Albany State head football coach Mike White, who is entering his 14th season at the helm for the Rams, addresses fans, alumni and media during Friday’s annual ASU Football Kickoff Reception at Eula Lovett Hall on Friday night. White and the Rams, who are coming off a disappointing 6-4 season, begin practice next week and will open the season on the road at North Greenville on Sept. 7. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ALBANY — When Steve Smith left Albany State two years ago to move up the coaching food chain, the Rams’ offensive coordinator walked away from the best season in program history — one in which the team won the SBN Black College national title and rattled off 11 straight victories before losing in the Division II quarterfinals.
My, how things have changed in two years.
ASU is coming off its worst season in more than a decade and failed to make the Division II playoffs for the first time since a postseason ban was lifted in 2004, but Smith, who is returning for his second stint as offensive coordinator, still sees the same Golden Rams program he left in 2010.
Smith, head coach Mike White and the rest of the ASU coaching staff addressed fans, alumni and the media at Friday’s 14th annual ASU Football Kickoff Reception in Eula Lovett Hall, where they spoke about their vision for the 2013 season.
And Smith’s vision isn’t far from what he saw when he left two years ago in the dust of an HBCU national championship.
“I don’t see two different Albany States,” Smith said as he stood feet away from the national title trophy propped up in the corner of Eula Lovett Hall. “We still have the same players and same coaches. … I understand the vision that I have. I understand the vision that this team has. We have goals set with what we want to get done, and our short-term goals are to be No. 1 in the conference and to be in the Top 5 in the nation in offense. Our ultimate goal is to win a national championship.”
They are some big goals after a 6-4 season full of disappointment, but the expectations are sky high at ASU with the return of Smith — who spent 2011 at Division I Tennessee State and 2012 in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs — and his “Gold Rush” offense that was ranked in the Top 10 in numerous categories in Division II in 2010.
“(Last season’s record of) 6-4 for some teams isn’t bad, but for us we think we can be better,” White said. “We just hope to be able to run our program a little better and more efficiently than we did last year.”
Part of those expectations revolve around quarterback Frank Rivers, who transferred in from Grambling State this summer and will lead an offense that finished outside of the Top 100 in the country in every major category last season under former offensive coordinator Uyl Joyner, who left the program in the spring to take a similar position at Dougherty High.
Smith, however, cautioned that Rivers isn’t guaranteed the starting position and will compete for the spot with a group of challengers, including Rodney Castlin, last year’s third-string QB.
“Nobody has a step up at quarterback,” Smith said. “The only time you get a step up is when you produce on the field. No one has had an opportunity to produce on the field, and that won’t start until (the first practice on) Aug. 12. Aug. 12 to Sept. 7 will decide who our quarterback will be.”
Rivers, who threw for nearly 2,000 yards and 17 TDs in his two years at Grambling State, has meshed well with teammates during summer workouts.
“He is a good kid,” White said. “We will see when all of the competition comes out, but he is a good football player who is smart. He picks up well and has good rapport with his teammates. They have embraced him, so that is a good thing. He has been working hard with his receivers, so it’s so far so good.”
No players were present at the reception, which was hosted by the ASU Quarterback Club and is instrumental in raising money for the program through alumni donations, but White and each position coach fielded questions from fans and alumni for two hours before addressing the media.
“We were asking for more support from them to get behind us and help cheer us on and make sure they come out this year,” White said about the question-and-answer segment with fans and alumni. “I don’t feel that (ASU fans) have a sense of urgency. That comes more from our staff after being 6-4.”
There’s the urgency to climb back to the top of the conference and reclaim some bragging rights that slipped away last season. Smith said the tools and foundation are there to march back to the conference championship and beyond.
“The offense is basically already a foundation of what I installed in 2009 and 2010,” Smith said. “You are really just picking it back up. It’s like building a house, and the foundation is already there. You just have to mold it into what you want to be.”
Smith said the house has slowly been getting sturdier in the past few weeks.
“When we come in for practice we will begin the finishing touches of the house,” he said. “We will put the finishing touches on the house, and on Sept. 7 we will see how good of a job we did. The final product is to win a national championship. That’s the vision.”
And that’s an awfully big house.
“It’s a house that is built by precision and a house that is built by making the right decisions,” he said. “It’s a house that is built by not making mistakes. I feel like if your attention to detail is there and you focus on the concepts that you need to focus on, it’s not hard to build the house that you want.”
The first test of 2013 is a little more than a month away when the Rams travel to North Greenville on Sept. 7, returning to Tigerville, S.C., for the first time since an embarrassing 63-14 loss in the opening round of the 2011 playoffs. ASU then hosts Tuskegee and Elizabeth City — two teams that are no strangers to the Division II playoff scene — before traveling to Miles to face the 2011 conference champion Golden Bears.
“I always believe that how we start is really going to have a whole lot to say about our team,” White said about the team’s tough, four-game stretch to start the season. “For us to have a good season with our first four tough games before we even have an open week, it’s going to say a lot about how successful 2013 will be.
“It’s going to be another difficult year. The conference has gotten better, and you have more teams in this conference that are typically improving and putting more into football. It’s going to be another extremely tough year.”