SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. —The Shepherd University equipment manager is handing out a new accessory on the football uniforms this year.
It’s a chip.
If you’re looking for it, it will be worn even with the helmet ear hole and on top of the padding over the collarbone.
“We have a chip on our shoulders,” said defensive end Howard Jones during Shepherd’s media day festivities. “We should not have lost those games last year. That was all on us.”
Yes, the Rams are entering the 2012 season with a chip on their shoulders. That becomes standard issue when the season before — one filled with promise — doesn’t exactly pan out the way it was scripted.
Shepherd was the top defensive team in the nation.
The Rams were the third-best scoring team in the country.
None of it mattered after Shepherd lost consecutive games to Concord and West Virginia Wesleyan midway through the season. The latter was decided on a failed two-point conversion in overtime.
So, instead of heading into postseason play, the Rams packed up all their accolades and went home.
Now, it’s time to make things right … but this time, Shepherd is approaching things with caution.
“We are excited about this year,” said Rams coach Monte Cater, who enters his 26th year at Shepherd. “We fell short. We went 9-2. We’re used to playing in the playoffs, but we fell short.”
On the political side, Shepherd’s accomplishments were dashed by finishing second in the West Virginia Conference, a league that usually only has one team included in the NCAA Division II championship tournament. This will be Shepherd’s final year in the conference, as the Rams are part of a group that will cut ties with the long-time, statewide conference to align with a stronger football conference.
But there is still this season to deal with, and Shepherd would like to leave an impression as it leaves.
Many believe the Rams are capable of returning to the national spotlight. Shepherd was voted as the team to beat in the WVIAC and will start the season ranked No. 19 in the Division II poll.
The Rams still need to prove it, though.
“We were voted the preseason No. 1 in the conference last year,” Cater said. “And we finished in second place.”
But, there are still other preseason factors that are encouraging and attention-grabbing.
The Rams have multiple pieces returning from last year’s defense. Shepherd has four starting linemen returning, including Jones, an All-WVIAC first-team selection with 23 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. The Rams are deep at linebacker and have proven experience in the secondary, topped by Corey Robinson, a “center field” free safety who led the team with 57 tackles.
Offensively, the Rams have starting quarterback Bobby Cooper back with a host of young receiving talent. The senior also has the luxury of handing the ball to Kenny Williams, who is the latest talented running back in the Shepherd backfield.
Williams played behind departed starter Tommy Addison in 2011 but still managed 842 yards and 14 touchdowns to earn WVIAC second-team honors.
“Our defense helps our offense because we face it in practice every day,” Cater said. “People are saying we will struggle because we lost a lot, but we will be good on offense. Last year, we averaged 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing a game. I think we can duplicate that.”
Oh yeah, the Rams also averaged 43.5 points while allowing just 19.3 points per game last season. That includes being outscored 73-58 in the two losses — which kept Shepherd out of the playoffs after a run to the national semifinals in 2010.
This season starts with three of the first four games on the road — starting Sept. 1 at Shippensburg — before Shepherd gets to host rematches with Concord and West Virginia Wesleyan when it returns home at the end of September.
“We will be fine, but we need to stay healthy and get off to a good start because we wear the white (away) jerseys a lot early,” Cater said. “We will be challenged every week and we can’t take anyone for granted. We have to play this one before we play the next one. It’s all the clichés.”
That’s the standard that is included with that shoulder chip.