Bridgeport, W.Va. - The Shepherd Rams have been picked to repeat as Mountain East Conference football champions after a vote conducted by the league’s coaches. Shepherd collected 95 points in the poll and was picked to finish first on seven ballots.
Concord was picked second with 91 points and collected three first-place votes. Charleston was chosen third with 84 points and received the remaining first-place vote. Glenville State placed fourth (67), followed by West Virginia Wesleyan (60) and Urbana (58). Notre Dame and West Liberty were predicted to finish in a tie for seventh with 44 points, and Fairmont State (33), UVa-Wise (15) and West Virginia State (14) rounded out the poll.
Shepherd (11-1, 9-0) returns seven starters on offense and five on defense from a team that captured the MEC championship and advanced to the quarterfinals in the NCAA Division II Playoffs. The Rams return its entire backfield with quarterback Jeff Ziemba and the running back tandem of Allen Cross and Jabre Lolley, the 2013 MEC Offensive Freshman of the Year. Shepherd, which has led the country in rushing defense in each of the past three seasons, graduated several significant pieces of its defense, but still returns three of its top four tacklers including sophomore linebacker Octavius Thomas. The Rams should once again be solid in special teams as they welcome back first team All-MEC kicker Ryan Earls and All-America return man C.J. Davis.
Concord returns all 11 starters on offense and seven on defense from its squad that went 8-3 overall and 7-2 in the MEC last season. The Mountain Lions finished third in the country in total defense a season ago, but will have to replace its second all-time leading tackler in Jake Lilly. On offense, CU finished the year scoring 30 points or more in four of its final five games. A stout offensive line will help pave the way for running back Calvinaugh Jones who rushed for 1,036 yards and eight touchdowns last season. The Mountain Lions also boast one of the top kickers in the league in junior Andy Ellington.
Despite starting last season with a 2-3 record, Charleston (6-5, 6-3) won four of its last six with both of its two losses coming by less than six points in that stretch. Versatile junior John Knox rushed for 664 yards with six touchdowns and added 329 yards and five TDs passing in limited snaps at quarterback for the Golden Eagles a season ago. UC also returns seven starters on defense including 2013 All-MEC first team selections Demetrius Reddick and Isaiah Gibson.
Glenville State (6-5, 5-4) had four of its five losses come by seven points or less last season. The Pioneers will once again be led by Rahmann Lee, one of the top running backs in the country. Lee enters 2014 sixth in the country in rushing yards among active returning players with 2,764 yards. GSC will need to replace seven starters on defense, including its top two corner backs, but does return its top tackler from last season in James Johnson (105 total tackles) and its top pass rusher in Gary Henderson (5.5 sacks).
After being picked to finish last in the MEC in 2013, West Virginia Wesleyan went 5-5 on the year and 5-4 in league play to finish sixth. Quarterback Jeremy Musselman returns for his senior season after throwing for 2,490 yards and 20 touchdowns in nine games for the Bobcats last year. Musselman also returns one of his top target from last season in Zach Schademan. On defense, West Virginia Wesleyan brings back eight starters, including linebackers Mike Savage (74 tackles) and Desmond Holley.
Urbana (7-4, 7-2) returns more than half of its starters on offense from last season, but will need to replace the MEC Offensive Player of the Year D.J. Mendenhall. Running back David Hill will lead the offense after rushing for 875 yards and seven scores in 2013, and receiver Alvin Busbee is back after catching 39 passes for 568 yards last year. The Blue Knights welcome back several key returners on defense, including D’Gary Wallace who led the MEC in tackles for a loss last year with 20, and Kevin Chapple who is the leading returning sack man in the league with nine in 2013.
A three-game losing streak midway through the season led to 5-6 overall record and a 4-5 mark in the MEC for Notre Dame College in 2013. The Falcons graduated star running back Pedro Powell, but return signal caller Ray Russ. Russ completed 59 percent of his passes and threw for 2,504 yards last year with 21 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions. Junior standout Hayden Davis, the league leader in tackles in 2013 with 123, will be counted on to lead a defense that surrendered 31.6 points per game a season ago.
West Liberty (3-8, 3-6) will welcome back 17 starters on both sides of the ball when the Hilltoppers open the season against Shepherd on Saturday, Sept. 6. The Hilltoppers were strong on defense last year ranking 25th in the country in total defense, but managed just 13.4 points per game on offense. The tough ‘Topper defense could be even better in 2014 with the return of safeties Pierre Blake and Marco Ricchetti to go with All-MEC performer Andrew Faraimo. On offense, WLU returns wideout Dylan Potts and three two-year starters on the offensive line. Senior punter Griffin Yocum tied for the league lead with 41.5 yards per punt and placed 20 punts inside the 20-yard line in 2013.
Fairmont State (3-7, 2-7) will mix experience on offense with youth on defense under second-year head coach Jason Woodman in 2014. Cooper Hibbs was steady as a freshman last season throwing for 1,604 yards with 12 touchdowns, and he’ll be protected by postseason honors candidate Chris Barfield at left tackle. The Falcons graduated all three of their top tacklers from last season, but welcome back All-MEC performer Jacob Jean-Charles in the secondary.
With a season competing at the NCAA Division II level under its belt, UVa-Wise will look to improve upon its 2-9 record and 2-7 mark in the MEC. The Cavs graduated James Long, who led the league in all-purpose yards in 2013, but do return eight starters on offense. The Cavs will need to cut down on turnovers (-29 in 2013), and defensive coordinator Dino Kaklis has been tabbed to lead a unit that surrendered 38.1 points per game last season.
West Virginia State (0-11, 0-11) looks to show marked improvement in the second year under head coach Jon Anderson in 2014. The Yellow Jackets will continue to be young, but have several important players returning on both sides of the ball. On offense, WVSU will need to replace most of its skill position players with the exception of its leading receiver, Shanin Bennefield who caught 45 passes for 589 yards and two TDs in 2013. On defense, the Yellow Jackets bring back safety William Merritt who led the team in tackles (79) and passes broken up (8), to go with four interceptions on the year.
The 2014 season begins on Thursday, Sept. 4 with Fairmont State playing host to Notre Dame College. The rest of the MEC teams get underway on Saturday, Sept. 6.
2014 Mountain East Conference Preseason Poll
1. Shepherd (7)………………………. 95
2. Concord (3)………………………… 91
3. Charleston (1)……………………… 84
4. Glenville State……………………. 67
5. West Virginia Wesleyan………… 60
6. Urbana………………………………. 58
7(t). Notre Dame College…………….. 44
7(t). West Liberty……………………….. 44
9. Fairmont State……………………. 33
10. UVa-Wise…………………………… 15
11. West Virginia State………………. 14
() Indicates first place votes
* Coaches not able to vote for own team