Football Preview 2017: Shepherd looking to keep tradition going

Shepherd RB Deonte Glover (29) runs past Fairmont State DB Emanuel Ivey (1) and Stephen Turner (15) during third quarter action in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Ron Agnir/Journal

SHEPHERDSTOWN – Shepherd has lost its all-time best passing combination.

That’s OK for the two-time defending Super Region 1 champion Rams.

Shepherd only has the single-game passing record holder to step in at quarterback. It’s not a bad tradeoff.

Although there’s no way incoming Connor Jessop will make fans of the Rams forget previous quarterback Jeff Ziemba and wide receiver Billy Brown, the holders of almost all of Shepherd’s passing records, it’s hard to forget what Jessop has meant to the team.

Beside his single-game-record 480 passing yards against West Virginia State last season as a fill-in for Ziemba, Jessop played a pivotal role in two playoff games when Ziemba got hurt.

Jessop played all but the first three plays of a national semifinal game in 2015 against Grand Valley State after Ziemba got hurt and led the Rams to a victory and an appearance in their first national championship game.

In the Region 1 championship game a year ago, he came on for one play after Ziemba took a shot to his head and carried the ball across the goal line to give the Rams a late, two-score lead as they defeated California of Pennsylvania 41-30.

“Conner saved our butts on three occasions,” Shepherd coach Monte Cater said.

No matter how Jessop plays, the Rams expect business as usual.

Picked to win the Mountain East Conference by the league’s coaches, the Rams have found themselves in the various preseason Top 25s.

Some of the players aren’t happy that some of those polls have Shepherd outside of the Top 10, and they’ve expressed their displeasure on social media.

Shepherd ended its season with a record-tying 13-1 record last season, although, unlike the year before when the Rams played in their first national championship game, the campaign ended in a loss in the national semifinals to North Alabama at Ram Stadium.

Interestingly, Shepherd hosted both national semifinals against a pair of blue bloods of Division II football.

Both games were broadcast nationally, as will be the Rams’ opener on Sept. 2 against Notre Dame College in the first contest of an 18-game package.

Yes, people nationally are paying attention to Shepherd, which finished the last two years ranked second and third in the nation, respectively.

“It’s nice to be able to kick things off,” Cater said. “It’s great for the league.

“They look at our success, I guess. Twenty-six and two the last two seasons, and we lost the national championship game (in 2015).

Shepherd has earned its notoriety.

Cater is the leader in career wins in NCAA football regardless of division.

The Rams have played in the regional semifinals three times since 2010.

“The bottom line, we’ve had some success,” Cater said. “Can we continue?”

Cater knows his team has to take care of business in its conference first. Beside Shepherd, Fairmont reached the postseason in 2016 and Shepherd’s Mountain East Conference has a three-year string of Final Four appearances since Concord started it in 2014.

The Rams expect to face a challenge right from the start.

Notre Dame lost just two games last season, to the two playoff teams from the MEC, and is projected by the league coaches to finish second – behind the Rams.

“It’s great to have that kind of matchup,” Cater said. “It’s a big game for the league.”

Shepherd will find out how it stands right away.

Beside Ziemba and Brown, the Rams lost C.J. Davis, another 1,000-yard receiver from last season, as well as the school’s all-time leader in special teams returns, a pair of tight ends, some key defenders, including Tre Sullivan, who has been with the Philadelphia Eagles, along with Brown, during NFL training camp.

“I can guarantee the cupboard’s not bare,” Cater said. “We’re excited.”

While Jessop will be a focal point of Shepherd’s offense, the Rams have plenty of talent and depth at running back, a position that traditionally flourished before the Ziemba-and-Brown Era.

However, Shepherd took an unexpected hit when Brandon Hlavach underwent a pair of knee surgeries over the summer and won’t be with the team.

He ran for 1,217 yards as a true freshman.

Deonte Glover, a transfer from West Virginia, began last season as the starter, providing 576 yards rushing. Plus, Jabre Lolley is back for his senior season after not being eligible a season ago. Lolley led the MEC in scoring two seasons ago when he rushed for 680 yards and finished with 102 points, providing an extra dimension as a wildcat quarterback at times.

Cater’s big on Patrick Griffin, as well as transfers Akeem Holland and Dante Mauck. Mauck, a Handley graduate, comes to the program from Virginia Military Institute, while Holland is a former freshman of the year in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association while at Virginia State. He could wind up at wide receiver.

That’s because Ryan Feiss, who missed spring drills after surgery, is the lone holdover starter. He grabbed 55 passes a year ago for 734 yards. Dakwon Foreman and Wanya Allen collected 21 passes a year ago and give the Rams some experience.

Tatah Ndeh, who has rotated between fullback and the defensive line over his career, is again listed as a fullback as a senior.

All-America candidate Lavonte Hights returns to lead the offensive line. He’s received his fair share of preseason honors.

“It’s not just Lavonte,” Cater said.

There is also veteran Jamie Colon and Levi Lloyd back as starters.

Offensively, it comes back to Jessop.

For his career, he’s completed 54 of 74 pass attempts for 1,005 yards, almost a 20-yard average per completion. He had five rushes last season for 69 yards.

Shepherd is sound in special teams with the return of its kicker, punter and long snapper.

Zach Wise was successful on 9 of 13 field goal tries a season ago and finished with 88 points and returns for his senior season, though kickoff duties could go elsewhere. Punter Ruan Venter averaged 41.5 yards per boot last season, and Nick Barmoy is back for one more season as the long snapper, and is in graduate school.

Shepherd took big hits defensively by losing Sullivan, a hard hitter, among some others. There are nine veteran starters back, led by All-American candidate Myles Humphrey on the defensive line.

Other veteran linemen include James King, Bruno Anyangwe and Scott Dixon. The unit is bolstered by the return of E.J. Norris, who, like Lolley, wasn’t eligible last season.

“King, it’s hard to block him one on one,” Cater said. “Having E.J. back will help us. And Myles is such a solid guy.”

Humphrey had 13.5 sacks and 24 tackles for loss. King recorded eight sacks.

“I think that group will be good,” Cater said.

Veteran linebacker James Gupton finished second a season ago with 99 tackles. He’s joined by Tre Anderson, who had 73 stops, and Jared Austin.

Chris Jones is a returning starter in the secondary. DeJuan Neal and Keith Davis are other regular defensive backs. Raugn Cater and Justin Cole will see significant time in the secondary, as well. Cameron Reynolds played a lot at linebacker.

“We’ve kept the defense strong and have been able to lead the nation in different categories, especially against the run,” Cater said.

The Rams want to keep their successful run going.