Not ‘Linebacker U.’, but close
An annual rite of autumn for many, many seasons has been the effective play of the Shepherd defense.
With 14 conference championships and numerous visits to the NAIA and NCAA playoffs, the Rams under Monte Cater have nearly always been a defensive team that allowed very little along the ground. It has been hard to score against the Rams. If an opponent scored more than 17 points it was an unusual sight. If there weren’t some scattered shutouts posted by the Shepherd defense in any season it was also a rare happening.
This will be Cater’s 28th season at Shepherd.
The preponderance of his other successful teams have presented opponents a corps of linebackers that were the most important ingredient of any of those Shepherd defenses.
Unbeaten seasons, one-loss seasons, deep playoff runs or 12-win seasons — all of them carved out behind the effective play of the Rams’ linebackers.
This will be the second year in the baptized-in-2013 Mountain East Conference. Shepherd tasted only success last season, running away to a 9-0 record in the then just-formed league.
And now comes another season where all of the other 10 teams mark the date when Shepherd appears on their schedules with an asterisk, big red circle or “must win” note.
Concord has all 11 of its offensive starters returning. Charleston has most of its regulars returning from a team that went 8-3 last year. Urbana lost at Ram Stadium by only seven points. Those three teams all believe if they beat Shepherd they will hang the 2014 championship banner on their campus.
But Shepherd has another distinctive corps of quality-playmaking linebackers.
It’s true the Rams had an all-senior group of down linemen in 2013. Those four multi-year starters are all gone, and somehow must be replaced by other run-stoppers.
A slightly added burden of responsibility will be on the shoulders of the linebackers, all of which were important contributors to the 2013 Rams or at Bowie State where transfer Antoine Young played last year.
De’Ontre Johnson is now a senior. He led the team in tackles last year with a total of 66 stops. The 5-foot-9, 209-pound Johnson also added 9.5 tackles for lost yardage, two sacks, two interceptions and a fumble recovery to his list of statistics.
Another starter returning to the team that went 10-0 to complete an undefeated regular season is 6-foot, 220-pound Levi Barber. Barber’s final numbers showed him with 54 tackles, four tackles for lost yardage, two interceptions and a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown against Fairmont.
In the middle of the field, often disrupting any opponent’s offensive plans, is sophomore Octavius Thomas, a player successfully recruited frrom Myrtle Beach (SC) High because many schools thought him too short at 5-foot-9.
But Thomas was one tackle behind Johnson with his 65 stops as a starter in his first year on campus. He also had 9.5 tackles for lost yardage, four sacks, one interception and one fumble recovery.
If none of those three returning starters is moved to another position, that is a quality crew of linebackers.
Joining the Shepherd ranks this season is Antoine Young, a junior who led Bowie State in tackles in spite of only playing in eight games and starting only five times. Young registered 66 tackles, five of which were for lost yardage. He’s 5-foot-10, 232 pounds of run-stopper. He forced two fumbles and had a sack for the 2013 Bulldogs of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
It could be Young that plays a different position for the Rams, whose coaches might want Johnson, Barber, Thomas and Young all on the field at the same time.
Shepherd comes into 2014 with a bullseye on its chest.
The four linebackers it presents opponents will see bullseyes on the chests of every offense the Rams encounter this year.