Shepherd defense: It’s what’s up front that counts
Myles Humphrey. Shaneil Jenkins. James Gupton. Octavius Thomas. Four defensive players with ability and experience that could make Shepherd one of the most difficult teams to run against this season. Again . . . as the Rams have annually made it uncomfortable for any team on their schedule to have any success on the ground when facing their defense.
Humphrey and Jenkins make running outside a difficult proposition. From their usual defensive end positions, those two keep Shepherd opponents from making sweeps anything but lost-yardage plays.
This season, the Rams are being slotted in second place in their Mountain East Conference — below Concord which won its first 13 games in 2014 before losing to Mankato State in the national semifinals of the NCAA Division II playoffs.
Humphrey and Jenkins seem to have some other playmakers along the defensive front.
Shepherd needs players like Isaiah Ross, Tateh Ndek, Marshall Mundin, Shaquille Melvin and Demetrius Dixon to be as staunch in stopping the run as are Humphrey and Jenkins.
Thomas and Gupton are two of the linebackers the Rams generally employ to negate anybody’s ground-based offense. Both actually started as freshmen, something not often seen at Shepherd. Thomas is a junior and Gupton only a sophomore.
Instant help and consistent contributions have to come from players like Jaylen Johnson, Keith Davis, Ryan Plowman, Connor Simpson or Jon Hall if the Rams are going to arrive undefeated in Athens for a mid-season game with Concord.
Shepherd’s three- or four-man secondary returns only C.J. Davis and Tre Sullivan as late-season starters from a a year ago. When Shepherd lost its two games in an 8-2 season, it was opponent’s pass offenses that damaged the Rams.
Phillip Rhoden has some starting experience but the rest of the primary candidates — Keon Robinson, Adam Coles, DeJuan Neal and Christian Strahin would be all new to any game’s starting lineup.
There seem to be enough down linemen to make life along the ground another season of misery for any opponent. The corps of linebackers has several of the team’s most valuable players to blunt opponents and their wishes to find any running success.
Will there be enough viable secondary players? Or will the up-front Rams have to apply pressure on every passing play, either hounding a quarterback into a hurried throw or adding to their sack totals.
Quarterbacks given adequate time have been effective against Shepherd’s secondary coverage in the past.
Will Humphrey, Jenkins, Thomas and Gupton all have all-star seasons? And even if they do, can the Shepherd defense survive when seeing a pass-first, pass-second offense that gets the time to throw?
West Virginia Wesleyan, a team that hasn’t gained more than 50 yards on the ground against Shepherd for years now, is the season’s first opponent, that game coming at 12-noon in Buckhannon on Sept. 5.
It’s what’s up front that counts most for the Shepherd defense.
But it’s the secondary that has to be accountable if the Rams are to supplant forceful Concord in Mountain East Conference play.