Albany State running back Kareem Hess carries the ball during the Rams’ first spring practice Wednesday. Hess is returning from another season-ending injury to hopefully give Albany State both experience and depth in the backfield. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ALBANY — Albany State senior Kareem Hess laced up his cleats, stepped out of the locker room and started running.
He sprinted around the ASU track & field complex and past the football team’s equipment shed, not stopping until he hit the practice field.
“Everybody else was walking, and I ran past all of them,” said Hess, who is back for his sixth season with the Rams after injuries forced the running back to be redshirted two straight seasons. “It feels great to be out here. I feel like a little kid. I am so excited.”
That was the feeling at ASU on Wednesday as the Rams held their first spring football practice, which was originally scheduled for Monday but was postponed two days due to weather.
“I was hoping we would get out here Monday,” Hess said. “I have been excited to get out here.”
The excitement was there, but so were the question marks.
How will the Rams follow up a 2012 season in which they finished 6-4 overall — coach Mike White’s worst record in 11 years?
Who will be the team’s starting quarterback for the 2013 season opener?
And who will step into huge holes left by graduating seniors, which include defensive linemen Justin Blash and Troy Morgan, running back Nathan Hoyte and receiver Ronnie Tubbs?
“We have a lot of things we have to work on,” said White, who is sitting on career win No. 99 after not making the Division II playoffs last season for the first time since a postseason ban was lifted in 2004. “I’m hungry and ready to get some things solved this spring. This spring will be about trying to right some wrongs from 2012. There were some things we didn’t do exceptionally well, offensively and defensively.”
One of ASU’s biggest issues last season was the lack of production at the quarterback position, where seniors David Kooi and Keenan Grissett split time and combined for six touchdowns and eight interceptions and completed less than 50 percent of their passes.
The Rams have four QBs on the roster this spring, but only junior Rodney Castlin has any college experience in the pocket. Castlin, who was ASU’s third-string quarterback last year and took the majority of the snaps in Wednesday’s practice, played much of the second half in the Rams season-ending loss to Fort Valley State and was 8-for-26 for 138 yards and threw three interceptions.
White isn’t sure if Castlin is the answer this season.
“We are going to have to bring somebody in to compete at that position, and that will probably be settled later,” White said. “(Castlin) has a lot of things he can work on, and I am hoping he can improve over these next few weeks. We need to get some quarterback help.”
Castlin played at ASU as a freshman under offensive coordinator Steve Smith before transferring to Arizona Western College and playing in the secondary for two years. He came back to the Rams program last year because he wanted to return to the pocket, and he believes he has a shot to win the starting QB position this season.
“Just from me being the only player who played last year, I think I am (the current No. 1),” Castlin said. “I wouldn’t say it’s my position to lose or gain, but I can say that I can lose it if I don’t do what I’m supposed to. We do have a lot of competition behind me, so everybody will be able to work, and we will be able to see who will be the better man at the end of spring.”
Former Mitchell County star Jessie Atkins, who led ASU in receiving last year with 32 catches for 553 yards and two TDs, said he feels comfortable with Castlin.
“We have the confidence we need because we have a quarterback here in the spring that will work with us from the spring all the way to when the season starts. It won’t be like when Kooi came in last year,” Atkins said, referring to the unfamiliarity Kooi had with the Rams’ offensive system after transferring in from Florida Atlantic extremely late in the preseason.
Atkins is one of several leaders back from last season and will be joined on offense by returners WR Orion Ponder, RB Adrian Alexander, OL Victor Moli, WR Mark Bell and OL Hakeem Lassiter.
Safety Dexter Moody, who led all of Division II with seven interceptions last year, is back for his senior season with the “Dirty Blue” defense and will line up with returning linebackers Larry Whitfield, Tavarius Washington and Jarvis Brice and defensive back Keionten Miller, an Albany native.
Whitfield, a former Monroe star, finished with 75 tackles and a team-high 14.5 tackles for losses last year and believes 2013 will be a turnaround season at ASU.
“The biggest positive right now is that everybody out here is getting the concept of what it will take to get better on offense and defense,” Whitfield said. “Everybody has the sense or urgency of getting better. What happened last season is pushing me and my teammates.”
White said this season’s spring practices will take a different tone than in past years.
“I always think it is like that when you aren’t successful the year before,” White said. “You just have to study your film and see where you fell short at, try to recruit and try to get better as coaches and overall as a program.”
White and his coaching staff had hoped to sign several more players — including a quarterback or two — in the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s practice, but he said all of those possible signees, including a number of local athletes, didn’t work out.
“We are still working,” White said. “Some guys I thought I was going to get aren’t ready yet academically.”
The guys that were there on Wednesday were ready to bring that winning tradition back to ASU.
“The attitude is a little different because nobody liked that outcome last year,” Atkins said. “We knew we were better than a 6-4 team, and now this year we have to prove that. Everything I felt during the season, I felt that (Wednesday) when I touched the field. Everything came back, the hard work, the dedication. It all came back like the season never ended.”