By Rick Kozlowski
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Shepherd regularly wins conference championships and advances to the postseason.
The Rams will have to do it in another league this season, however.
Instead of the West Virginia Conference, Shepherd is in the first-year Mountain East Conference -- a combination of the old league and a few additions.
The last WVC champions are predicted to be the first MEC titlest and reach the NCAA Division II playoffs for a second year in a row.
Anything less would be a major disappointment for the Rams, who return eight starters on both offense and defense, plus its kicker and punter.
The Rams are well-connected from an 8-3 season that included two losses to playoff teams.
"We're excited about this season," said coach Monte Cater, the most-successful coach in WVC history.
"It's hard not to be excited about this year. We went from our smallest senior class to our largest senior class."
It's a talented one, too, by itself alone. Then you throw in defensive backs Keon Robinson, a previous All-American, and Corey Washington, an All-American candidate. Each one could've graduated already, but for different reasons, both are members of this senior class.
The numbers are in the favor of Shepherd, which, suffering some devastating turnovers, lost on the road in the first round of last year's playoffs to Indiana (Pa.).
"It's hard not to get excited about this team, but it's a hard league," Cater said.
Cater's not prone to being so effusive, which speaks largely to what he expects from his team.
The Rams will operate with a new quarterback after the graduation of a rare Shepherd commodity -- an all-league quarterback in Bobby Cooper. The Rams have typically emphasized the run with Cater.
James Wood graduate Trae Tinsman steps in at quarterback after a season of backing up Cooper and replacing him in the Rams' lone league loss, a 17-16 defeat to West Liberty, when they seemed to pull out a miracle finish in the final minute, only to see an extra-point kick by Ryan Earlsgo awry.
A new quarterback always provides a mystery for any football team.
"When you have a new quarterback, that's certainly [a question]," Cater said. "Trae has played in some games and played some with the game still in doubt."
Appearing in eight games in 2012, Tinsman completed 10 of 21 passes for 156 yards with no interceptions nor touchdowns.
He's getting a push from redshirt freshman Jeff Ziemba, who comes from St. Mark's in Newark, Del., which also provided running back Jabre Lolly. Lolly was redshirted last season and is expected to push for significant time carrying the football.
Shepherd has an experienced receiving corp that anticipated the loss of just one player. However, Billy Brown, whose highlight reel catch against West Liberty almost gave the Rams a chance in overtime, if not for the missed extra point, will be out with an injury.
Returning at receiver are Justin Ford, Will McKenzie, Sherando graduate Dalton Boyd, Trevor Turner and Robert Byrd. Add in, tight end Anthony Weisenmuller, who "is really good," Cater said, should ease the burden on Tinsman.
So should the running game.
Running the football won't change for Shepherd with experienced backs Jihad Rasheed, Allen Cross and Mike Haynes in the mix. It's been Cater's philosophy to deliver a strong running game.
Rasheeed ran for 407 yards, Cross 365 and Haynes 314 -- producing an uncommonly Shepherd low team per-rush average of 3.6 yards per carry.
Lolly could be the breakaway back the Rams missed last season.
It will help, too, that all five starting offensive linemen are back, though the unit struggled at time to keep defenders off the running backs.
"We got to be able to run the football," Cater said.
Interior linemen Jordan Dixon, Hussam Ouri and Isaiah Shelton earned preseason, honorable-mention All-American status by one service -- three of 10 Shepherd players to earn such acclaim, which speaks loudly to the talent level the Rams possess and the reason is Cater is so positive.
Shepherd might have to wait until its games to see how successful its running game will be.
"Look at the defense," Cater said, "Every week, we go against the best defense we'll face in practice."
Shepherd led the nation in rush defense a season ago with 52.6 yards per game and a scant 1.8 per carry. The Rams also topped the nation the season before against the running game.
They finished 16th overall in defense a year ago. The players in the trenches are back, as are the team's big-play defensive backs.
"We're thin at inside linebacker," Cater said.
Dominique Dixon and Dontrewell Kelley have turned many plays there, but after them, inexperience will show up for the Rams.
On the outside, DeáOntre Johnson and Levi Barber return. Key linebacker losses include A.J. Parrish and Dominic Tolson.
It could be, though, the inside linebackers will never see a ballcarrier if it's up to the defensive line.
Howard Jones is an All-American candidate at defense end for his propensity to stop runners and quarterbacks in the backfield. Mike Franklin and Robert Hayes seem like they've operated for the Rams forever. All three received some type of preseason All-American honors, including first team for Jones and second for Franklin.
"Our problem is if we get guys beat up," Cater said, "Then it's a dropoff."
Robinson and Washington are leaders in a secondary that also includes Handley graduate David Carter, who became a regular when Washington was lost for the season after an injury he suffered in Game 2. Phillip Rhoden received a lot of playing time, as well. Robinson is listed as a first-team preseason All-American at cornerback and third team as a return specialist.
Punter Troy McNeill returns, as does Earls at kicker.
The Rams will find out early how they rate within their region, or, taking the glass-is-half-full approach, opponents will determine how they stack up with Shepherd.
Shepherd's opening game is against Shippensburg, which has been rated in the top five nationally among preseason guides and features Harlon Hill Award winner Zach Zulli at quarterback.
The Rams let a 28-17 halftime lead get away in a 38-28 loss in Pennsylvania a season ago.
Throughout the season, Shepherd's schedule goes home-away-home-away for its 10 regular-season games.