Football 'Cats Tabbed for Ninth in MEC Preseason Poll

Football 'Cats Tabbed for Ninth in MEC Preseason Poll

BRIDGEPORT – The Shepherd Rams have been picked to win the 2016 Mountain East Conference football title after a vote conducted by the league's coaches. Shepherd received 99 points and was picked to finish first on nine of the 11 ballots. 

The Rams were followed closely in the poll by the University of Charleston. The Golden Eagles finished with 92 points and the remaining two first-place votes. Both Shepherd and UC represented the MEC in the NCAA Playoffs in 2015.

Concord was chosen third with 74 points, followed in a pack by Glenville State (61), Fairmont State (58), Notre Dame (58), West Liberty (55) and West Virginia State (49). West Virginia Wesleyan (23), Urbana (18) and UVa-Wise (18) rounded out the poll. 
 
Shepherd (13-1, 10-0) is coming off a historic season in 2015 that saw the Rams advance to the NCAA Championship game. The Rams return quarterback Jeff Ziemba, the MEC Offensive Player of the Year, as well as All-America wide receiver Billy Brown to headline the offense. The SU defense features a strong linebacker corps led by James Gupton and Octavius Thomas, and are backed up in the secondary by Tre Sullivan, C.J. Davis and Adam Coles.   
 
Charleston (10-2, 9-1) looks to build on a record setting 2015 campaign that saw the Golden Eagles make their first NCAA postseason appearance. UC returns eight starters from an offense that averaged over 41 points per game, including All-America offensive lineman Justin Johnson and first team All-MEC receiver Joey Augustin. The defense will look to lower its 27 points per game average, and will do so with first team All-MEC performers Rhakeem Stallings, Zaire Lewis and James King leading the way. Charleston also brings back All-America punter Brett Benes to handle the kicking duties in 2016. 
 
Concord (5-5, 5-5) will be led in 2016 by Paul Price, the longtime defensive coordinator who took over in December after Garin Justice departed to become an assistant coach at Florida Atlantic. Price inherits an offensive unit that will rely heavily on four-year starter Brian Novak at quarterback and the dynamic athleticism of Jermeil Douse. CU has just three returning starters on defense, though, with two of those coming in the secondary with Jeremiah Johnson and Chaudlier Shepherd combining for five interceptions and 21 pass breakups last year.

Glenville State (7-4, 6-4) will rely on several new players in 2016 with just six total returning starters from last year's team. The Pioneers have just one returning starter on offense this year in wideout Dante Absher who had 64 catches for 811 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Among the five returning starters on defense is leading tackler and first team All-MEC pick Marcus Umu. The Pioneers, though, do have eight players with experience on the defensive line coming back, led by Alex Robinson, who finished with 10.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks last year.

Coming off a third place finish in the MEC a season ago, Fairmont State (6-4, 6-4) returns 15 starters in 2016, including five that earned all-conference honors. The Falcons feature one of the top quarterback-wide receiver duos in the league in Cooper Hibbs and Fabian Guerra. On defense, FSU has nine of 11 starters back, including corner Jacob Jean-Charles and linebacker Marcus Porter, both of whom were All-MEC picks in 2015.

Notre Dame (5-6, 5-5), under the direction of first-year head coach Mike Jacobs, brings back a bevy of offensive weapons to help build off of last season. D.J. Green was voted as the MEC Offensive Freshman of the Year last season after rushing for 1,132 yards, and will be joined in the backfield once again by Malik Grove who led the league in total offense in 2015. On top of that, the Falcons have the leading active receiver in the league in Mitchell Shegos. On defense, NDC will have to replace its top four tacklers, but return Claudy Mathieu who ranked among the league leaders in sacks in 2015. 

West Liberty (5-5, 5-6) is seeking its ninth winning season under head coach Roger Waialae in 2016. The Hilltoppers will rely on dual-threat quarterback Dakota Conwell who has thrown for 4,342 yards and 46 touchdowns to go with 989 yards and 12 more scores on the ground. Conwell will have multiple weapons at his disposal, including speedy wideout and kick returner Anton McCallum. Three-time All-MEC defensive tackle Darnell Vickers anchors the WLU defensive line and a healthy secondary looked much improved in spring drills.

West Virginia State (5-5, 5-6) looks to continue its improvement under four-year head coach Jon Anderson. The Yellow Jackets have two of the top players in the league on both offense and defense in quarterback Matt Kinnick and linebacker Dennis Gardeck. Kinnick led the league in passing per game last year with 280 per game, while Gardeck was sixth in the conference tackles (93) and second in sacks (11). The duo will try to help WVSU to its first winning season since 2008.

Del Smith (pictured) returns to his alma mater to lead the West Virginia Wesleyan (2-8, 2-8) program in 2016. Smith will rely on All-MEC tailback Michael Anderson to help carry the offensive load, and also has quarterback Ryan Deal returning after throwing 13 touchdowns against just two interceptions in five games last year. The Bobcats will need to shore up a defense that surrendered over 500 yards and 44 points per game.

With a full season under his belt, Urbana (1-9, 2-9) head coach Tyler Haines aims to improve on last year's 2-9 ledger. UU returns its most consistent offensive threat from last season in wideout Trevon Saunders, a second team All-MEC honoree who had eight touchdowns and 144 all-purpose yards per game. Six starters return on defense led by safety André Cliff, who ranked among the team leaders in tackles and also had two interceptions.
 
UVa-Wise (1-9, 1-10) has turned to Dane Damron to help spark a Cavs program that has five wins in the last three years. UVa-Wise has six starters returning on offense, but the strength of the team will likely be on defense where it has nine starters back. The Cavaliers feature one of the top players in the country on that side of the ball in linebacker Zachary Blair, a preseason All-America selection who led the nation in tackles for a loss with 28.5.

The 2016 season begins on Thursday, Sept. 1 with Urbana at Glenville State and UVa-Wise at Tusculum. The rest of the MEC teams get underway on Saturday, Sept. 3.

West Virginia Wesleyan will open on that Sept. 3 date as they travel to defending leauge champion Shepherd for a noon kick-off.

2016 MEC Preseason Poll
1. Shepherd (9) 99
2. Charleston (2) 92
3. Concord 74
4. Glenville State 61
5. Fairmont State 58

Notre Dame 58
7. West Liberty 55
8. West Virginia State 49
9. West Virginia Wesleyan 23
10. Urbana 18

UVa-Wise 18
() Indicates first place votes
* Coaches not able to vote for own team