By Rick Kozlowski - firstname.lastname@example.org
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Over his 27 previous seasons as head coach at Shepherd, Monte Cater established certain standards:
• An emphasis on the running game.
• A quality kicking game.
• An excellent return unit.
• A strong and stalwart defense.
The defending Mountain East Conference champion goes into the new season with check marks on the first three items.
Defense, though, that's the question everyone seems to have about a team that has been picked to defend its championship in a vote by league coaches.
"It's been brought up a lot around campus and on line," senior Levi Barber said.
Shepherd suffered heavy losses from a defense that was among the top three nationally in all of the important statistics, including leading the nation in rushing defense for the third year in a row.
The defensive line lost all four starters, each of whom was studied by NFL scouts and one, Howard Jones, signed a professional contract.
Other players used up their eligibility or graduated from a squad that was "probably the best defense we ever had," Cater said.
In speaking of the defense, Cater continued, "But there are significant losses, not just up front either."
Barber anticipates the defensive unit will reach the Shepherd standard when the Rams open the season Sept. 6 at West Liberty.
"I'm completely confident in the people we have," said Barber, a first-team, all-conference linebacker.
Added Cater, "The cupboard's not bare."
Still, most of the experienced starters are on offense and not defense, a switch from last season when Shepherd ran the table in the regular season, won a 7-0 playoff victory and then fell in the national quarterfinals. Shepherd's defense returned virtually intact a season ago, and the offense was a little less experienced.
"I think we're going to be fine," Cater said of his team's defense.
Shaneil Jenkins gained extensive experience on the defensive line last season, and Demetrius Dixon and Myles Humphries figure into the mix. Former fullback Bernard Wooley also is there. Three of four linebackers return to the fold -- including Barber and all-league second-teamers De'Ontre Johnson and Octavious Thomas, the MEC's defensive freshman of the year. Transfer Antoine Young looks to grab a fourth spot.
In the secondary, David Carter and Philip Rhoden, who had five interceptions a season ago, are veteran starters, but Dontrewell Kelley will miss the whole season because of an injury. Adam Coles, Tre Sullivan and C.J. Davis will join the unit.
"Athleticism will get you by," Cater said. "I think they're going to be OK."
Davis is an All-American return specialist who will bring his immense talent to the defensive backfield. He averaged 24.9 yards per punt return in 2013.
"We've had some great ones," Cater said of return men. "He's going to be among them."
Similarly, the Rams have possessed tremendous running backs, and Allen Cross and Jabre Lolley fit that category. Plus, Cater is high on newcomer Trenton Cannon.
Cross rushed for 1,114 yards and 12 touchdowns, while Lolley, the conference's top offensive freshman, added 925 yards and a league-high 15 TDs.
"They're as good of running backs that we've had," Cater said.
They'll be running behind a line that returns three starters, including all-league performer Isaiah Shelton, second-teamer Hussam Ouri and Dameon Hairston. Will Smith and Lavonte Hights will join the crew up front.
"We lost two good players," Cater said, "but we're still excited by what we have there."
John Hammer, wearing the perfect name for his position in Shepherd's system, is the team's all-league fullback, a player used mostly for blocking. Jamie Deason returns at tight end.
The return of Billy Brown, who sat out all of last season injured, and Dalton Boyd, who was injured early in the season bolsters a receiving corps that also includes veterans William McKenzie and Tony Squirewell.
"Offensively, we got to get better," Cater said.
Importantly, quarterback Jeff Ziemba is back after taking over the position at midseason of his redshirt freshman year in 2013. His completion percentage led the MEC, but he suffered a pair of interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in Shepherd's lone loss during the playoffs to West Chester. He was intercepted just six times all season.
"He'll be better," Cater said. "He learned a lot in that last ballgame."
Cater likes Ziemba's consistency and said, "He'll be better this year."
Kicker Ryan Earls earned all-conference honors last season, but he might have to add punting to his repertoire. James Domenico is steady at long snapper.
The league coaches think the Rams have enough to win the conference championship for a second time in its two-year run.
"It's an expectation to be on top here," Barber said. "Winning is an expectancy here."