BRIDGEPORT – The Shepherd Rams have been picked to win a third-straight Mountain East Conference football title after a vote conducted by the league's coaches. Shepherd received 98 points and was picked to finish first on eight of the 11 ballots.
Notre Dame College was picked to finish second with 89 points and had two first place votes. Fairmont State was a close third with 85 points and had the remaining first-place votes. The teams in the top three in the poll were all nationally ranked in 2016 with Shepherd and Fairmont State making the NCAA Playoffs.
UVa-Wise was picked fourth with 54 points, followed closely by Charleston (52), West Liberty (51), West Virginia Wesleyan (46), Glenville State (45) and Concord (43). West Virginia State (26) and Urbana (16) rounded out the poll.
Shepherd (13-1, 10-0) is coming off a second-straight appearance in the NCAA Semifinals. The Rams graduated several key pieces on both sides of the ball, but still return plenty of talent. Quarterback Connor Jessop performed well when called upon over the last two seasons, and running back Brandon Hlavach rushed for over 1,000 yards last year. The defense has a trio of All-MEC performers returning led by Myles Humphrey and James King up front, and James Gupton at the linebacker spot.
Notre Dame (9-2, 8-2) earned its first national ranking in school history last year and nearly made the NCAA Playoffs. The Falcons have one of the most dynamic backfields in quarterback Malik Grove (2,714 yards, 32 touchdowns) and running back D.J. Greene (1,003 rushing yards, 7 touchdowns). NDC's defense made significant strides last year and allowed just 21.5 points per game in 2016.
Fairmont State (10-2, 9-1) will try to build off a season last year that saw it earn a national ranking and its first NCA Playoff appearance. The Falcons bring back last year's Offensive Freshman of the Year in Laurence King to help spark the offense and special teams, but the strength of the team will likely be on defense. Quincy Redmon, the reigning MEC Defensive Player of the Year, is back along with linebacker Marcus Porter and defensive back Stephen Turner.
UVa-Wise (6-5, 5-5) posted its first winning season in nearly a decade under first-year coach Dane Damron. Quarterback Brycen Lee got valuable experience last season as a freshman and will have Jacob and James Cousins to throw to, as well as a reliable back in Carlton Griffith. Defensive back Ed Kargbo will lead that unit in 2017 after recording 50 tackles and five interceptions in 2016.
Charleston (3-8, 3-7) is coming off an injury-plagued 2016 season, but is still just one year removed from an appearance in the NCAA Playoffs. Running back Tevion Cappe will be a key on offense as UC will try to get consistent play at the quarterback position after injuries forced three quarterbacks into the lineup last year. The Golden Eagles return All-MEC performers John Comisky (second team) and Zaire Lewis (honorable mention) on the defensive side of the ball.
West Liberty (4-7, 4-6) will likely have to lean on its defense in 2017 after the graduation of several key offensive pieces, including Dakota Conwell who accounted for 86 touchdowns in his three seasons. The Hilltoppers bring back the MEC Defensive Freshman of the Year in Logan Deri (5 interceptions) and linebacker Cliff Clark (81 tackles), both of whom earned All-MEC second team honors. WLU has several options at quarterback, including Brenton Colabella, Jake Kalama and Aaron Farmer, to go with solid depth at running back and H-back.
West Virginia Wesleyan (4-7, 4-6) posted a solid season under first-year head coach Del Smith that included four losses by six points or less. The Bobcats will have to replace versatile running back Michael Anderson, but quarterback Ryan Deal is back under center after throwing for over 2,200 yards and 15 touchdowns a season ago. Playmakers Chad Pinson and Nate Simmons return in the secondary to help lead WVWC on defense.
Eric Smith takes over at Glenville State (5-6, 5-5) after serving as the program's offensive coordinator since 2011. Smith returns quarterback Dante Roberts (2,721 yards and 26 touchdowns) and one of his top targets in D.J. Williams (41 receptions, 666 yards, 10 touchdowns). GSC brings back several key defensive playmakers in Marcus Umu, Earon Settles and Andre Dalton.
Concord (2-9, 2-8) will have a host of new faces in 2017 as it looks to make its way up the conference standings. A pair of junior college quarterbacks have been brought in to replace four-year starter Brian Novak, while Jamal Petty stabilizes the running game for the Mountain Lions with nearly 1,000 career rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. Linebacker Zach Malone, along with defensive backs Jeremiah Johnson and Chaudlier Shepherd will anchor the defense. CU also boasts one of the top specialists in the country in preseason All-America punter Garrett Lee.
John Pennington will make his debut as a head coach this season on the West Virginia State (3-8, 3-7) sideline after serving as the team's offensive coordinator last year. The Yellow Jackets had the second-ranked passing offense last year with Matt Kinnick and Austin Hensley and will look to add more balance offensively. Defensive back Kevin Coffie earned second team All-MEC honors last year and will be called upon to lead WVSU on defense.
Urbana (3-8, 2-8) has continued to make progress under third-year coach Tyler Haines. The Blue Knights return key weapons on offense including quarterback Tajuan Green and All-MEC standout Trevon Saunders, who had 1,631 all-purpose yards and 15 receiving touchdowns. The Blue Knights bring back several key pieces on defense with Duray Hall (90 tackles), Josh Dillardf (88 tackles, 10.5 TFL) and Clayton Bullard (69 tackles).
The 2017 season begins with four games on Thursday, Aug. 31: Urbana at West Liberty, UVa-Wise at Glenville State, West Virginia Wesleyan at Concord, and East Stroudsburg at Fairmont State.
|2017 MEC Preseason Poll|
|2.||Notre Dame (2)||89|
|3.||Fairmont State (1)||85|
|7.||West Virginia Wesleyan||46|
|10.||West Virginia State||26|
|() Indicates first place votes
* Coaches not able to vote for own team