After getting beaten for the starting QB job in fall camp, Rams backup Keenan Grissett should see more playing time this week after ASU has gotten off to a dismal 1-3 start. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
WHO: Albany State (1-3) at Kentucky State (1-2).
WHAT: Rams’ fifth game of season, third on the road.
WHEN: 4 p.m., Saturday.
WHERE: Chicago, Ill.
RADIO: 98.1 FM.
ALBANY — Uyl Joyner sat next to Albany State’s practice field Tuesday and pointed to his eyes.
“You see how sleepy I look,” said Joyner, who is in his second year as offensive coordinator at ASU. “When you aren’t getting the job done, it’s hard to sleep.”
The Rams’ lack of offensive production four games into the 2012 season has given Joyner plenty of sleepless nights.
ASU (1-3), which is on its first three-game losing streak since starting the 2002 season with a trio of losses, is ranked outside of the Top 100 in Division II in every major offensive category — 144th in scoring offense (12.8 points per game), 130th in total offense (274 yards per game), 113th in passing offense (171.5 ypg) and 120th in rushing offense (103 ypg).
“It’s hard to figure out why we don’t have a little more going for us than we do,” head coach Mike White said Tuesday. “The bad part is it’s hard to put your finger on anything positive right now. We just don’t have a lot going for us, run or pass.”
White said he doesn’t remember an offense struggling this much in his 13 years as head coach, but Joyner was emphatic Tuesday that his offense is ready to turn the corner, starting with Saturday’s game in Chicago against Kentucky State (1-2).
“That’s what I’m here for. To turn it around,” Joyner said.
Joyner then added: “We aren’t going to be like this the whole season. Heck, no. I still have a positive attitude, and the guys still believe. So as long as we still believe, I think we can turn it around.”
White wasn’t so optimistic.
“I don’t think that we are going to turn it around like we thought, but we need to get going in a positive direction,” White said. “It’s not going to be a 30-points-per-game offense. That is out. That’s not going to get turned around. I do believe that we can function better.”
At the heart of the offensive struggles have been quarterback David Kooi and backup Keenan Grissett, who have combined for six interceptions and just two touchdowns and have thrown for 686 yards in four games.
Kooi had his worst performance of the season in Saturday’s 41-6 loss to Miles, completing 11-of-23 passes for 85 yards and an interception. He was held out of practice Tuesday with a bruised hip, but the senior transfer from Florida Atlantic is still the team’s No. 1 QB heading into this weekend’s game at Soldier Field.
Grissett, a senior transfer from Gardner-Webb who played several series against Miles, could see an increased role Saturday in lieu of Kooi’s injury and recent struggles.
“I’m not going to try to get in and play superhero or anything like that,” Grissett said. “I just want to get in and play to my skill set and what got me down here.”
Grissett has struggled this season as well, rushing 18 times for a net gain of zero yards and completing 9 of 12 passes for 29 yards.
But Joyner was quick to point out Tuesday that the quarterbacks shouldn’t be taking the brunt of the criticism for the stagnant offense.
“It’s not all on him,” Joyner said, referring to Kooi. “He had some games where there were a whole lot of drops, and there was a game where he was getting banged around a lot. It seems that when we fix one, the other goes haywire.”
Kooi and Grissett aren’t the only victims of the woeful passing game. Preseason HBCU All-American receiver Ronnie Tubbs has been held out of the end zone and has just 10 receptions for 80 yards.
The offensive line has been equally disappointing, allowing nine sacks and struggling to open up holes in the running game.
“We have a young center and two freshmen on the front, and they are having a tough time picking up the (linebacker) or missing something,” White said. “It’s tough.”
The absence of star center Hakeem Lassiter, who will likely miss the rest of the season recovering from keloid, has been devastating.
“That’s been the biggest thing,” Joyner said. “That’s our leader. He was more than just a good center. That’s the heart of the offense.”
But despite all the struggles, the Rams are still believing.
They’re still leaning on each other, striving for something more and trusting that they can turn it around.
And they aren’t hitting any panic buttons.
“You can’t hit the panic button,” Grissett said. “If you hit the panic button, then things go haywire. That’s when the finger pointing comes, and that’s when people start straying away. It’s not a panic button, but like coach (Joyner) said, it’s a code red. Code red, meaning we have to take care of us.”
That starts with running back Nathan Hoyte, who began the season with a 194-yard performance against North Greenville but has been held to an average of 48 yards rushing per game during the three losses.
Hoyte isn’t giving up on the offensive game plan or his teammates, either. But he said his team is at a tipping point right now and desperately needs a win to turn things around.
If not, it could get ugly.
“I feel like we are close. If we’re not close, then we are close to going the wrong way,” Hoyte said. “We are close to going either way. Right now, we are definitely on the back end of a landslide.
“If we continue to stay on this path and continue to struggle, it won’t lead to anything positive. But if you go on a five- or six-game losing streak, there’s no telling how anybody is going to act. People are already unhappy right now.”
Nobody is unhappier than Joyner, who had success last season alongside star quarterback Stanley Jennings. This season, Jennings is gone — and so is the success.
“It’s frustrating, but frustration doesn’t get it done,” Joyner said. “You just have to come back and go back to work this week. The guys aren’t giving up. They are still fighting. This is just a storm we have to weather.”
There won’t be any personnel changes against Kentucky State, but Joyner and his offensive leaders said they have been trying to change the culture around practice.
“You don’t want to make any wholesale changes and scrap the whole offense and start with something new,” Joyner said. “We are trying to change the way we work at practice. That’s what we are trying to change, the mentality.”
Kooi said it’s been working.
“There was effort out there (Tuesday),” Kooi said. “People were getting to the ball, we had good blocking and people were out there ready to get better.
“We definitely have a good team, and when we put it together it will come. When it does, I feel like people are going to be really shocked because we do have a really good team. It’s just not showing on Saturdays as of now, but I feel like it will change.”
Kooi left the field last Saturday stunned after Miles handed the Rams one of their worst home losses in school history. With him at quarterback, the offense was held out of the end zone, went three-and-out on its first five possessions and had drives later in the game halted by key penalties and turnovers.
Despite all of the struggles moving the ball, Kooi believes his teammates and coaches still have confidence in him.
“All of us have made mistakes. They have made mistakes. I have made mistakes. We just have confidence in each other,” Kooi said. “We are a family, and we are definitely going to stay that way. We haven’t split apart. We’ve lost a few games, but I definitely feel like they have my back.”
Grissett said the trust is there with everybody.
“The players trust the coaches, the coaches trust the players. We have to trust that what they are calling is the right play, and then make it happen from there,” Grissett said. “We know we can score points.”
So do the Kentucky State Thorobreds, who saw ASU put up a season-high 57 points against them last year.
Grissett thinks his offense has it in them to do that again — and give Joyner some shut-eye in the process.
“We are going to get him some sleep after this weekend,” Grissett said with a confident smile. “We’ll make sure he gets some rest.”