Albany State offensive coordinator Steve Smith barks at his offense in a game during the 2009 season. Smith returned to the Rams this year and will look to take quarterback Frank Rivers and the rest of the Golden Rams offense back to prominence. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)
ALBANY — Albany State quarterback Frank Rivers stood next to the Rams’ practice field Tuesday with a look of poise and confidence.
Talking about tonight’s season opener at North Greenville, Rivers, a 6-foot-5 junior transfer from Grambling State who was named the starter just a day earlier, spoke with a calmness uncanny in a QB getting ready to make his first opening-day start.
But deep inside Rivers there were other emotions brewing.
“Yeah, I’m nervous,” he said. “I’m always nervous. I am pretty much nervous before every game. Sometimes even before practice. If I don’t feel nervous, I don’t feel like I’m ready to play.”
All eyes will be on Rivers and offensive coordinator Steve Smith, who returned to ASU after a two-year hiatus, as they try to bounce back from a 2012 season when the Rams’ offense never found its stride and was the main reason ASU finished 6-4 and missed the Division II playoffs.
Rivers believes 2013 is going to be a different story, beginning tonight in Travelers Rest, S.C., where the Rams return to the scene of their 63-14 loss to North Greenville in the opening round of the 2011 playoffs.
“Our offense is going to be balanced,” Rivers said. “We are going to do a lot of running and passing. Hopefully, when we bring it all together there is going to be a lot of excitement. That’s what we are planning to do, score some points.”
ASU scored just 20 points per game last year, which ranked 133rd in all of Division II, but with the return of Smith, who was the Rams’ offensive coordinator from 2009-10 and experienced immense success, the offense could be in line for one of the biggest turnarounds in years at ASU.
Smith will make a game-time decision on his starting running back, but junior Adrian Alexander, senior Kareem Hess, freshman and former Westover star Dalviness Greene and Valdosta native Phillip Moore should all see carries. Starting at receiver will be Camilla’s Jessie Atkins, who led the Rams in receiving last season, Orion Ponder and Tevin Isom, while Devonta Osborne has also developed a rapport with Rivers.
“All of those guys have been here all summer, and I have been throwing with those guys longer than the other guys, so I know what they can do, what balls they can catch and what balls they might not be able to get to,” Rivers said about his starting receivers.
The strength of the offense, however, might be up front, where the team is anchored by senior center Hakeem Lassiter and will also feature returners such as left guard Victor Moli and left tackle Darvel Nelson. Right guard Darius Mitchell, right tackle Javoris Wilburn and tight end Lenard Walker round out the Rams’ offensive starters.
On defense, the Rams return all three starting linebackers in Marcavius Dudley, Tavarius Washington and former Monroe star Larry Whitfield, while Damien Goosby (NT), Arkeen Riley (DT), Dexter Moody (SS), former Westover star Keionten Miller (CB) and Quintory Braswell (CB) also return with starting experience. New defenders who could be in today’s starting lineup are freshman Armageddon Draughn (CB), sophomore Cedric Ashe (S), senior and Cuthbert native Jeremy Reynolds (S), junior John Rouse (DT) and freshman Josh Ingram.
“We are communicating and understand our keys and where we need to be. That’s our strength on defense right now,” Whitfield said. “For a lot of us it’s our second year together, and we are communicating well.”
The Rams have focused on themselves in the weeks leading up to their season opener, if for no other reason than because of the difficulty scouting a North Greenville team that has a new coaching staff. Carroll McCray left North Greenville in January after one year with the program to accept the head coaching job at Gardner-Webb, and the Crusaders were turned over to Virginia Military Institute defensive coordinator Jeff Farrington. Joe Pizzo, the former offensive coordinator at North Carolina A&T, is now serving in that role with the Crusaders.
“We have stayed in the mode of concentrating on ourselves and what we are supposed to be doing,” White said. “It’s always tough when you face a team with a new staff because you can’t know a lot about them.”
White does know that Farrington ran a 3-4 defense at VMI and learned under Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb as an assistant at both Mercer and Furman University from 2002-11. Farrington’s history as a defensive-minded coach combined with North Greenville’s knack for shutting teams down in recent years was on Rivers’ mind as he talked about the matchup this week.
“They are going to bring some pressure, and when they do they will disguise it very well,” Rivers said. “They are also going to be pretty tight in coverage. The DBs try to keep everything in front and will bring some pressure because that D-line is going to be pretty good.”
Both coaching staffs have gone back to the game tape of the 2011 playoff matchup just as often as last year’s season opener while preparing for tonight.
“They are very well-respected, so that will be a tough challenge for us opening up with them,” Farrington said. “They have a new offensive coordinator. I’m not sure how that will play into things, but hopefully we can play like we did the last time they were up here.”
Sophomore quarterback Nelson Hughes is slated to get the start for North Greenville after winning a preseason competition with Joey Carter and Mark Weidenaar, while running backs Trey Walker and Simeon Byrd will start in the backfield.
The Rams opened last season at home against North Greenville and held the Crusaders to 37 rushing yards on 26 carries while watching ASU starting RB Nathan Hoyte rack up 194 yards and two TDs.
White said the Rams need to win the battle up front again this year if ASU wants to bounce back from its worst season in a decade.
“That’s the one thing our offense has to do,” White said. “It has to get that one yard this year. We have to run the ball when we need to run it. We have got to be able to do that. If we don’t, then that’s not really the ingredients we have put in for this team.”
ASU won last year’s matchup with NGU, 24-12 — before losing its next three games — to extend its winning streak in season openers to five.
And it was no surprise to Rivers that the Rams haven’t lost a season opener since 2007 when they fell to North Carolina Central, 20-0.
“It’s the way we prepare ourselves,” Rivers said. “I haven’t been here too long, but this camp that I just went through, guys are (ticked) off. They aren’t (ticked) off at the coaches, but they are just ready to play. They have been through so much of this sun, so much running, so much pain and suffering. We are ready to get after somebody else in another jersey.”
NOTES: Weidenaar, one of three QBs on North Greenville’s roster, was heavily recruited by top Division I schools out of Lakeside High School near Augusta after a senior season when he threw for 1,671 yards and 16 TDs and ran for 887 yards and 11 TDs, but he landed at Georgia State last season after a torn ACL in high school caused SEC and ACC schools to back away from him. Weidenaar was redshirted last year at Georgia State and looked to transfer during the offseason, and White was one of several Division II coaches who tried to lure the 6-foot-3 QB. “I talked to him maybe about 3 to 4 months ago and tried to get him to come down here,” White said. “He is supposed to be pretty big-time out of Augusta.” … Whitfield and Dudley led the Rams in tackles in last year’s game against North Greenville with five solo stops apiece. Whitfield said there’s always a special emotion he brings for season openers. “Every time it’s the first game you have adrenaline coming and have different emotions,” he said. … North Greenville is riding a four-game winning streak dating back to last season and has only lost two games at home in the last three years. … The game can be watched live online at ngcrusaders.com.