Shepherd was plenty good, wants to be better in 2015
Eight wins. Two losses. But no conference championship. And no NCAA playoff bid.
Shepherd was nearly all-winning last season, but the one-point loss at Notre Dame and a short, blocked field goal against Mountain East Conference titleist Concord kept the Rams from achieving their ultimate goals of being a repeat champion and a repeat contender in the NCAA Division II playoffs.
Concord returns a formidable core of players to defend its hard-won championship from a year ago. And the Rams have to play the Mountain Lions in Athens this season.
In 2014, Shepherd had one of its largest classes of seniors in its mostly storied history.
Saying goodbye to that group of championship achievers doesn’t mean the Rams will be searching in every nook and cranny for qualified players.
Linebackers Octavius Thomas and James Gupton are two of the best players in the conference and in the Region, which comprises four leagues. Depending on what kind of the season the Rams have, both could be mentioned on All-America teams when the season is finally finished.
Another player who could again get special recognition is defensive end Shaneil Jenkins. Defensive back/kick returner C.J. Davis has been turning heads ever since he was a freshman.
Myles Humphrey was effective as a first-year starter last year, and Demetrius Dixon has to be productive for Shepherd to overshadow Concord this season. Other defensive players with some starting experience or playing time in the past are Phillip Rhoden, Connor Simpson, Tatah Ndeh, Denzel Offer and Shaquille Mundin.
Shepherd’s only losses were adversely affected by its kicking game, so there should be competition there again between Ryan Earls and Mark Murphy.
Shepherd’s most effective offensive player is wide receiver Billy Brown, only a junior, whose wealth of talent was used extensively in the last four games of the 2014 season.
Jabre Lolley, Allen Cross and waterbug runner Malik Harleston all return with both Lolley and Cross having two years of experience.
There also should be constant competition for the starting assignments along the offensive line.
Lavonte Hights, Brandon Wooten, Brandon Dukeman, William Smith, Zach Buffkin and Jacob Kingston will be focal points of much attention as the Rams attempt to replace long-time starters in their offensive front.
Other than Brown’s obvious contributions, there were no other receivers whose merit would make defenses uneasy. Returning are Dalton Boyd, Tony Squirewell and tight end Jamie Deason, but none of them was ever much of a factor for more than a quarter or two.
Jon Hammer is the blocking fullback in Shepherd’s ground-pounding offense.
The quarterback is again Jeff Ziemba.
Now in its third year of existence, the Mountain East Conference will receive an automatic bid to the playoffs for its champion for the first time.
Only six teams in the so-called Super Region One are given playoff bids and the champions of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC), Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) and Northeast-10 are now joined by the Mountain East in getting four of the allotted slots.
Shepherd was 8-2 last season. It has another 10-game schedule this year with all the opponents coming from the Mountain East.
The season opens with a 12-noon visit to West Virginia Wesleyan in Buckhannon on September 5. The first home game is slated for 12-noon on September 12 when Charleston comes to Ram Stadium. There will be five home games and five road games for the 2015 Rams.
Shepherd has the linebackers and Billy Brown to show its opponents.
Can it create another useful offensive line, do something positive in the kicking game and grind out close wins with its serviceable runners? And can Concord be shaken out of its championship tree?