After finishing the season 8-4 and failing to repeat as conference champs, Rams coach Mike White has vowed Albany State “will be back.” But ASU will have to do it without eight key seniors off this year’s team, including two-time conference Player of the Year Stanley Jennings. (Herald file photo)
ALBANY — Back in July — some five weeks before the Albany State football season began — Rams coach Mike White wasn’t making any excuses.
“You expect us to have a good team this year,” White told a room full of supporters in July at the 12th annual Quarterback Club Kickoff Football Reception. “That’s what you expect from us. That’s why you are all here. You won’t hear any (darn) excuses.”
Fast forward four months, and nothing’s changed.
Less than a week after the Rams were blown out of the Division II playoffs by North Greenville, White’s message was still the same as he looked back on the 2011 season filled with plenty of highs and lows.
“We played hard. We left it on the field,” White told The Herald when asked to reflect on his 12th year as the Rams’ leader. “We had a chance to win the conference and came up short. But that’s football.”
North Greenville’s 63-14 victory against the Rams, who finished the season with an 8-4 record, was the worst loss in White’s 12-year coaching career, the worst loss in ASU playoff history and the third-worst loss in program history.
A week earlier, the Rams were shocked in the inaugural conference championship game against Miles, yet surprisingly advanced to the playoffs — despite losses to Valdosta State and Lane in the regular season. The Rams are now 4-13 in postseason play and 3-13 in the Division II playoffs.
But on Tuesday — just three days after that stunning loss to North Greenville — White said he will be able to look back on this team and see a group of guys who never gave up despite all the obstacles they were given.
And, oh, were there some obstacles.
It started in the summer when Norris Byrd and captain Mike Mavromichalis — two preseason conference first-team offensive linemen — were ruled academically ineligible. The Rams were then given another hurdle to jump when projected starting running back Kareem Hess suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason. The offense lost another weapon midway through the season when preseason All-American receiver Octavius Staton went down with a season-ending leg injury against Morehouse on Oct. 15.
And then there was the defense that lost six starters from the 2010 team, including all of the starting linebackers.
It was an uphill battle from the very beginning for ASU, but hills are something that the Rams are known for climbing. Preseason practices started back in August with an early-morning workout climbing sand dunes on the ASU campus, and the Rams never quit climbing and clawing their way past challenges.
Now White is presented with a whole new set of challenges.
The Rams will lose eight key seniors, and all of them played large roles on the team. None of those losses will be bigger than quarterback Stanley Jennings, who was the 2010 conference MVP and two-time conference Offensive Player of the Year. He finished his two-year ASU career with 5,054 passing yards, 50 touchdowns and 24 interceptions.
“He has been the guy for us the past two years,” White said. “Just look at all the awards he has won. Now we have to go out and replace him.”
The Rams also lose running back Darryl Carey, who was one of four backs that carried the ball this season, as well as place kicker Tory Torstenson.
For the second year in a row, the “Dirty Blue” defense will suffer the most casualties, losing defensive end and four-year starter Antorio Wells, linebacker Bruce Ryles, safety Rashad McRae, safety Jamarkus Gaskins and linebacker Joshua Sampson, who was the only one of the five who didn’t start.
McRae, Gaskins and Ryles were all in the top five on the team in tackles; Gaskins led the team in sacks; and McRae and Ryles were team leaders in interceptions.
“The biggest losses will definitely be Wells, McRae and Gaskins,” White said. “Losing those three will have the heaviest toll on the defense.”
And it’s a defense that can’t afford to have too many more hits. The “Dirty Blue” finished ninth in the conference in total defense (333 yards per game) and eighth in the conference in scoring defense (27 points per game).
“We were just really inexperienced,” White said about his defense. “We had some good players, but it wasn’t a group that played with a lot of experience. We really weren’t that good of a defense. I thought they played hard and gave it all they had and left in on the field, but that defense took a while to get the basic alignments and assignments down.”
However, ASU will have several key defenders back for next season, including leading tackler and Monroe alum Larry Whitfield and star defensive end Justin Blash. White added that the biggest question mark on the defense will once again be the secondary, which gave up 244 yards per game in the air — more than 60 yards more than any other team in the conference.
“Losing those two safeties will be huge holes to fill,” White said about Gaskins and McRae. “We asked them to do a lot. It usually takes a kid straight from high school a couple of years to figure out (all they are asked to do).”
The offensive picture, meanwhile, looks much better.
Freshman quarterback Blaize Schaeffer saw some key snaps throughout the season and played the final quarter of Saturday’s game against North Greenville, where he was 6-for-10 for 96 yards and a touchdown. Schaeffer, who White said will still compete for that starting job next season, may be the only new face in the starting lineup.
The entire offensive line will be back, as will starting receivers Ronnie Tubbs, Orion Ponder, Mitchell County native Jessie Atkins and Mark Bell. And not only will the top three rushers — Nathan Hoyte, Adrian Alexander and Luther Edwards — return, but Hess will be back for his senior season.
On special teams, field goal kicker Brandon Hamilton was just a sophomore, and punters Luke Jones and Ryan Latner were merely freshmen.
Uyl Joyner, who finished his first year as offensive coordinator with the conference’s third-best offense, will have plenty to work with next season. On Tuesday, White said he was pleased with the way Joyner transitioned from quarterbacks coach last year into his new coaching job.
“I thought he did a good job,” White said. “I’ve always thought he would do a great job making adjustments. I think he learned a lot the first year, but I think he has a bright future and will continue to improve each year.”
The sting of that playoff loss still hurts, but White and the Rams are already thinking about next season.
“We’ll be back,” said White, who took just two days off before meeting with his coaching staff to discuss next year’s team. “We will be back.”