Former Monroe star Larry Whitfield led the defense as a freshman a year ago, and he expects better results this season. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
WHAT: 2012 season opener for both.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Albany State Coliseum.
RADIO: 98.1 FM.
FOLLOW ONLINE: For live updates go to twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.
ALBANY — Nathan Hoyte hasn’t forgotten how last season ended.
Nobody in the Albany State football community has.
That’s how bad North Greenville beat ASU in last year’s opening round of the Division II playoffs, and that’s what has kept the Rams motivated all summer.
They think about the score every time they lace up their cleats, each time they slip on their shoulder pads. It’s always there — taunting them, pushing them to reach higher.
“We definitely haven’t forgotten,” said Hoyte, the Rams’ starting running back.
But the Rams, who are ranked No. 22 in the preseason Division II coaches’ poll, are out for more than just revenge against No. 23 North Greenville when they open the season Saturday at home against the Crusaders.
“What personally motivates me — and I believe the rest of my teammates also — is beyond the loss to North Greenville,” Hoyte explained. “That is a motivational factor, but we want to win it all. It motivates me not only to beat North Greenville, but to beat everybody else that we play and win the championship.”
That’s the goal at Albany State this season, where the Rams are deeper than ever on offense and ready to redeem themselves on defense.
They return eight starters on offense — including their best running back and receiver from last season — and six starters on defense. The starting quarterback job was recently awarded to Florida Atlantic transfer David Kooi, who has impressed both his teammates and his coaches with his presence in the pocket, and a number of talented transfers on the defensive side of the ball have restored confidence in the “Dirty Blue.”
There’s plenty of optimism surrounding this year’s team, which is trying to bounce back from the most lopsided playoff loss in the history of the program, an 8-4 record — one of the poorest in White’s 12-year coaching career — and some of the worst defensive statistics in years.
And a successful season will start with the defense, White said earlier this week. More specifically, it will start with the defensive line.
“Our defensive line has to win,” White said. “I think that’s the most important thing for us defensively.”
The Rams have depth on the defensive line, which will be led by defensive ends Justin Blash, a 6-foot-5, 345-pound senior, and Troy Morgan, a 6-4, 295-pound senior from Camilla. Blash and Morgan combined for six sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss last season, and this year they will be a part of a deep line that could rotate in as many as eight players, including nose guards Brandon Glanton (6-0, 273) and Jarvis Hines (6-3, 275) and defensive end John Rouse (6-1, 255).
“It all starts with (the defensive line),” said Morgan, a former star lineman at Mitchell County. “If we play good, the defense is going to play good. If we come out bad, it’s going to be a trickle effect.”
Morgan also feels like the defense needs to redeem itself after finishing ninth — out of 13 teams — in the conference in yards allowed per game (333.2) and eighth in scoring defense (27.42 points allowed per game) last season.
“As far as the defense goes, we are one unit,” Morgan said. “But as the d-line we are going to take responsibility and step up to the plate first and set the tone. We don’t want to have to worry about the amount of yards we cave up last year or the amount of touchdowns we gave up.”
A lot of ASU’s defensive woes last season came in the secondary, where the Rams allowed a conference-worst 228.92 yards per game. Last year’s starting cornerbacks — senior Gary Howard (6-2, 190) and sophomore Westover grad Keionten Miller (6-3, 180) — are both back, but 2011 star safeties Jamarkus Gaskins and Rashad McRae are gone and will be replaced by former Monroe star and Fort Valley State transfer Chavius Jackson (5-9, 193) and Georgia State transfer Dexter Moody (6-3, 200).
“We’ve worked very hard with those guys,” White said when asked if the secondary has improved on containing deep passes, which burned the Rams several times last season. “There has been some intense work with those guys to mentally and physically get them better so they can put themselves in better positions to make plays for us.”
At the heart of the defense is former Monroe star Larry Whitfield, a 6-foot, 210-pound sophomore who led the Rams in tackles last season (104). He will play the strong outside linebacker and will be joined by fellow starting linebackers Marcavius Dudley (5-9, 230) and Jarvis Brice (6-2, 250). Dudley alternated with 2011 grad Demonte Queen as a starting outside linebacker last season, while Brice is a senior transfer from Virginia Union University.
