(Story by Luke Wiggs)
Martinsburg, W.Va- The 5-1 start to the season for the Shepherd Football program may have left fans with more questions than answers. On one hand, it’s undeniable the Rams are trying to replace the star talent of last year’s national semi finalists, and have struggled to start the season defending their conference title by losing to Kutztown. On the other, the Rams still find themselves controlling their own destiny trying to once again reach the postseason, and are not eliminated from defending their conference title. Just how good is the 2023 version of the Rams? Let’s find out.
Nobody envied the job Seth Morgan had coming into the season replacing one of the greatest signal callers in college football history, but the VMI transfer has been fantastic to begin the campaign. Shepherd’s 270 passing yards per game is 19th best in DII. Morgan has also limited his turnovers with 4 through 6 games (2 coming in the bad weather Kutztown loss). For everything that Tyson Bagent was as a Ram, don’t forget that Ronnie Brown, Adam Stilley, Joey Fisher, Brian Walker, Marlon Cook, Ryan Beach, etc. Were all among the best at their position in program history, and their departure meant finding new weapons on offense. Morgan has led the next generation of Shepherd playmakers incredibly well, helping to maintain the high level of play on offense.
Running backs: C
Shepherd lost all but 91 of the 2,650 yards they ran for last season. Through 6 games, Malakai Brown has 469 yards on 96 carries which is well below the 700 yards on 68 carries that Ronnie Brown had at this point last year. Malakai, the converted wide receiver, has stunned us all with his ability to shoulder a 117 touch work load and his 4.9 yards per rush is 9th in the conference. What has hurt Shepherd at this position however, is the lack of a true #2.Nazhir Russell started the season as the backup but has been held to under 4 yards per rush (although has shown great promise in the passing game). Transfer Jordan Barnett has looked impressive at the position as of late and may be the key to unlocking a Rams rushing attack that is 136th in DII football in yards per game.
Tight Ends: C-
Shepherd has reinvented this position in the offseason making them less involved as pass catchers making this group hard to grade. Ram tight ends have just 9 catches for 78 yards through 6 games, at this point last season, Brian Walker had 26 receptions for 349 yards. With that said, the stats don’t truly show how valuable the blocking of both Brian Jester and Dustin Fisher has been.
Wide receivers: A
Shepherd currently has 3 receivers (Barry Hill, Cam Dorner, and Jeremiah Taylor) on pace for over 600 yards receiving. Last year the Rams had just one wideout achieve that feat. The law offices of Hill, Taylor, and Dorner have added dimensions to the position group that felt lacking last season. All can stretch the field and all present matchup problems when left in 1 on 1 coverage. While Willis and Hopkins of Cal have a solid claim to the title, it’s more than comfortable to say that Shepherd has the best receiving core in the conference.
Offensive line: B-
Shepherd has allowed 14 sacks this season (24 total in 2022). The departure of Joey Fisher and Adam Stilley was a major concern in the offseason but Brandon Carr and James Bell have answered the call and calmed the nerves of many Ram fans. This group has established itself as one of the most consistent in the conference, however with Shepherd averaging just 3.2 yards per rush there is still some work to be done in the trenches this season.
Defensive line: C-
Had this been a grade after the first 3 weeks, only 3 sacks recorded would have made this much lower. Shepherd has since sacked opposing QBs 10 times. Matt Bednarski is putting together quite possibly the most underrated season of any Ram, leading the team in sacks as a defensive tackle. As Shepherd spends more time in opposing backfields each week, their grade will certainly continue to rise.
Another position group where I feel Shepherd boasts the best in the conference. 4 of the top 6 tackles for Shepherd play this position. Omari terry and JT Kouame Yao have plugged in to holes vacated by Devin Lynch and Enilio Pena (who moved to safety) and have played without much of a drop off in production. Shepherd has often worked out of an odd front to get as many of this position group on the field at the same time. Transfer Harold O’Niel has worked well as both a backup and playing side by side with Dewayne Grantham who pound for pound continues to be one of the best defenders in the conference.
Defensive backs: C+
The position group that concerned us the most headed into 2022 stopped all concerns by helping Shepherd lead the nation in defensive touchdowns. This season, 5 of the 8 interceptions the rams have forced have been picked off by DB’s. Miles Greer has emerged to give good depth at safety behind McDowell and Pena. After the injury sustained by Donte Harrison at Lockhaven, the depth at corner proved to be an issue but as Gianni Gamble and Naeem Alexander continue to grow in the scheme, this position group has the potential to carry Shepherd back into the postseason
Special teams: A+
What more can you say for a position group where punter Ryan Barrick is averaging a career high, kicker James Bozek hasn’t missed, snapper Zach Frye is considered by many to be the best in DII, and you have 3 return touchdowns and a safety. Shepherd is 4th in touchbacks, 4th in punting, 2nd in kick off return average, 1st in kickoff returns for scores, and are one of just 3 teams in the PSAC to return a punt for a touchdown. Shepherd would not currently hold a 5-1 record without the stellar play of this unit and their continued high level contribution may see Shepherd once again embark on another postseason run.