The West Liberty University football team has to be ready to hit the ground running Saturday afternoon when Coach Roger Waialae’s Hilltoppers open the season at home against No. 12 Shepherd.
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at newly-renamed West Family Stadium, which is undergoing a complete facelift with new fan seating along with a new and expanded press box, VIP hospitality box, concession stands and restrooms.
The Rams return most of their offensive weapons from last year’s 11-1 run squad that went unbeaten in Mountain East Conference play and advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II playoffs under veteran head coach Monte Cater. Not surprisingly, they were installed as preseason favorites in last month’s MEC coaches’ poll.
“We’re playing a great football team right off the bat so we have to be mentally prepared to compete at the highest level,” Waialae said. “Our first priority against anybody is trying to stop the run and that won’t change. At the same time, we know they’re going to take some shots down the field so we can’t afford to give up big plays over the top.”
One of the changes West Liberty made during the off-season found Waialae taking over as offensive coordinator with an eye toward developing a more effective running game while tailoring the attack to the players’ skill sets.
Dakota Conwell, a University of Arizona transfer, will start at quarterback. An All-State quarterback and linebacker from Western Pennsylvania, Conwell played 10 games at linebacker as a true freshman under Rich Rodriguez two years ago but came back east in search of an opportunity to play quarterback again.
“Dakota’s more of a dual-threat quarterback than we’ve had,” Waialae said. “He’s not afraid to pull it down and take off if nobody’s open and he has the speed and size to be a weapon. We’ll try to play to his strengths as we would with any quarterback but we really didn’t change the offense that much.”
Conwell will be able to rely on a veteran receiving corps. Senior WR Dylan Potts led the team last year with 62 catches for 680 yards and 7 TDs and senior WR Brandon Schroeder – a 1,000-yard receiver in 2011 – is back after redshirting last fall. Steady senior Ben Rogers also returns along with speedy sophomore Anton McCallum, a Shepherd transfer. Junior TE Daree Goodwin is a converted WR who had 45 catches for 363 yards last fall.
Senior Isiah Moody and sophomore Ty Peterson are the most experienced running backs but freshmen Jeremiah Ortiz and Braxton Gamble could also see action behind an offensive line featuring three returning starters in LT John McCullough, C Eric Amidei and RG Jake Turley.
The defense got a boost with the return of 2012 All-American safety Marco Ricchetti from a redshirt season. Fellow senior LB Alec Wood, a 3-year starter, is healthy for the first time in two years while junior safety Andrew Faraimo is coming off an All-MEC campaign.
Shepherd’s ground-oriented attack is led by the tag-team tailback tandem of Allen Cross and Jabre Lolley, who combined for 2,039 rushing yards and 27 TDs last year. Quarterback Jeff Ziemba takes over as the full-time starter after splitting time a year ago, completing more than 62 percent of his passes for 1,133 yards and 7 TDs.
After leading the nation in rushing defense for three straight years, the Rams are replacing their entire defensive line this season. Don’t expect much slippage, however, with a veteran linebacker and secondary corps returning.
Sophomore CB C.J. Davis will draw plenty of attention from the Hilltoppers after earning NCAA Division II All-America honors with a nation’s-best 24.9-yard average on punt returns. Shepherd led the nation with 9 return TDs last year.
“People always talk about Shepherd’s defense and ground game,” Waialae said, “but they don’t get enough credit for their special teams. They’re really good in the return game, they block kicks and they cover well. When you can run the football, stop the run and have great special teams play, that’s a pretty good formula for success.”
X The conference rivals did not meet last season for the first time since 1968 due to a scheduling quirk caused by the switch from West Virginia Conference to MEC affiliation
X Shepherd holds a 31-17 lead in the all-time series but the Hilltoppers have won three of the last five meetings
X Waialae is just 2-7 in season openers but has a 6-3 record in conference openers at West Liberty
X The Rams’ Cater (230-112-2) ranks third in career wins among active NCAA Division II coaches
X Cater has collected more wins at his school (200) than the other 10 MEC coaches combined (183)