Albany State football coach Mike White addressed fans during Friday’s annual Quarterback Club Football Kickoff Reception and was optimistic about the season, which begins in just over a week with the first day of practice.
ALBANY — Mike White stood in front of supporters and started naming Albany State’s opponents for the 2012 season.
He went right down the list, beginning with the Sept. 1 season opener against North Greenville and addressing each game up to the regular-season finale against Fort Valley State.
But he didn’t stop there.
Speaking to a room full of fans and supporters Friday evening at the annual Quarterback Club Football Kickoff Reception, Albany State’s head football coach had plenty to say about several other challenges the team is facing, both on and off the field.
One by one, tough issues were raised by the crowd …
“Why are a number of players academically ineligible for the season?”
“Why are there just three home games on the schedule?”
“Who will play quarterback?”
“What can the team do to improve its pass defense?”
White and his coaching staff met the questions head on with matter-of-fact answers. They also didn’t shy away from announcing their goals for this season.
“To win the East (Division) and get back to the championship is key,” said White, whose Rams lost last year’s conference championship to Miles and finished 8-4 overall. “That’s what we look for, and that’s what we are striving to do right now.”
Players report to campus Thursday and begin practice Aug. 6, and the ASU coaches can’t wait to sink their feet into the sand dunes for the team’s annual 6 a.m. hill climb on the first day of practice.
“Before the players even got better, we got better as coaches,” said Uyl Joyner, who is entering his second season as offensive coordinator. “We went back and looked at all our film and looked at things that we could do better to better ourselves as coaches and to better our team. We really attacked those things coming into the spring. We are really hungry to get back on the field.”
The last time Joyner and the Rams were on the field was Nov. 19 when North Greenville beat the Rams, 63-14, in the opening round of the Division II playoffs, handing ASU one of its worst losses in the history of its program.
“You all know us in this room, and we don’t take butt whoopings lightly,” Joyner said. “We like to dish them out. We like to be on the other end of them.”
A lot has changed since that season-ending loss, and there might not be a bigger change than at the quarterback position, where the Rams don’t have a clear-cut starter for the first time in years.
Star QB Stanley Jennings, who was 19-5 as a starter the past two seasons, has graduated, and his protégée, sophomore Blaize Schaeffer, was ruled academically ineligible for the season.
“There was only one quarterback on the field, and he just left,” Joyner said, referring to Schaeffer. “We have two guys coming in who will fight for that spot.”
The Rams signed Keenan Grissett, a transfer from Gardner-Webb, earlier in the spring, and Joyner announced on Friday that they added Rodney Castlin, who played at ASU as a freshman before transferring to Arizona Western College.
“It’s probably going to be a three-man fight,” Joyner said. “The other guy is pending right now.”
For now, however, it’s just Castlin and Grissett, and both of them were primarily defenders last season. Their ability to throw the ball is still up in the air, but Joyner does know this about the duo — they are fast.
“They are runners,” Joyner said. “We will run some option, and we will give the quarterback a chance to carry the ball, because that is their strength. … We got to get them in here and let our defense go after them a little bit and see if they can stand up under pressure. It’s tough to say what their strengths are, but I know running the ball is one of them.”
Schaeffer’s academic struggles, which caused the ASU coaching staff to scramble to find a new quarterback, aren’t unique this season for the Rams.
Other players ruled academically ineligible are kicker Brandon Hamilton (who hit 13 of his 17 field goals last year during a breakout season), safety Matt Taylor (who would have been the signal caller on defense), offensive linemen Robert Cantey and Danny Bunch and tight end Darius Nelson.
Senior running back Luther Edwards, who shined in the preseason scrimmage, also won’t play next season because he exceeded his 10-semester limit.
“I don’t think we will do anything different (about academics). We just have to do a better job of what we do and how we do it,” White said. “Today’s kids are a different animal. That comes from time management. It’s hard for them to get that part down. If that cell phone — I don’t care what time of night — beeps, then he is going to wake up. (He will say), ‘Oh, you are doing what over where?’ And he will be gone. That is what we have to fight and battle with, with our guys, to make sure they stay on top of it. We have to work closer to them and follow through to make sure he is doing what he should be doing.”
But a lot of times that can be a losing battle for the coaching staff, and White used Schaeffer as an example.
“Blaize was a 3.0 student here,” White said. “He is at home now and has to come back and try out next year. It had nothing to do with his intelligence. He is smart as a whip. But you get a kid who comes down here as a quarterback — and do I need to go further with this story — one girl said he is cute and another girl said he was cute. And he’s gone.”
Whoever does land the starting quarterback spot will have plenty of weapons to throw to, starting with preseason All-Conference selection Ronnie Tubbs, who was ASU’s leading receiver last year with 845 yards and 10 touchdowns. Wide receivers coach Anthony Kelly announced Friday that Tubbs will be anchored on the other side of the ball by Julian Bellinger, a transfer from the University of Toledo and native of Lithonia.
“It’s going to be tough for teams to double us,” Kelly said. “With both of those guys being deep threats, I expect (slot receivers Orion Ponder and Camilla native Jessie Atkins) to have really good seasons also.”
ASU’s receiving corp might be one of the best it has had in years, and the other side of the passing game should be improved as well.
Of course, the secondary couldn’t get much worse.
ASU allowed 2,747 yards through the air last season, which was nearly 1,000 years more than any other team in the conference.
“Here it is without sugar. Last year we were terrible against the pass,” White said. “It was history. It was the worst pass defense in the history of Albany State. It was that bad.”
Defensive backs Gary Howard and Keionten Miller are returning this season, but beyond that secondary coach Dan Land will have a whole new slate of talent.
“Last year we had trouble with the deep ball and had trouble with the edge on options. This spring we did a lot of work with the guys we had here to make sure that we take care of that,” Land said.
With 14 starters returning from last year — eight on offense and six on defense — there is plenty of optimism surrounding this season. But one of the biggest concerns from the fans in attendance Friday night was the lack of home games.
The Rams play just three games in the ASU Coliseum — Sept. 1 against North Greenville, Sept. 22 against Miles and Oct. 20 against Clark Atlanta — and interim Director of Athletics Richard Williams addressed those questions at the beginning of the reception.
“We want home games, but it’s just the luck of the draw sometimes,” Williams said.
The luck of the draw has ASU on the road for two of its three non-conference games, which are typically year-to-year contracts. The final seven contests on the schedule are conference games, and the Rams rotate between two and three home conference games a season — numbers that appear smaller because the annual Fountain City Classic against Fort Valley State is played in Columbus each year regardless of the designated home team.
“Rest assured, I would like to have all 10 games played at this beautiful stadium right here if I could,” Williams said. “I just want the faithful few to know, as well as Ram nation to know, that by no means do coach or myself not want us to have home games.”