ASU NOTEBOOK: Despite rocky start, Rivers still Rams’ top QB

Albany State quarterback Frank Rivers has a 45 percent completion percentage and more interceptions (3) than touchdown passes (2), but ASU offensive coordinator Steve Smith says he still has confidence Rivers can lead the offense. (Reginald Christian/Special to The Herald)

Albany State quarterback Frank Rivers has a 45 percent completion percentage and more interceptions (3) than touchdown passes (2), but ASU offensive coordinator Steve Smith says he still has confidence Rivers can lead the offense. (Reginald Christian/Special to The Herald)

ALBANY — Albany State quarterback Frank Rivers sat on the sideline in the second half of Saturday’s 19-13 loss to Tuskegee and watched backup Rodney Castlin warm up just feet away from him.

And Rivers knew exactly what that meant.

“I had made a couple of bad decisions, and coach (had Castlin warming up) just in case he had to put him in the game,” Rivers said on Tuesday.

Rivers never came out of the game, but he got the message loud and clear.

“It motivated me and let me know that I need to finish what I started,” he said. “I started the game pretty good, but I need to finish the game. My level of play can’t go down during the course of the game. It needs to be raised.”

Offensive coordinator Steve Smith said on Tuesday that he didn’t actually consider benching Rivers late in the game, but Smith admitted that there are several areas where his junior quarterback needs to improve before the Rams (0-2) host Elizabeth City State (0-2) on Saturday.

Through two games Rivers, a transfer from Division I Grambling State, is 37-for-82 for 468 yards and has thrown two touchdowns and three interceptions.

He’s looked brilliant at times — like when he directed a 17-point comeback in the fourth quarter against North Greenville in Week 1 — but he has also had moments when he’s struggled. Saturday’s second half when he completed just six of 15 passes definitely wasn’t a highlight for Rivers, but Smith said the 6-foot-6 QB is still the Rams’ starter.

“I still have confidence in Frank,” Smith said. “He’s still my guy.”

And Smith said Castlin warming up late in Saturday’s game had nothing to do with Rivers’ struggles.

“(Castlin) always has to be ready to go,” Smith said. “We do that periodically throughout the game just to make sure he is ready to go in case anything happens. We tell him to get warmed up just for preparation. There’s not anything special about that.”

When asked about his early-season performance, Rivers said the most troubling part of his game was his lack of execution on third downs, where ASU converted just two of its 11 chances on Saturday.

“I have to make better decisions on third downs,” Rivers said. “I have to help the offense stay on the field and the defense stay off the field to get some rest. Converting on third downs is what keeps the drive going, and first downs lead to touchdowns.”

GLAD TO BE OUT OF GRAMBLING: Rivers might not be off to a perfect start at ASU, but at least he’s not caught up in the chaos at Grambling State, where he spent his first two collegiate seasons as the backup QB before leaving for Albany State this offseason.

Grambling (0-3) fired head coach Doug Williams last week, a move that came as no surprise to Rivers.

“You never want to see somebody lose their job, but at the end of the day I guess he wasn’t getting the job done,” Rivers said. “You are never happy when somebody loses their job. That’s the way they take care of their family and kids, but at Grambling it’s all about winning football games.”

After leading Grambling to a SWAC championship in 2011, Williams watched the Tigers finish 1-10 last season. And then after Grambling lost its first two games of the 2013 season by a combined score of 71-19, the school cut ties with the former Washington Redskins quarterback and MVP of Super Bowl XXII.

Williams’ son, D.J. Williams, remains the starting quarterback, and Doug told The (Monroe, La.) News-Star last week that D.J. was “emotional” about the firing.

“I know D.J. is emotional, but I told him he has to be strong, and he told me he will,” Doug Williams told The News-Star. “That’s all I need for him to be strong. If he’s strong, his daddy is going to be all right.”

D.J. beat out Rivers for the starting job in 2012 and then again in 2013, prompting Rivers’ transfer, but the current ASU QB had nothing negative to say about D.J. in the wake of his father’s firing.

“D.J. is a tough kid,” Rivers said. “I talked to him and texted him to check on him, but he is a tough kid. I am sure he is going to keep the team in order. He is a great leader for that football team at Grambling. He told me, ‘You know I’m a tough guy, so I will handle this.’ And I expected that from him, but I just wanted to see if he was all right.”

Even though Rivers has sympathy for his former Tiger teammates, he is happy he landed at Albany State.

“I’m happy to be here right now,” he said. “I’m just glad to be in the position that I am in.”

STAYING POSITIVE: The Rams are sitting at 0-2 for the first time since 2006 after a pair of close losses to North Greenville and Tuskegee, but ASU coach Mike White knows his team could just as easily be 2-0.

North Greenville needed a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter and averted a near interception from Rams linebacker Larry Whitfield to hit a last-minute field goal, while Tuskegee, which is now ranked No. 17 in the Division II national poll, blocked a punt late in the third quarter to tie the game and turn the momentum on Saturday.

If Whitfield comes down in bounds with that interception and if punter Ryan Latner doesn’t get his kick blocked, ASU could easily be looking at a 2-0 start to the 2103 season.

“That’s the way we are looking at it,” White said. “We are trying to focus on being positive going forward. We have a tough game (Saturday against Elizabeth City State), but after that game we have to focus on our conference schedule and see if we can get in the hunt. That’s kind of where our mindset is right now.”

NOTES: Whitfield, a former Monroe star, had four tackles for losses against Tuskegee and raised his season total to five, which is tied for 12th in the nation. Whitfield also ranks third in all of Division II with 18 solo tackles. … Rams place kicker Zachary Holley is 4-for-4 in field goal attempts this season and is tied for sixth in the nation in field goals made. … The Rams lost to Elizabeth City State, 13-12, last season and then had to make the almost 700-mile drive back to Albany from Elizabeth City, N.C. “That was a long bus ride up there,” White said on Tuesday. “And that trip back was even longer, the way we lost.”