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Spring in their step

Blaize Schaeffer may have a leg up on the starting QB job after playing behind Stanley Jennings last season. (joe.belloacomo@albanyherald.com)

Blaize Schaeffer may have a leg up on the starting QB job after playing behind Stanley Jennings last season. (joe.belloacomo@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY — Mike White can feel the excitement.

He has seen it in his players’ work ethic, in the way they have pushed themselves in the weight room and on the practice field in the four months since getting blown out of the Division II playoffs.

And at 6 p.m. today, ASU fans will be able to see it, too.

White and his Rams will be back on the field for the 4h annual Blue and Gold scrimmage, and it will be the first time the team has suited up since the 63-14 loss to North Greenville on Nov. 19.

They can’t wait to get the season rolling.

Want To Go?

WHO: Albany State offense vs. Albany State defense.

WHAT: Rams’ annual Blue & Gold spring game.

WHEN: 6 p.m. today.

WHERE: ASU Coliseum.

ADMISSION: Free.

“I think these guys are very hungry because of the way we left last season, so right now they are working the way we want them to,” White said Wednesday after practice. “This is the time that you win games.”

Right at the heart of ASU’s spring scrimmage is the battle to replace quarterback Stanley Jennings, who spent two seasons leading the Rams’ offense. Blaize Schaeffer, Jennings’ back-up last season, and Keenan Grissett, a junior transfer from Gardner-Webb, are the two candidates for that job, and both will take snaps during today’s scrimmage.

“They have been going at it this spring, and I would not rule out how long that battle will go on. In fact, I want to heat it up even more by bringing somebody else in,” White said. “You definitely want that guy to be the leader and to take over the offense. You want the quarterback to be the man.”

Schaeffer, a slim and speedy 6-foot-2 passer, saw periodic snaps last season and even played several key series at the end of ASU’s 19-13 win against Clark Atlanta. Grissett, who decided to transfer after being moved to defense at Gardner-Webb, is about 30 pounds heavier than Schaeffer but is still able to move out of the pocket.

“(Grissett) has college experience, and that is probably the only thing that him and Blaize don’t have alike,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Uyl Joyner said. “They both can be mobile and stay in the pocket. Blaize may be a step or two faster, but Keenan is still a good runner. The biggest thing is that they aren’t making this competition bigger than the team. They know that (today’s scrimmage) won’t decide who the starter is.”

The Rams lost several key players to graduation from last year’s team — including defensive stars Jamarkus Gaskins and Antorio Wells — but they will be without two other familiar faces next season for other reasons.

Place kicker and punter Luke Jones, who came over from Australia with high expectations but had trouble adjusting to the American version of the sport, returned home, and offensive lineman Robert Cantey was ruled academically ineligible.

Other than Cantey’s absence, the offensive line that will take the field today will be identical to the one that was molded together late last offseason but still managed to provide adequate protection for Jennings.

“Offensively, we are a lot further along than we were last year,” White said. “Most of the guys we brought in last year were blessings, luck --- whatever you want to call it. The offensive line and the offensive line coach came in late before we even got a chance to know them. This year, they are bonding really well, and they worked hard in the offseason. So you expect them to do a lot better job this year.”

The rest of the offense isn’t missing a beat either.

Receivers Ronnie Tubbs, Orion Ponder, Mark Bell and former Mitchell star Jessie Atkins, and running backs Nathan Hoyte and Luther Edwards have all impressed White during the offseason.

“The enthusiasm is there,” White said. “The leadership skills are there when they are in the gym working out or doing the little things. We are seeing what we want to with our big boys pushing each other. That’s a plus, and I would say the same exact thing for the backs and receivers.”

White has added a little more than 20 signees to the team, but he said Wednesday that the number will likely increase as the offseason stretches on. Two of those new Rams are familiar faces in Southwest Georgia — Bainbridge’s Quincy Fortson and Mitchell County’s Grover Stewart.

Fortson is a defensive back, and Stewart is a 6-5 defensive lineman who could see immediate action with the departure of Wells and Gaskins, who combined for 12.5 sacks last season.

“We definitely need him to come in and give us some depth on the line and help us solidify what we do up front,” White said. “The defensive line has depth problems losing Wells from last year’s squad, so we will need his help.”

White said the Rams got away from their traditional gameplan last season when they took Gaskins out of the secondary and stuck him on the line to aid the pass rush, but the defense is looking to move in a different direction this season.

“Gaskins might have started out the game at free safety,” White said. “After a couple of series, we might move him down to linebacker, and then he might finish the game on the line pass rushing. It’s what we had to do to be successful last year. It was a good fit, but it isn’t the way we like to play ball. We like to be more team-oriented, and last year we liked to just turn him loose. We need to get back to the basics.”

Today’s scrimmage will include various situational work and skeleton plays, and it will be officiated by an assortment of referees who are on campus for a three-day clinic.

“There is probably close to 90 of them here, and they are from pro and colleges,” White said. “It works both ways (having officials at the scrimmage), so those guys can point out little stuff like formations, hand placements and new rules.”

In keeping with tradition, the winning side of today’s spring game will be treated to a steak dinner, while the loser will have to settle for hot dogs.

ASU opens the 2012 season Sept. 1 at home against North Greenville before heading to North Carolina for back-to-back games against Wingate and Elizabeth City State.