Reigning champion Rams finish spring practice eying repeat of league crown
SHEPHERDSTOWN – If Shepherd is to enjoy the kind of success the Rams experienced last year, the football program is going to have to find depth in the trenches.
So it is no surprise that during the recently completed spring practice sessions head coach Monte Cater placed significant emphasis on the offensive and defensive fronts, areas hit hard by graduation losses.
Shepherd won the inaugural Mountain East Conference title a year ago finishing the regular season undefeated as the league leader in both rushing offense and rushing defense. But two starters on the offensive line and all four starters along a star-studded defensive front are gone, leaving sizeable shoes to fill among a cast of mostly young and largely untested players.
On Saturday during the annual spring game at Ram Stadium, the offense secured a rare 54-42 victory in a scrimmage featuring a modified scoring system.
Redshirt freshman receiver Michael Grant, a 2012 graduate of Washington High School in Charles Town, caught three touchdown passes, including two from backup quarterback Caleb Dembeck. Grant also caught a touchdown pass from fellow backup quarterback Jordan Larsen as the second team provided much of the offensive fireworks.
Starting quarterback Jeff Ziemba did hit receiver William McKenzie with a touchdown pass late in the game though, and first-string defenders Shaneil Jenkins, Bernard Wooley and Octavius Thomas offered glimpses of hope for a rebuilding defense.
“I think it was nice to see the offense have a little bit of success,” Cater said. “I know the defense dominates spring practices an awful lot. We saw good things on both sides. Realistically, the second group of offense got most of the points. But we stayed pretty healthy. We didn’t pound on each other too bad and we certainly have to look at it as a successful spring.”
With several projected starters and likely contributors out with injuries or not yet enrolled in school, the Rams have spent recent weeks trying to fill vacancies wherever possible.
On offense, linemen Lavonte Hights and Will Smith performed well this spring with Hights emerging as a projected starter at the tackle slot opposite all-conference tackle Isaiah Shelton. Smith, Brandon Wooten and others are among a supporting cast offering depth to returning starters in center Hussam Ouri, guard Dameon Hairston and Shelton.
“We’re maybe a little more settled on the offensive line at this point than we are on the defensive line,” Cater said. “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.
“The greater question, of course, is the defensive line,” Cater added. “We’re still really thin. We have very few people with playing experience there. We’ve only got three guys who’ve played much at all. Obviously we’ve got more answers than when we started, but I still think we’re really thin on the defensive front.”
The responsibility of filling the void created by the departure of all-conference defensive tackles Michael Franklin and Xavier Tyler as well as all-American defensive ends Robert Hayes and Howard Jones falls mainly on Shaneil Jenkins and Bernard Wooley.
Both Jenkins, a defensive end, and Wooley, a tackle, logged considerable playing time last year, while fellow end Demetrius Dixon and tackle Shaquille Melvin played more sparingly.
“Wooley’s had a great spring,” Cater said. “He’s really strong. He’s a physical kid who was a great wrestler. I think he’s going to be able to hold up.”
Jenkins and Dixon combined for one of the best defensive plays Saturday when they collapsed the pocket around quarterback Jeff Ziemba and forced him to fumble early in the game.
The coaching staff is also eagerly awaiting the arrival of junior college transfer Stephen Francois, who will likely offer immediate help in the defensive interior line with his 6-2, 294-pound frame.
The day’s biggest hit was delivered by linebacker Jaylen Johnson on receiver Kevin Cook, who was crossing the middle on a pass pattern before being upended by Johnson at the same time the ball arrived.
“It was almost all shoulder and they don’t think it was anything serious,” Cater said. “He was even coherent right there on the spot.”
Cater said the offense was noticeably missing the playmaking potential of several key performers, including leading receivers Billy Brown, Justin Ford and Dalton Boyd.
Starting running back Allen Cross, who rushed for 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, also saw limited action Saturday while nursing a foot injury that continues to recover following surgery. But Cater said those players, and others, are all expected back at full capacity when fall camp opens in August.
Running back Jabre Lolley, who rushed for 925 yards and 15 touchdowns en route to being named Mountain East Conference Offensive Freshman of the Year last fall, participated at full tilt Saturday. Speedy newcomer Malik Harleston and bruiser Tre Henley offered depth in the backfield while helping share the bulk of the carries.
Cater said he and his fellow coaches are excited about the depth of the incoming recruiting class of 45 prospects, including its notable additions of talented skill players like Washington High School’s 6-5 receiver Kendell Smith.
“We’re pretty happy with where we are, but there’s still a lot to work on,” he said.