By Rick Kozlowski -- The Journal (Martinsburg, W.Va.)
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Shepherd University football coach Monte Cater is periodically reminded of the half-foot that pretty much disabled the Rams from defending their West Virginia Conference championship in 2011 and missing out on the postseason.
Oh, it's hard to forget the play.
The Rams had just scored a touchdown in overtime against West Virginia Wesleyan and kicked the extra point to tie the game and apparently force a second extra session. A penalty flag flew against the Bobcats, however.
Cater decided to accept the penalty, moving the ball up a yard-a-half, and chose to go for the two-point conversion.
Running back Tommy Addison, who ran for 153 yards that afternoon, was stopped virtually six inches short of the goal line.
Had the Rams won, as it turned out, they would've claimed a share of the league title and would've gotten into the playoffs.
Instead, Shepherd sat on the cusp of both.
Cater won't question his decision, however.
What really concerned him is that his team scored 44 points and lost a game as the Bobcats scorched the nation's top-ranked defense for 45 points.
What he also laments is that after Shepherd suffered back-to-back losses to Concord on a chilly and snowy October Saturday and then the next week on a summery day to West Virginia Wesleyan, that the Rams were at the top of their game.
Then it all ended unceremoniously.
"We were very disappointed ... because we were playing our best football at the end of the season," Cater said.
It will be up to the next round of Shepherd players to pick up the pieces of what could've been and run with a finish that included five straight wins to end the season.
The Rams go into this season with a great deal of experience from a squad that posted a 9-2 record in 2011, including almost the entire defense that also ranked No. 1 nationally against the rush.
"If they stay healthy, they should be pretty good [defensively]," Cater said. "Defensively, I'm hoping we'll be able to take the next step.
"We got guys back on offense, but defense is where we have the most people back."
Among the nine returning starters is defensive end Howard Jones, an agile and speedy pass rusher who can be found on some preseason All-American lists.
The list of offensive starters, although not as exhaustive with five, includes quarterback Bobby Cooper, which is always a good thing for an offense, and another preseason All-American in tight end John Frick.
The biggest thing, Cater always insists, is staying healthy while his team builds up its depth.
Injuries and the suspension of a key player stalled Shepherd a season ago -- particularly in the game against West Virginia Wesleyan, when the Rams had to move around some players from their natural positions.
One area of concern on defense for Cater is finding replacements for three graduated outside linebackers. It will help getting Dominic Tolson back there after the senior spent a lot of time playing in the secondary last season.
The Rams had their share of injuries on offense, too.
An leg ailment limited graduated running back Addison, though it gave others a chance to shine, and Kenny Williams landed on the all-league's second team, along with Addison.
Williams is back, and the Rams gained transfer Jihad Rasheed from Michigan. Rasheed, a Detroit-area athlete, was known as the next Barry Sanders in high school.
One of the biggest things for Shepherd on offense is to find a cohesive offensive line after three all-league players graduated.
"That's where are biggest losses were," Cater said.
The Rams have been picked to win the conference this season.
"Our conference is really strong," Cater said. "We keep talking about that. We'll see how we match up."
The ingredients exist, though, for Cater, the WVC's all-time winningest coach, to challenge for another conference crown.
There's a nice mix of veterans to begin their charge.
Cooper threw for 2,161 yards in what is widely considered a run-oriented offense. His pass efficiency rating ranked second in the conference. His backup, Trae Tinsman, returns as well.
Williams rushed for 842 yards, but his 6.0 carry average ranked second in the conference.
Kevin Williams and Mike Haynes gained valuable time at running back, as well.
Beside the offensive line, Shepherd took some heavy graduation hits at wide receiver. However, the Rams rotated those players frequently, so there is a degree of experience.
Justin Ford and Larry Lowe are speedy deep threats, while Robert Byrd looks to overcome an injury-filled season in 2011. William McKenzie saw a lot of time split out and is a key athlete in Shepherd's kickoff return game.
Despite his aches, Byrd still hauled in 31 passes a season ago, second-best on the team. Ford and Lowe combined to catch 31 passes.
Frick, used deceptively at tight end, caught 16 passes, and four of them went for touchdowns last season. Cater also likes what Anthony Weisenmiller gives the Rams at tight end, particularly his ability to block.
The Rams will be working in a new fullback, as well as offensive linemen.
Center Sean Hull and linemen Hussam Ouri and Jordan Dixon gained valuable experience last season on the offensive line.
How the line gels will be significant to the Rams' fortunes.
"We got exposed [on the line] in the spring because of how good the defense was," Cater said.
That defense, particularly against the run, hampered Shepherd's offense -- much like it did to almost all of its opponents last season.
Jones is one of the leaders on the defensive line and the whole defense overall, looking like a sprinter in lineman's clothing once the ball is snapped. Mike Franklin is a prototypical nose guard at 6-foot-3, 310 pounds. Jones managed a dozen sacks last season.
Dominique Dixon and A.J. Parrish are key components at linebacker. Leons Kabongo is another sure-fire bet at linebacker, ranking sixth on the squad in tackles.
Of the top-11 tacklers from last season, only Elijah Davis is gone.
Although he graduated after tying the mark for most-return touchdowns, thanks mostly to his ability to intercept passes, the Rams will have Keon Robinson back in the fold.
Robinson, an All-American two seasons ago as Shepherd advanced to the national final four for the first time in school history, missed all but the first couple of games after being involved in a legal entanglement that forced Shepherd to suspend him.
The rest of the defensive backfield is virtually intact. Corey Washington is a three-year starter at free safety and D.J. Scott was a stalwart until getting hurt off the field.
Scott led the team in tackles last season as well as intercepting three passes.
It's hard for Cater not to be excited about his defense.
While Troy McNeill is back at punter, taking over last season and relieving Eric Dobratz of double duty that included placekicker, Dobratz left the program as the all-league kicker.
McNeill can kick, too, and there are a few others in the mix.
Until Shepherd's new kicker can gain experience, the Rams will count on the offense and defense to tend to the situations.
Both units look quite capable providing solid play as the Rams try to return to the glory of 2010.