[cleeng_content id="464866590" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]SHEPHERDSTOWN — When football practice begins at Shepherd in mid-August, the freshmen report and the large group is quickly winnowed to those that are going to be redshirted and the very few that might get to play some in their first year on campus.
Shepherd has been winning and winning in Coach Monte Cater’s last 20 years. The winning wasn’t achieved with freshmen new to college football. The Rams overshadowed the rest of the WVIAC with juniors and seniors — not with 18-year-olds.
The number of players just out of high school helping the Rams to two unbeaten regular seasons and 13 conference titles was so small a high-power microscope would be needed to find any.
Cater would have played them — even started them — if any had been talented enough to help him.
Even those players who had four-year careers and earned All-Conference, All-Region and All-America recognition weren’t contributors as freshmen just months removed from high school graduation.
This has become a rare season at Shepherd.
There is a freshman starter who just graduated in 2013 from Myrtle Beach High School in South Carolina.
Not only did he start at linebacker when the Rams opened against seventh-ranked Shippensburg, but in the aftermath of a 33-0 Shepherd win over the Red Raiders freshman Octavius Thomas was selected as the Mountain East Conference Defensive Player of the Week.
Thomas had six solo tackles and seven overall. He recovered a fumble and had 1.5 tackles for lost yardage.
How did Shepherd get the services of a quality player from the state of South Carolina? The Palmetto State boasts of Clemson and the University of South Carolina, a pair of Top 20 teams. Even Furman’s Purple Paladins and Wofford’s Terriers of the college division usually field national-caliber teams.
Thomas had been a statistical star for three years at Myrtle Beach. When he was a sophomore, the Seahawks won a state championship. As a junior, Thomas and Myrtle Beach advanced along the playoff trail but didn’t repeat as state championships.
The 2012 Seahawk season ended with a 10-2 record, but a playoff loss in the second round to Hanahan brought an end to Thomas’ high school career.
For the second time in three seasons, he had led the coastal area of the state in tackles. Thomas had 187 total tackles, and finished with nine sacks and eight forced fumbles. He had 29 stops for lost yardage.
Any college coach watching film on Thomas saw him making play after play. But they also saw that he was only 5-foot-9. Coaches from Top 20 teams don’t want 5-foot-9 linebackers.
Those same coaches don’t realize an additional four inches in height don’t do much to help make tackles or cause and recover fumbles. Four more inches might deflect an extra pass in a 12-game regular season, but don’t mean any boost in a player’s talent level or his playmaking abilities.
Since Shepherd has been successful for decades with players whose physical dimensions haven’t approached the tall and sinewy Paul Bunyon or been as fast as the Roadrunner of cartoon fame, the Rams graded those same films and saw a player who already had ability and could be a even better in another two or three years.
Thomas left the beach for the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Through Shepherd’s first three games, Thomas was the Rams’ second-leading tackler … and more importantly, the team was 3-0 and ranked 14th in the country in the Division II ranks.
Thomas’s being too short for any BCS team has been a real blessing to Shepherd.
The NFL must have been left out of the coversations about too-short linebackers because it has seven of them who are 5-foot-9 or 5-foot-10 — Buster Davis (Detroit), Robert James (Atlanta), Pago Togafau (Philadelphia), Larry Izzo (New England), 38-year-old London Fletcher (Washington), H.B. Blades (Washington), and Marcus Buggs (Buffalo).
A 5-foot-9 freshman linebacker starting for an unbeaten college team? It’s heresy![/cleeng_content]