SHEPHERDSTOWN – Isaiah Shelton anchored one side of a Shepherd offensive line that largely dominated its opposition last fall as the Rams led the conference in rushing offense.
Shelton, a first-team all-Mountain East Conference selection will return for his senior season this fall, but his counterpart, and fellow all-conference tackle Jordan Dixon, will need to be replaced after graduating.
That scenario is representative of a larger picture that saw Shepherd coaches spending considerable time this spring working to plug holes along both the offensive and defensive fronts.
The Rams will need to replace two starters on the offensive line, the other being guard Sean Hull, as well as all four starters on the defensive front.
On offense, center Hussam Ouri and guard Dameon Hairston will be returning starters who will play their senior seasons this fall, joining Shelton, a tackle, in bringing crucial experience to the offensive line.
“We definitely had to get some new guys to step up after losing two seniors,” Shelton said following the annual spring game April 12 in Shepherdstown. “Right now we’ve got some young guys competing for spots.”
The leading candidates to help fill the gaps along the offensive line this fall will be redshirt freshman Lavonte Hights, junior William Smith and sophomore Brandon Wooten.
Shelton said Shepherd’s offensive line is versatile in that its starters can play multiple positions. He said it is important to find other linemen who can play more than one position.
“(Lavonte Hights) is going to be a force to be reckoned with,” Shelton said. “He’s young and has a lot of room to learn. Maybe gain some weight and get stronger in the program. Brandon Wooten is another guy who stepped up this spring. Will Smith too.
“Spring ball is about everybody learning and I feel some of the young guys have stepped up and put themselves in position to contribute,” Shelton added.
Depth continues to be an issue, though, as junior backup center Jacob Kingston was injured during offseason conditioning and will be out for the season after having knee surgery. Hairston also had to sit out spring practice, as he is not enrolled in school right now because that would extinguish his final semester of eligibility.
“We’re maybe a little more settled on the offensive line at this point than we are on the defensive line,” said Shepherd head coach Monte Cater. “But if we can find a couple more guys who can help us, whether they be junior college players or transfers, that would be a big help.”
Shepherd signed a recruiting class of 45 prospects, including some transfers, who may be able to contribute immediately. But Cater said such immediate help is more likely to be available on defense.
A year ago, all-conference tackles Xavier Tyler and Michael Franklin and all-region ends Robert Hayes and Howard Jones formed a defensive front that led the league in rushing defense and largely stymied the opposition as Shepherd advanced to the NCAA Division II quarterfinals. Now, all four must be replaced.
Few have as keen an insight into the workings of the defensive line as those who face off against them everyday in practice. Shelton said despite the losses along the defensive front, the Rams defense is well coached and will be prepared for the upcoming season.
The responsibility of filling the void created by the departure of such a dominant group of linemen falls mainly on defensive end Shaneil Jenkins and defensive tackle Bernard Wooley, both of whom played a lot last fall. Fellow defensive end Demetrius Dixon and defensive tackle Shaquille Melvin played more sparingly last year, but both started the spring game.
“I definitely think Shaneil and Demetrius Dixon will step up and compete and bring up that level of the game,” Shelton said. “It’s up to one of those guys to step up and be a leader on the defensive line after losing four good starters. In the interior, I think Shaquille and Bernard did a good job holding it down this spring. I definitely think we’ll have to get some more depth on the defensive line, but those guys did what they had to do in spring ball to give us a good look offensively.”
Shelton said he was also impressed with some of the younger defensive linemen, such as Myles Humphrey and Rudie Henderson.
“They’re two young freshmen who have worked their butts off and they’re going to be able to compete for some playing time this fall,” Shelton said.
The Rams are also eager to welcome defensive tackle and junior college transfer Stephen Francois into camp this summer. Cater said Francois will likely offer immediate help along the defensive interior.
“We’re pretty happy with where we are, but there’s still a lot to work on,” Cater said.