It’s been over a month since the Shepherd University football team suffered its first and only defeat to West Chester University 28–7 in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II Football Championship. Certainly the loss was devastating and not the outcome the team was looking for. However, the year has to be considered far from disappointing as many Rams had fantastic seasons.
The Shepherd Rams became the first ever champions of the newly formed Mountain East Conference by finishing the regular season 10–0. In fact, this was their first undefeated regular season since 2006. The undefeated season earned the Rams a top seed in the Division II playoffs. During their first game of the postseason they were able to pull out a tough victory against Winston-Salem State. It was a matchup of the top two defenses at the Division II level.
The Rams had many chances against West Chester University, as it was a one-score difference for the majority of the game before three late turnovers. When we asked senior wide receiver Trevor Turner on whether the season was a success he said, “It’s not a disappointment, but I wouldn’t say it’s a success. It’s the norm. It’s like we’re good but not the best.”
Even with the loss, it’s hard to argue that the season was not a rousing success. The Rams may have fielded the best defense to ever play for Shepherd University, only allowing 15 touchdowns in 12 games. Opponents only scored 13.4 points per game on the Rams throughout the entire season with just a mere average of 43 rushing yards per game. That is what happens when you field an all-senior led defensive line, including multiple potential National Football League prospects.
Defensive Coordinator Josh Kline was named Division II Defensive Coordinator of the Year for leading the top ranked Rams’ defense. Defensive end Howard Jones earned the opportunity to play in the NFLPA Collegiate bowl where he stood out early with a fumble recovery and earning an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine as a potential middle round selection. There’s no question Shepherd will have to make key replacements on both sides of the ball to continue to build on the success from this season, but the Rams have many important players returning to give the team promise and high expectations for the 2014 season.
The identity of the offense was the running game where redshirt freshman Jabre Lolley and sophomore Allen Cross combined to rush for 2,025 yards and 27 touchdowns. Both of them will be back next season, as well as second team all-region offensive linemen Jordan Dixon. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff Ziemba showed efficiency and accuracy throughout his starts, completing 62.3 percent of his passes and looked to solidify himself as the unquestioned starter heading into spring practice.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Rams will have to replace their dominant defensive line, but they’re returning multiple starters in the back seven, including defensive back Phillip Rhoden who led the team in interceptions with five. The Rams will also have CJ Davis back; Davis received All-American honors as a kickoff returner and should see more playing time in the secondary with the departure of senior stalwart Corey Washington.
The Shepherd University football team has a lot to be proud of as they accomplished so much throughout the season. The Rams worked together from day one and continued every day to come together as a team. The Rams won together and eventually they lost together, but they didn’t give up on one another. The team made their Shepherd community proud as they continued to lay down a blueprint and expectations for all future athletes that will come through the Shepherd University football program.
With the success that comes with being a strong football program, there is always the threat that coaches may depart. If Shepherd wants to continue to have the positive outreach that comes with having a dominant football program, the institution will need to put safeguards into effect to protect the interests of some of the assistants on Head Coach Monte Cater’s staff.