BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. – The Shepherd Rams have been picked to win the first-ever Mountain East Conference football title after a vote conducted by the league’s coaches. Shepherd collected eight of 11 possible first-place votes in earning 117 points.
Charleston was picked to finish runner-up with 101 points and also received two first-place votes. Concord was picked to finish third (94), followed by Glenville State (83) and West Liberty (79). Urbana was picked to finish fifth and had 75 points and also received a first-place vote. Fairmont State (51) was predicted to finish in eighth, followed by Notre Dame College (40), UVa-Wise (31), West Virginia State (28) and West Virginia Wesleyan (27).
Shepherd returns eight starters on both offense and defense from a team that went 8-3 and earned a berth in the NCAA playoffs. The Rams will have to replace starting quarterback Bobby Cooper, but SU returns its entire offensive line that will pave the way for Jihad Rasheed and Allen Cross. The Rams also boast a stout defense that has led the country in rushing defense each of the last two seasons and boasts All-America candidates Howard Jones (defensive lineman) and Keon Robinson (cornerback/return specialist).
Charleston turned in a 9-2 season last year in which its two losses came by just a combined 10 points. The Golden Eagles will have to deal with the loss of one of the top all-purpose players in the country last year in Jordan Roberts, but return experience behind center in quarterbacks Maurice Leak and John Knox. UC also returns eight starters on a defense that allowed under 16 points per game. All-America candidate Puma Nuredini handles the kicking and punting duties for the Golden Eagles.
Concord closed the 2012 season strong by winning five of its last six, but will need to replace six starters on both offense and defense. The Mountain Lions return plenty of talent on defense including All-America candidates Jake Lilly (linebacker) and Riyahd Richardson (cornerback). Sophomore running back Calvinaugh Jones will be expected to shoulder the offensive load for CU after racking up 749 yards on the ground in 2012.
Glenville State was 6-5 last year with all five losses coming on the road. The Pioneers return one of the top running backs in the country in Rahman Lee who rushed for 1,357 yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago. Quarterback Justin Feagin saw action in all 11 games last year for GSC passing for over 600 yards and adding nearly 200 yards on the ground. Senior center and All-America candidate Jon Rasnick will anchor the offensive line. James Johnson returns to the defense after notching 92 tackles a season ago.
West Liberty surged to a 6-5 record in 2012 after winning four of its final six, including a one-point win over Shepherd. Dylan Lagarde saw action in all 11 games under center for the ‘Toppers and made five starts throwing for 1,150 yards with six touchdowns and 14 interceptions. WLU returns its leading running back from last year in Isaiah Moody who added 618 yards and six touchdowns on the ground last season. The Hilltoppers will be strong on defense returning eight starters, particularly in the secondary with corner Justin Black and safeties Alec Wood and Jovantae Johnson.
Urbana finished last season with a 7-4 record and finished third in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. The Blue Knights will be led by All-America candidate quarterback D.J. Mendenhall. Mendenhall is a three-year starter for Urbana racking up 6,702 yards passing and another 1,605 rushing during his career. Mendenhall’s top target, Joe Webb, also returns after catching 63 balls for 1,074 yards despite missing two games. On defense, the Blue Knights return lineman Kyle Ferguson (58 tackles, nine tackles for a loss) and corner David McComas (70 tackles, two interceptions).
Fairmont State will be led by first-year head coach and Fighting Falcon alumnus Jason Woodman. Woodman inherits a team that went 4-6 last year but features two of the top players on either side of the ball in running back Daniel Monroe and middle linebacker Garrett Davis. Monroe is on pace to be one of the top backs in school history, and Davis led the nation last year in solo tackles per game. On top of that, offensive tackle Chris Barfield is considered to be one of the top offensive linemen in the country and has garnered preseason All-America honors.
Notre Dame College is in just its fourth year of existence under head coach Adam Howard. The Falcons went 3-8 last year playing in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC). NDC is led by senior running back and All-America candidate Pedro Powell. Powell rushed for a school record 1,460 yards and found the end zone 11 times last year.
UVa-Wise posted a 3-8 record playing in the NAIA last year. The Cavs will be bringing back 15 starters from last year’s squad (nine on offense and six on defense), including running back Zach Cochran (301 yards and five touchdowns), wide receiver Terrance Younger (24 receptions and 516 yards) and safety Marcus Jones (65 tackles, six tackles for a loss).
West Virginia State will look to first-year head coach Jon Anderson to turn the Yellow Jackets around after a 2-9 campaign in 2012. On offense, WVSU will need to replace its starting quarterback and top rusher from last year, but the defense returns end Wenly Beliard (67 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss) and defensive back Dominque Matthews (53 tackles, four tackles for a loss).
Head coach George Shehl takes over a West Virginia Wesleyan team that went 3-8 in 2012. The Bobcats do feature one of the more explosive players in the country in wide receiver and return specialist Lavaughn Hughes, who led NCAA Division II last year with 453 punt return yards and also added three punt return touchdowns. On defense, WVWC lost its three top tacklers to graduation, but returns solid defensive backs James Williamson and Jermichael Kelly.
The 2013 season begins on Sept. 5 with several Mountain East Conference teams in action, and the MEC portion of the schedule begins on Saturday, Sept. 14.
2013 Mountain East Conference Preseason Poll
1. Shepherd (8) 117
2. Charleston (2) 101
3. Concord 94
4. Glenville State 83
5. West Liberty 79
6. Urbana (1) 75
7. Fairmont State 51
8. Notre Dame College 40
9. UVa-Wise 31
10. West Virginia State 28
11. West Virginia Wesleyan 27
() Indicates first place votes