2015 Football: Late-season loss still lingers for Shepherd

Shepherd's Jeff Ziemba (11) flips the ball away to avoid a sack by Glenville State's Seth Vanorsdale (44) during a game last year in Shepherdstown. Journal Photo by Ron Agnir

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Sometimes, it’s all about perspective.

While an 8-2 record is a winning mark, Shepherd didn’t feel overjoyed by it a season ago as a run of two straight conference championships ended, as did a two-year run of NCAA playoff appearances.

In both losses, Shepherd was right there. The Rams suffered a one-point loss to Notre Dame College and took national semifinalist Concord to overtime before a potential game-tying field goal that would’ve forced a second extra session was blocked and returned for a touchdown by the Mountain Lions.

If anything, the way the game ended symbolized a season-long struggle Shepherd endured with haphazard play by its special teams that crossed all parts of the unit.

Shepherd can’t escape the memory of the loss to Concord in the final game of the season – with a share of the league title on the line and a possible playoff berth at stake for the Rams, too.

“I know you’re not supposed to,” Shepherd coach Monte Cater said. “When it’s the last one, it endures.You know why and want to play better.”

The Rams have the ingredients to improve their play and make another run at the Mountain East Conference title.

Shepherd possesses seven veteran starters on offense and six defensively from a unit that was again among the nation’s best. That’s even though the roster is dotted with only 10 seniors for a second year in a row.

“We’re excited about this year,” Cater said.

Key skill people are back on offense, and Cater doesn’t anticipate any less from a defense that annually ranks among the nation’s best under defensive coordinator Josh Kline.

“Coach Kline puts together one of the best defenses in Division II,” Cater said. “We think it’ll be that way again.”

The biggest question mark on the unit is at outside linebacker, where the Rams will be replacing two starters. There will be missing pieces on the line, too, but a pair of Division I transfers who sat out last year give Cater the cause to say, “It could be one of the best we’ve had in a long time.”

Where Shepherd really needs to improve is on special teams, usually a strength under Cater. The return game a season ago was stifled somewhat because teams kicked away from C.J. Davis, an All-American return man as a freshman, and defending kickoffs proved problematic by turning opposing returners into reflections of Davis. Kickers, two different ones who return this season, missed extra-point kicks at inopportune times. Then, of course, was the blocked field goal that doomed Shepherd to a long offseason.

“We need to get better,” Cater said of special teams. “Hopefully, we’ll be more consistent in that phase.”

Offensively, while all eyes will be on quarterback Jeff Ziemba, a participant in the prestigious Peyton Manning Camp over the summer, and veteran running backs Alan Cross and Jabre Lolley, attention should be paid to the offensive line — where it all starts. The Rams graduated three of the interior five, including an All-American who was one of two four-year starters.

“If you can’t run or the quarterback’s on his backside…,” Cater said. “It is one of the toughest jobs. If the defense misses an assignment, there’s someone else to pick it up. If your guy misses a block, you have a problem.”

Projected starters include Brandon Wooten, Zach Buffkin, William Smith, Jacob Kingston and Lavonte Hights.

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

But there’s a good older guy in Jon Hammer, who serves as kind of an extra lineman in Shepherd’s attack at fullback.

Shepherd is loaded skill-wise.

Ziemba threw for 2,248 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. His completion percentage of .656 was among the nation’s best, ranking him 10th in the country. He was in the top 10 in two other categories, including being sixth in passing efficiency.

Cater excused one of the two interceptions because it came as a result of a tipped ball.

Lolley ran for 767 yards and 12 touchdowns and Cross rushed for 601 yards and eight touchdowns as the pair shared the load in the running game and will do so again.

Tight end-sized Billy Brown, who caught a touchdown pass in the closing seconds to force overtime in the final against Concord, is the leader of the wide receivers.

Cater said Brown “is as good as we’ve had.”

Tony Squirewell and Sherando graduate Dalton Boyd are the veteran wide receivers.

Jamie Deason returns as the tight end, and Lue Sokoya, injured and unavailable last season, gives the Rams depth at that slot. Ziemba, Cross, Lolley, Hammer and Brown were named to all-MEC second team.

Shepherd’s defense ranked first nationally in rushing defense for the fourth season in a row, was second overall in total defense and ranked third in scoring defense, a number actually inflated by the points allowed by special teams. It’s something Shepherd always does, though, play iron-hard defense.

The defensive line, about which Cater raves, is bolstered by big-school transfers Elijah Norris and Marshall Mundin.

“We think those guys are good,” Cater said.

Shaneil Jenkins, Demetrius Dixon, Denzel Offor and Myles Humphries, a second-team all-league choice, work from the ends.

“The concern is outside linebacker,” Cater said, where the Rams must replace a pair of all-conference players.

James Gupton, the league’s freshman defender of the year, and Octavious Thomas are steady and solid inside. Both were all-league players a season ago.

Davis intercepted five passes last season at cornerback and will be joined in the secondary by Philip Rhoden, who had five pickoffs to lead Shepherd the year before and Tre Sullivan. The Rams will get a boost with the return of former All-American Keon Robinson.

“The secondary will be very, very solid,” Cater said.

Davis earned first-team all-MEC honors at defensive back and was a second-team choice as a return specialist.

Ryan Earls was named as the league’s first-team kicker two seasons ago, but he and Mark Murphy wound up sharing kicking and punting duties a season ago. They are back.

Shepherd opens the season Sept. 5 at West Virginia Wesleyan, the second year in a row the Rams will have begun on the road. The Rams home-opener comes a week later against Charleston.

“We’re looking forward to a good year,” Cater said. “You better play better every week. We found that out.”

Now Shepherd looks to rectify that situation in 2015.