“We can be very good,” Whitfield said. “This year, we are much faster, and speed kills. So adding speed to fundamentals and going through all of our reps in practice is a good thing for our defense.”
The defense is speedy and rich with talent, and White said Wednesday that the first three games of the season — which include road games against Division II powerhouses Wingate and Elizabeth City State — will test the defense more than ever.
“We are a little bit ahead of where I thought we might have been at this point,” White said. “But I do think it’s going to take time. I don’t see this as a dominating unit. I think they will get better as the season goes on, but these teams — North Greenville, Wingate and Elizabeth City — will be a tough test. We will see how they handle it. I think they will do fine, but they are untested right now.”
Another untested position for the Rams is at quarterback, where Kooi, a 6-6, 215-pound senior, is preparing to start the first season opener of his college career. He came up on the short end of quarterback battles time and time again at Florida Atlantic, but he recently out-dueled Keenan Grissett for the starting position for the Rams — albeit Grissett’s back spasms in the final two weeks of preseason may have ultimately tilted the battle into Kooi’s favor.
Offensive coordinator Uyl Joyner said it was Kooi’s precision passing the ball and efficiency in the pocket that was the deciding factor in the QB battle, but Grissett, a 6-3, 220-pound senior transfer from Gardner-Webb, will still see some time under center during the season.
“Keenan brings another dimension to the game,” said Joyner, who had success in the passing game last year with signal caller Stanley Jennings, who finished his two-year career at ASU with 50 touchdowns and more than 5,000 yards in the air. “Keenan is another weapon. You have to account for him as a runner. David can sit in that pocket and make throws all over the field, and Keenan can do his thing running.”
The Rams are loaded with guys who can run.
Hoyte (5-10, 195) led the team with 774 rushing yards and seven TDs last season and is joined in the backfield by sophomore Adrian Alexander (5-9, 185) and junior Kareem Hess (5-9, 196). Alexander, who will also be the team’s main kickoff returner, showed flashes of brilliance last season and finished the year with 238 yards and three TDs, while Hess is returning from back-to-back knee injuries that ended his previous two seasons.
ASU also added Richard Watson to the mix. Watson, a 6-2, 250-pound senior, played his first two seasons at Georgia Tech, where he was stuck in the depth chart behind All-ACC rushers Jonathan Dwyer and Anthony Allen in 09 and ’10. Last year, he ran for Florida A&M before transferring to ASU for his senior season.
Hoyte will get more carries than anybody, but he still likes the competition.
“Every day we are competing,” Hoyte said. “We are competing in everything we do. Everybody wants to be the best in every drill and every play. And with that type of competition, you get the best out of yourself.”
The Rams are equally as deep at receiver, where Joyner said he can play eight guys without missing a beat. And most of them return from last season, including preseason HBCU All-American Ronnie Tubbs (845 yards, 10 TDs), return specialist Orion Ponder (454 yards, 3 TDs) and former Mitchell County star Jessie Atkins (139 yards, 1 TD), who will all start Saturday against North Greenville.
The Rams’ fourth starting wideout will be Julius Bellinger, a senior transfer from the University of Toledo, while key reserves will be Crisp County grad Janell Jones, Mark Bell and Devonta Osborne.
“Our No. 2 receivers will be in there,” Joyner said. “You will see them on the field, and they will get reps. And we won’t miss a beat when they are in there. We should be an offense that can score a lot of points. We also want to be able to control that ball so we can control the clock.”
Kooi will be protected by center Hakeem Lassiter, right guard Travis Walker, right tackle Darius Priester, left guard Victor Moli and left tackle Darvel Nelson, while tight end Cessel Taylor will provide both pass protection and another set of hands in the passing game.
Justin Keable, a junior punter who transferred from Bethune-Cookman, and Zach Holley, a freshman kicker, will start Saturday, while freshman Dillan Fontaine will bring competition to the place kicking position after he heals from minor preseason injuries.
“I think these guys can do the job,” White said about the special teams. “I think they are very capable in what they do.
“I don’t know if I would say it will be our strong point, but what they can do they can be very good at it.”