ASU’s senior running back Darryl Carey is one of several new starters this season for the Rams, who have been ranked in every major Division II preseason poll and kick off the season at 5 p.m. Saturday in Macon against Savannah State in the Music City Classic.
ALBANY -- How does a college football team follow up a year during which it went undefeated in the regular season, won the SIAC title and was crowned SBN Black College National Champions?
"That's a question that still has to be answered," Albany State football coach Mike White said.
The Rams open up the regular season Saturday in Macon against Savannah State -- a team the Rams are 6-0 against in their last six meetings. But White said this year's ASU team still has a lot to prove on the field.
"With what we have coming back, we just have to work on getting these guys to understand what the team has done in the past and then kind of go from there," he said. "Hopefully the guys from last year passed that on to them, what it means to work hard when things get tight."
But do these Rams have the same work ethic as last year's team that engineered the most successful season in the history of an already legendary program?
"I'm not sure. I don't really see that yet," White said.
And rightfully so.
The Rams haven't been challenged yet. In fact, it's been quite the opposite. So far, all anyone's done is heap tons of preseason praise on Albany State before it's ever even played a down. ASU is ranked in every major preseason Division II poll, including ninth in the AFCA Coaches' Poll, 10th in the D2Football.com Preseason Top 25 Poll, 13th in the Sporting News D2 Football Preview and 14th in the Lindy's Football Preview Preseason Top 25.
"Those polls don't make any difference when these Saturdays come," senior running back Darryl Carey said. "When the lights come on Saturday, that's what matters, not those rankings."
That's the attitude the Rams have been taking throughout the preseason. They are more concerned about forging a new path than living in the shadows of what last year's team did.
Still, they are also eager to prove last year's 11-1 record and trip to the NCAA playoffs' Division II quarterfinals is not only something that can be accomplished again, but surpassed.
"We just listen to coach," senior defensive back Jamarkus Gaskins said. "We just come out here and work hard. It's still the same name on the front of the jersey, just different people wearing them. We are still Albany State, we still work hard, and we still go out and play as hard as we can play."
Gaskins is one of five starters returning to a depleted defense that lost last season's top five tacklers, its biggest weapon in the pass rush and a pair of First Team All-SIAC defensive backs.
On Saturday, White said he knows there are still a lot of areas where his team needs to improve.
"It's not one thing," he said. "If it was one thing, it would be easy to fix. It's multiple."
Those pieces missing from last year's defense are former team MVP and defensive back Mario Fuller (59 tackles), defensive end Jacob Hardwick (56 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks and five forced fumbles), defensive back Prathon Wilkerson (38 tackles, seven interceptions) and linebackers Issac Warren, Frederick Green and Ernest Seay, who combined for 199 tackles and 30 tackles for a loss.
Those are a lot of holes to fill, but Gaskins is confident this year's team is special in its own way.
"This just means we have a new approach," Gaskins said. "We aren't as solid on defense as were last year, but we are faster."
Gaskins is the top returning stopped from last season when he had 49 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and two interceptions. White said Gaskins has stepped into the leadership role left empty by Fuller.
"He said he wanted it. I didn't know if he could do it, but he has done it," White said of Gaskins. "He means a lot to the defense. He is going to be the one who is going to talk and encourage the guys and get on them at the same time. That is on and off the field. He's just that type of leader."
Quarterback Stanley Jennings is that type of leader on the offense -- a field general the Rams need after losing starters to graduation, injury and academics.
Top running backs Robert Welton and LiRonnie Davis have graduated and their replacements, Kareem Hess and Jamaris Cooper, suffered serious preseason knee injuries. Preseason First Team All-SIAC linemen Norris Byrd and captain Mike Mavromichalis were ruled academically ineligible, and top receiver Ronnie Childs graduated and took 1,005 yards and 12 touchdowns from last year with him.
But Jennings isn't worried about his offense.
"We have to go with what we have," Jennings said. "The new linemen came from junior college. I've been in junior college, so I know they are ready to play. The running backs have been putting in a lot of work, and they are looking good, too."
ASU's offensive linemen are projected to be five juniors -- Hakeem Lassiter from Grambling University, Robert Cantey from Georgia Military College, Darvel Nelson from Georgia Military College, Danny Bunch from Hinds Community College (Miss.) and Travis Walker from Benedict College.
Carey, along with Shepherd University transfer Nathan Hoyte and junior Luther Edwards, will start at running back to begin the season -- a role Carey said he expected. After all, he writes "expect" and "want" on his taped up wrists each time he suits up for practices and games.
"I always expect," Carey said. "It's written on my wrists, expect and want. It always says the same thing every day, with two exclamation marks. Before every play I look at both and touch my cross (hanging around my neck)."
Carey keeps those pieces of tape -- two for every practice and game -- in a Nike shoe box tucked away in his locker. He isn't the only Ram expecting big things this season, though.
"We are walking around with a chip on our shoulder," Jennings said. "Everybody that we beat last year is aiming for us. We are going to take it one game at a time. I'm not looking back at last year."
When the Rams kick off the season Saturday against Savannah State -- ASU's only D-I opponent on its schedule this season -- Carey said it will be important to get off on the right foot.
"That's always important. It builds team confidence. You make a statement for the future, and you can build off that game," he said. "We did what we did last season. Now it's a new year, a new season. We are going to make a new slate and new history."
Last year the question was, "How good can the Rams be?" This year, people are asking, "Can the Rams be even better?"
"It's some big shoes to fill, but we work hard," Gaskins said. "You have to build hype for yourself. This year, the hype is already there. We are going to put our pants on one leg at a time the same way we did last year, and we are going to go out there and play some ball. I hope (our opponents) are ready to go against us -- (because) we are hungry."