Linebackers, secondary need to hold fort for Rams
Last year when it was wading through an unbeaten regular football season, Shepherd stamped its 10-0 record with the truism “It’s what’s up front that counts.”
Four multi-year starters in Mike Franklin, Xavier Tyler, Howard Jones and Robert Hayes manned the front line of the reliable Rams’ defense. All were seniors. All received honors and postseason notice for their disruptive work as Shepherd won the championship trophy given by the first-year Mountain East Conference.
Beside the front four there were other quality seniors in Corey Washington and Dominique Dixon, both also receiving all-conference and all-region mention for their play. Shepherd swept the Mountain East clean, going 9-0 and adding a shutout spanking of Shippensburg to give the record a 10-0 glow.
In the NCAA playoffs, the Rams blanked Winston-Salem State, 7-0, and a week later suffered two late-game interception return touchdowns against its offense in losing, 28-7, to visiting West Chester.
With its defensive front depleted, it would seem the Rams will need steady if not exceptional play from their mostly-experienced group of linebackers and secondary players to survive this season.
Sophomore Octavius Thomas was a freshman treasure last year as an inside linebacker. Levi Barber and De’Ontre Johnson were also starters whose quality made them all-conference selections. Shanell Jenkins and Bernard Wolley have to do well this year to keep people from reminding them of what the front four from 2013 accomplished as individuals and as contrbutors to Shepherd’s star-splashed season.
The Shepherd secondary has experience in Dontrewell Kelley, David Carter and Phillip Rhoden. Demetrius Dixon is Dominque’s brother and needs to remind Rams’ followers of his sibling’s contributions.
C.J. Davis was able to return five kicks/punts for touchdowns last season and Ryan Earls has been a valuable placekicker for Coach Monte Cater.
There were three seniors in the offensive line, making the “what’s up front” adage just as applicable to that part of Shepherd’s team. Gone from a year ago are Sean Hull, Jordan Dixon and Dameon Hairston while only Hussam Ouri and Isaiah Shelton are returning starters.
Other seniors whose play helped the Rams win their first 11 games and a conference championship were Mike Haynes, Robert Byrd and Jon Hammer.
After a highly successful finish to his freshman season in 2012, Billy Brown is finally healthy enough to return from an off-season knee injury that kept him out all of the unbeaten 2013 campaign.
Brown is a towering 6-foot-4 menace of a wide receiver when seen running free by an opponent’s secondary.
Offensive backs Jabre Lolley and Allen Cross were a safe combination of runners last year and could be joined by one or two redshirt freshmen in Cater’s rotation.
Jamie Deason and Lue Sokova were last year’s tight ends. The quarterback after midseason was Jeff Ziemba and the smallish group of wide receivers had William McKenzie and Justin Ford.
Very few “true freshmen” make their mark at Shepherd, but with the Grand Canyon-sized chasm left in the defensive front, three offensive line spots needing to be filled, and the group of wide receivers never being any consistent trouble for Mountain East defenses, a player or two from the large crop of recruits (including 6-foot-5 receiver Kendell Smith and return man/defensive back Colin Gustines from Washington High) could avoid a redshirt season and help ease the loss of so many seniors from last season.
Shepherd opens its 10-game schedule on the road at West Liberty on Sept. 6. All 10 games are in the Mountain East Conference where Urbana and Concord appear to have the best chances of shoving Shepherd off its accustomed throne.
The home opener comes on Sept. 13 at 12-noon against Fairmont. All five home games have 12-noon beginnings . . . and programs might be a hot seller during the early season as Cater and his nine-man staff of assistants try to adequately replace the 11 senior starters who departed with another Cater-led conference championship on their long list of college accomplishments.