Transfers could bolster both lines at Shepherd
Mike Franklin, Howard Jones, Xavier Tyler and Robert Hayes are all gone. Those four were the front face of the Shepherd defense that was greatly responsible for the Rams thundering through the regular season in 2013 with an undefeated record and a conference championship.
Sean Hull and Jordan Dixon were two long-time starters on Shepherd’s offensive line that cleared enough space for Jabre Lolley and Allen Cross for those two running backs to be voted onto several all-conference teams. Both Hull and Dixon were seniors like the four starting defensive linemen.
If it’s what’s up front that counts, then the Rams need to find a large number of able replacements for both their defensive and offensive lines if they are going to fend off the considerable challenges of Concord and Charleston in this season’s conference race.
Where will the first-year starters come from . . . and what are their backgrounds and possible credentials?
Elijah Norris played for Connecticut last year, mostly as a tight end, but he has a past laced with some success as a defensive lineman. Norris didn’t just sit at Connecticut, he played. Shepherd lists him as a defensive lineman and he could fill one of the voids left when all of last season’s starters were seniors.
Two of those possible helpers coming in from other schools were linebackers who contributed for their previous teams.
Antoine Young was actually the leading tackler at Bowie State in Maryland. And Lance Fullwood started six games at Fairmont.
Young and Fullwood join a threesome of starters in Shepherd’s linebacking corps. De’Ontre Johnson, Octavius Thomas and Levi Barber were all recipients of postseason honors after the Rams accomplished a 10-0 regular season record.
Transferring to Shepherd from larger schools are defensive linemen Denzel Offor (Coastal Carolina in South Carolina) and Marshall Mundin from Hampton in Virginia. Neither Offor nor Mundin had much impact at their previous colleges.
Coming from an unbeaten team at Butte CC in California is Stephen Francois, listed at 6-foot-1 and 310 pounds. Francois was an offensive lineman at Butte, but Shepherd lists him as a defensive lineman. Freshman Brandon Dukeman was an offensive lineman at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington. He joins the hunt for playing time with the offensive line.
An eighth transfer is offensive lineman Zach Buffkin from Seton Hill, once a rival of the Rams when the Griffins were in the old WVIAC.
The three interior offensive linemen that return as starters this year are Hussam Ouri, Isaiah Shelton and Dameon Hairston. Possible starters to replace Hull and Dixon come from last year’s backups that include Brandon Wooten, Jonathan Durrett, William Smith and Jacob Kingston, all of them listed on the Rams’ depth chart when they faced West Chester in the Division II national quarterfinals in early December.
Shepherd has both of its top tight ends returning.
Both Shaneil Jenkins and Bernard Wolley were solid contributors last season when on-field as replacements for the front four of the defense. And both could be starters this season when Shepherd opens its 2014 season at West Liberty on September 6. West Liberty was not on Shepherd’s 2013 schedule when the final year of a long-standing contract with Shippensburg was executed.
Shepherd has thrived, excelled, had unbeaten regular seasons, gone deep into the national playoffs and stocked its trophy cases with conference championships by annually displaying unmovable defensive lines and run-blocking offensive lines.
To stay ahead of its Mountain East Conference competition the Rams have to be fully capable of stopping the run and in providing Lolley, Cross and others with space to run themselves.
The group of transfers obviously has three or four players with the necessary skills to contribute to another successful season.
If several of the others can be blended with the returning depth from 2013, then the Rams will have found the ways to replace last year’s long-time starters . . . and stay in the forefront of the conference chase.