Senior defensive lineman Justin Blash and the rest of the Albany State football team reported to campus Thursday, ushering in the 2012 football season.
ALBANY — Justin Blash stepped on campus Thursday morning ready to push himself, ready to prove he and his teammates are better than they looked the last time they stepped off the field.
Albany State’s senior defensive lineman and the rest of his teammates reported to campus for the first time this season, and Blash said they all came together with one thing on their minds: hard work.
So when he ran into teammates Travis Walker and Darvel Nelson minutes after arriving, his first question was pretty simple.
“I said, ‘Y’all ready to get it?’ ” Blash said to the pair of offensive linemen, who will be going head-to-head against one another once practices start next week. “Darvel laughed at me and told me he is down to 328 (pounds), and Travis just gave me a little head nod. So I think we are ready to go.”
And so does head coach Mike White, whose Rams will kick off their preseason practices Monday with their annual early-morning climb of the sand dunes near campus.
“They are looking forward to getting started,” White said. “They haven’t seen each other for awhile, and they know what is ahead of them with the dunes and the hard work. I think all that makes your blood run a little bit.”
The Rams are coming off a season — and a pair of devastating losses — that they would like to forget. They rattled off an 8-2 regular-season record but then stumbled in the inaugural conference championship game with a 20-17 loss to Miles — the same team ASU beat on the road in the regular season, 34-27. Then it really got ugly Nov. 19 when North Greenville beat ASU, 63-14, in the first round of the Division II playoffs, handing the Rams their worst loss in White’s 12 seasons as head coach.
It was that playoff loss that motivated star linebacker and Monroe grad Larry Whitfield during the offseason, and it’s a chance at revenge — ASU’s season opener Sept. 1 is at home against North Greenville — that had Whitfield excited Thursday.
“I’m pretty excited to play North Greenville, but before then we are taking it one day at a time,” said Whitfield, who led the team with 104 tackles last season. “Right now, we are just making sure we got our bond right the first day and get to know each other and get ready to work hard for the upcoming season.”
Nobody knows more about working hard than receiver Ronnie Tubbs, who led ASU last season in receiving with 845 yards and 10 TDS and — along with Blash — was a preseason third-team selection to the Beyond Sports Network Division II All-American team.
“I feel like this is the hardest I have ever been working in my life,” said Tubbs, who White called the hardest worker on the team at last week’s Quarterback Club Football Kickoff Reception. “I have been giving it my all and have been focused. I have been hitting the weight room and working on my speed and my agility.”
While Tubbs has been around campus all summer, many of his teammates weren’t, which is something that had offensive coordinator Uyl Joyner troubled at the reception.
“That was kind of disheartening because you always want to get that ball in the air as much as possible during the summer because you can iron out a lot of things,” Joyner said. “We didn’t have that, and I think (it’s) because all of the quarterbacks are new guys who are trying to get in.”
Tubbs is looking for a breakout season, but he is also looking for a starting quarterback after star QB Stanley Jennings graduated and his protégée Blaize Schaeffer was ruled academically ineligible. That leaves transfers Keenan Grissett (Gardner-Webb) and Rodney Castlin (Arizona Western College) — and a possible third QB who hasn’t signed with the team yet, White said — to battle for the starting spot.
Neither Grissett nor Castlin was available after a team meeting Thursday on ASU’s campus, but offensive lineman Victor Moli, who is one of eight starters returning on the offense, said he is looking forward to the battle.
“I feel like having the multitude of quarterbacks we have is something that will be key,” Moli said. “It will create chemistry and show what quarterback wants it more and wants to do the little things in order to do great things.
“We want to be one of the highest-scoring offenses in the conference to make it an easier job for the defense. We lost the big quarterback (Jennings), but I feel like our coaches did a good job at recruiting and bringing in other quarterbacks.”
The Rams’ coaching staff also had to bring in several players to fill holes in the secondary after safeties Rashad McRae and Jamarkus Gaskins graduated. Cornerbacks Gary Howard and Keionten Miller are returning to a defense that gave up a conference-worst 229 passing yards per game last season, and Whitfield said the entire defense will focus on improving that number.
“We feel a little bit of pressure (to improve the pass defense),” Whitfield said. “We are just trying to get the basics down, and I think we will be better with that this year. I think we will be more together and have better communication.”
Whitfield then glanced to his left and looked toward Tubbs and added: “And our leadership is better than last year.”
Tubbs knows it is his work ethic that set the example for his teammates this summer, and he said Thursday he will carry that attitude over into the season.
“That is something that I have to do,” he said. “I want to lead by example, and that’s what I think I am going to do this year. I feel like we have the necessary pieces to add to our puzzle, and we are looking for big things this year.”