Shepherd’s secondary lost several multi-year starters but sees useful returnees in Keith Davis, Chris Jones and DeJuan Neal. Ryan Sturdivant had his moments on the defensive line.
Nic Barmoy is a near-perfect long snapper, and Zach Wise was last year’s place kicker.
Long journeys into the playoffs have become a down-the-road goal when Shepherd seasons begin. All the consistent winning has been made possible by an influx of transfers and even “true” freshmen in their first year on campus.
If these Rams subdue the league like those teams before have done, it will be because playmaking transfers or freshmen have come in and contributed right away with touchdowns, sacks, interceptions or vital special teams plays.
While once it was Shepherd taking all the scalps it saw in either the WVIAC or Mountain East – but then losing to Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference teams – that isn’t the case any longer.
Shepherd defeated Indiana and Slippery Rock in the 2015 playoffs and then ousted California on the Vulcans home field in 2016.
Finding stop-gap depth at the NCAA Division II level is always a problem for a school like Shepherd that does not have the number of scholarships found all over the PSAC and with other consistent national powers. There is no refined quarterback behind Jessop. And Gupton is basically irreplaceable.
The Rams could win the Mountain East Conference even with a smattering of season-ending injuries. But they couldn’t play all the way into December by winning two or three times in the Division II playoffs.
If the incoming players, who have never performed at Shepherd, are comparable to other transfers, then the 2017 Rams will be the scourge of the Mountain East Conference.