For the first time since 2001, Mike White’s Albany State Rams football team failed to win seven games this season. White said all phases of the team will be examined — and improved — during the offseason. (Herald file photo)
ALBANY — For eight straight years, Albany State football coach Mike White watched the Division II playoffs selection show, awaiting the seeding for his Golden Rams.
On Sunday, White was nowhere near the live stream.
“I was out cooking on the grill,” White said Tuesday as he sat down with The Herald to reflect on the season that was. “I was just trying to find something to do.”
There wasn’t much point in watching the selection show — not after Albany State’s season ended Nov. 3 with a disappointing 38-20 loss to bitter rival Fort Valley State in the Fountain City Classic.
The loss dropped the Rams’ record to 6-4, eliminated them from a berth in the conference championship game and dashed any hopes they had of making the playoffs. On Sunday it became official — ASU was left out of the Division II playoffs for the first time since an NCAA postseason ban was lifted in 2004.
“This is all kind of a first for me,” White said. “We’ve never been off this early. Even before we were in the playoffs (in 2003) when we didn’t play in the postseason, we always played in another game in the week before the playoffs.”
While two teams from Albany State’s conference — Miles and Fort Valley — made the playoffs, White said he has already shifted into offseason mode and is focusing on recruiting and re-establishing the Rams’ winning tradition.
On Tuesday, White reminisced about the year and looked forward to what he believes will be a 2013 season that is remembered as “a year we turned it around.”
Things started turning in the wrong direction at the beginning of 2012, when a series of projected starters was ruled academically ineligible, including likely starting QB Blaize Schaeffer, kicker Brandon Hamilton, safety Matt Taylor, offensive linemen Robert Cantey and Danny Bunch, and tight end Darius Nelson.
But the biggest hit came a week into the season when captain and preseason All-Conference center Hakeem Lassiter was forced to miss the rest of the year with keloid on his ear.
“The disappointing part (about the season) was the way the line played, so I think you draw that back to (missing) Hakeem,” White said. “(Backup center Taylor Benchoff) did a great job for us, but Hakeem made all the calls and made everything a lot simpler for the line and quarterback. That’s probably the biggest thing, losing him like that.”
The Rams were left with a makeshift offensive line for the rest of the season, and it showed on the stat sheets.
ASU averaged 287 offensive yards per game and 20 points, statistics that were worse than last season and in the bottom half of the conference. The Rams were outside of the Top 100 in every major offensive statistical category, including rushing yards per game (133) and passing yards per game (154.6).
The offense just never found its groove under starting quarterback David Kooi, who joined the team less than a month before practices began. Kooi, a senior transfer from Florida Atlantic, and Keenan Grissett, a senior transfer from Gardner-Webb, were forced to compete for the starting job, which Kooi eventually won.
Kooi and Grissett, however, both struggled throughout the season. Kooi, who has committed to playing baseball at ASU in the spring, finished with a 49 percent completion rate, tossed six interceptions and six touchdowns and threw for less than 100 yards in five different games. Grissett’s numbers were even more troubling — 9-for-18 for 29 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and 32 net rushing yards on 28 carries.
“It probably didn’t work as well as we thought it would with the receivers we had,” White said about the quarterback situation. “It was just really tough getting the timing down. I think what complicated it was the lack of blocking. Just a mixture of the lack of blocking and the timing just really caused us to struggle.”
After the loss to Fort Valley State two weeks ago, Kooi said he had no regrets about coming to ASU for his senior season.
“I loved every minute I was here,” he said. “I love the people around this school. I love the coaches and met a lot of teammates that I will be friends with my entire life. I just wish we could have gone further than this with each other.
“It was so up and down (on offense). It was up and down all year, but we kept battling and the defense stayed in there and stayed strong. I am just proud to see we battled all year.”
It was the first time in nearly a decade that the Rams didn’t finish in the top three in total offense in the conference. White said second-year offensive coordinator Uyl Joyner is still adjusting to his role.
“I think (Joyner) is still learning,” White said. “He has a way to go and a way to grow. Some of the mistakes we made in 2011, we made them again in 2012. Certain things that we recognized that we needed to improve on (from last season), we came right back and made some of the same mistakes again (this season).”
White said Joyner will be back for year No. 3 and credited the former star QB at ASU for his intelligence and his ability to make coaching decisions on the fly, but White admitted there is still room for improvement.
“One of the mistakes he makes sometimes is that he likes to come down out of the booth and call plays,” White said. “When he comes down out of the booth we really don’t have a whole lot of eyes like we need to call plays. That was something I was asking him not to do.”
It wasn’t all bad news for the Rams on the offensive side of the ball, where running back Nathan Hoyte ran for 917 yards and 10 TDs. He is one of nine senior starters the Rams are losing to graduation, but White said none of those losses will hurt as much as the departure of 6-foot-5, 345-pound defensive lineman Justin Blash.
“Blash sticks out big for me,” White said. “He’s that big body on the line, being 6-5 and 345. We don’t have anybody else like that. He is probably going to be the toughest to lose.”
The Rams will also lose WR Ronnie Tubbs — who was projected to have a breakout season but was hampered all year by nagging injuries — DB Chavius Jackson, DB Gary Howard, OL Darvel Nelson, TE Cessel Taylor and DL Troy Morgan.
Also departing is assistant defensive line coach Bokowski Daniels, who is focusing on his full-time job at Highland Middle School and pursuing a master’s degree.
“That’s going to be a huge loss for us. It will be hard to replace him,” White said. “He was valuable to us in the offseason as well as coaching the line.”
Several key players will be back next season, including safety Dexter Moody, wide receiver and Camilla native Jessie Atkins, linebacker and Monroe grad Larry Whitfield and offensive lineman Victor Moli.
It’s a group that White said can help ASU bounce back after its worst season since it finished 4-6 in 2001.
“This is a very pivotal year for us,” White said. “We can’t go back. We have to go forward. That’s my job, and that’s what I plan to do. Whatever we have to do to put some more Ws on the board.”