Football Preview 2016: Shepherd looking to build on 2015 success

Shepherd defensive back C.J. Davis (27) evades a tackle attempt by Grand Valley State's Nick Keizer (41) and turns a 29-yard interception into a touchdown during the fourth quarter. Journal Photo by Ron Agnir

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — No summation of Shepherd’s 2015 season fits more than one tendered by Rams defensive back Te Sullivan: “We made history, but we fell short of history,” he said.

True enough.

The Rams reached the program’s first Division II national championship game, but Shepherd dropped the contest to Northwest Missouri State.

After graduating just 10 seniors, Shepherd, with a bevy of preseason All-Americans in different ranking systems, is well-positioned to make a deep run into the playoffs — maybe even making that leap to the top.

That group includes the dynamic quarterback-wide receiver tandem of Jeff Ziemba and Billy Brown.

There are seven veteran starters on both offense and defense for a team opening the season ranked in the Top 5 in assorted preseason polls. The Rams are favored to win their third of four Mountain East Conference titles.

The most-glaring departures will be at kicker and running back, where eligibility issues clouded the return of veterans. Shepherd also replaced three assistant coaches, their stock having risen by the success of the team.

“They want to go ahead and replicate the kind of season we had last year,” Shepherd coach Monte Cater said. “Too many things go into it, injuries, the schedule — where you play games — and letdowns.”

Shepherd overcame its share of injuries a season ago — including one to Ziemba on the first series of the national semifinals — yet won its first 13 games before falling in the title game.

“I don’t see our guys as complacent,” Cater said. “We’ll find out.”

What they did last year — whet the players’ appetites to do it again. Well, as Sullivan would say, to do it one better.

Ziemba was reminded of the pain the team felt in losing just a lone game last season.

“We are hungry to get back and restart what we started,” Ziemba said.

It will be Ziemba’s offense in the early part of the season, at the very least, as new running backs get acclimated to a system at Shepherd that likes to run the football.

Musselman graduate Deonte Glover, who had a productive series of spring drills at West Virginia University, transferred and is among the candidates to step behind Ziemba. That might’ve been the biggest focus of camp.

Ziemba, whose career completion percentage is 63 percent, threw for 3,414 yards and 30 touchdowns, with only five interceptions.
His record as a starter since taking over around midseason of his redshirt freshman season is 26-4.

Should Ziemba need relief for whatever reason, Shepherd has a very capable backup in Connor Jessop, who bailed out Shepherd when Ziemba left the national semifinal with a shoulder injury.

Shepherd’s corps of wide receivers is talented, although a little young, and led by the player Cater calls the “best ever” at the position, Billy Brown.

Brown caught 89 passes for 1,492 and 10 touchdowns a year ago. Next in line was veteran Tony Squirewell with 49 receptions. Other returnees caught fewer than 10 passes.

“We got some good, young receivers,” Cater said.

Tyrell Hollingsworth and Wanya Allen will be among those receivers making an impact.

Jamie Deason returns at tight end, bolstering a front line that is experienced and will be getting some players back.

Lavonte Hights is the most-heralded of the linemen. Jake Kingston is the returning starter at center, while Levi Lloyd, Jaime Colon, Khalil Proctor and Will Smith each were starters along the line. Smith is returning from injury.

The defensive line is just as veteran with Marshall Mundin, Elijah Norris, Myles Humphrey, Shaquille Melvin and D.J. Cornish among the veteran leaders.

James Gupton and Octavious Thomas, both of whom missed some time injured last season, are standouts at linebacker. Cameron Reynolds and Jaylen Johnson are other veteran linebackers.

Gupton, who missed four games, ranked second on Shepherd in total tackles last season with 80. Thomas was third with 70.

Shepherd, which had ranked first against the rush four seasons straight, fell from that pedestal last season, but the Rams were particularly strong in the postseason and put clamps on a pair of high-powered offenses in the playoffs.

“We started to click at the end of the season,” Sullivan said. “We took (the playoffs) as a challenge. Billy (Brown) lied to us and said he knew a player on Slippery Rock and said they were going to run all over us.”

Slippery Rock rushed for 67 yards on 33 carries after averaging 257 yards per game.

Sullivan is a veteran at free safety, while C.J. Davis and Adam Coles, who moved into the starting lineup as a result of a season-ending injury, are key in the secondary.

“We definitely got to defend the pass,” Cater said.

Coles led the team with five interceptions a season ago, while Davis has earned All-America honors in the past as a return specialist.

Ruan Ventor and his big leg is back at punter. However, the Rams were trying to decide on a kicker after their top two graduated a season ago.

“The kicking game will be important,” Cater said.

Long snapper Nick Barmoy is back for his senior season, as well.

Shepherd opens the season on Sept. 3 when it hosts West Virginia Wesleyan.

Still, at least psychologically, much goes back to that final game on Dec. 19, the only one Shepherd lost.

“We want to use that as motivation,” Sullivan said.