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Rams tagged with burden of defending title

August 14, 2005|By BOB PARASILITI

bobp@herald-mail.com

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - The West Virginia Conference is ready to play its annual game of tag.

Tag, Shepherd University. You're "It."

But unlike the playground game, no one will be running away from the Rams in the 2005 season. Everyone will be chasing them since the league coaches picked Shepherd as the team to beat this season.

And given the current state of preseason affairs, coach Monte Cater is reluctantly accepting the distinction.

"I struggle with how people pick (in the preseason poll)," said Cater during Shepherd's media day on Saturday. "Last year, I laughed at West Virginia Wesleyan coach Bill Struble when he was in that position. Now, I guess, he might be laughing at me."

No matter how he looks at it, Cater is uneasy about it all. Shepherd received six first-, one second- and one third-place votes from the eight-man panel to repeat as champion.

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"We lost a lot of people ... especially a lot of skill guys on offense," Cater said. "The cupboard isn't bare, but I was surprised when people put the bull's-eye on us."

Shepherd was 7-3 last year, including a clean sweep of the WVC. History has its privileges. Graduation has a habit of taking the advantages away.

"We will be looking for a new quarterback for the fourth straight season," Cater said. "We lost Alex Herbert, who only started for us for one year but left here as the fifth all-time leading rusher. We also lost our tight end and our top two receivers."

That didn't deter the voters, though. They remembered that Shepherd is packing other assets.

"When people are looking at us to be first, they must be looking at our defense and our special teams," Cater said. "Our defense is always able to run and it will hit you. We led in a lot of categories last year, but the one real big one was in points allowed. There were opponents who were able the get a lot of yardage off of us, but they had trouble getting it over the big stripe."

That's why Shepherd has some interesting focal points this season. The defense is well represented as defensive back Dustin Dudinski and place kicker Ricky Schmitt earned preseason all-American honors.

Dudinski is part of a strong secondary backing an equally talented linebacking corps which allowed just 162 points last season but only 84 (12.0 per game) in the seven conference games.

Many of Shepherd's questions stack up on the offensive side of the ball. The quarterback job is a wide-open competition between three players and there have been some interesting - and exciting - developments at running back.

"The big question is quarterback," Cater said. "We need to find someone who will step in and pull the trigger."

Greencastle, Pa.'s Dan Chlebowski has all the experience that any Shepherd quarterback has, but he is being challenged for the job by redshirt freshmen Tyler Lazear and John Sheehan. Chlebowski started seven games as a freshman in 2003.

"Dan has experience and there is seldom anything more important out there than that when you have the bullets flying around you," Cater said.

Meanwhile, Shepherd's constant flow of starting running backs dribbled to a stop after Herbert graduated. In the past, the Rams have had a proven, big-yardage back waiting in the wings to pick up the ball and run. It is a little different this year.

Demetrius Weedon and Vincent Riggs are the top returning runners, but neither enjoyed substantial playing time.

The Rams got help from outside sources to add some clout to the running game.

Former West Virginia State tailback Dervon Wallace enrolled at Shepherd last spring and was a hit during spring practice. Then, the Rams got the addition of Bryan Wright to the roster, who transferred from West Virginia University.

Wright, who graduated from Hampshire before heading to WVU as a walk-on, had limited action for the Mountaineers before deciding to come to Shepherd to start. Wright rushed for 144 yards and a touchdown, caught one pass for 11 yards and returned a pair of kickoffs in seven games.

"The thing that helped us is that we added two players with experience," Cater said. "Wallace was here in the spring and showed great speed. He's not big, but he can get things done if we give him space. Wright is a sparkplug guy we could have got out of high school. He is exceptionally strong and wants to play."

The Rams must find the right blend by Aug. 27 when they open the season with a home game against Virginia State. Shepherd plays its first two games at home before heading on the road for three straight, including the first two games in the WVC.

The three nonconference games against Virginia State, Shippensburg and Slippery Rock can set Shepherd up for a run at a Division II playoff bid. But the first two games at Glenville State and Fairmont State will set the tone for the title defense.

"The schedule is brutal," Cater said. "I want to shove a sharp stick in my eye. With two at home followed by three on the road, we will well know all about ourselves by then. We were picked to finish No. 1 but the four that follow us on the list are all the games we play on the road."

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