Albany State running back and former Westover star Dalviness Greene runs during an offensive drill on Monday. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — The Albany State football team had already jogged to the locker room as the sun beat down on the Rams’ practice field late Monday morning.
The field was empty following the season’s first practice, and the coaching staff was beginning to disperse.
But on a small, steep hill beside the end zone, Albany State quarterback Frank Rivers hadn’t stopped working.
“I’m excited to get out here and fight and lead,” Rivers said after finishing a series of sprints up and down the hill, “and I know these guys behind me are going to fight with me every day and every snap.”
Rivers and the Rams kicked off the 2014 season Monday morning with a two-hour practice with helmets and no shoulder pads, and the team stepped onto campus this fall with a little extra excitement and momentum following last year’s SIAC championship and season-ending, five-game winning streak.
“With how we finished and how good of an offseason we had, I think we do feel optimistic about what we can do this year and who we can be as a football team,” ASU coach Mike White said.
The Rams started last season 1-4 before rattling off five straight wins on their way to an SIAC championship that nobody could have seen coming.
ASU, the preseason pick to repeat as SIAC champs, won’t be taking anybody by surprise this season. Much of those expectations come with the return of Rivers, who is entering his second year with the Rams after transferring from Grambling State and was recently named the preseason SIAC Offensive Player of the Year.
“It’s a big honor to be named preseason Player of the Year, but I’m going to take it a day at a time and will do what I can to make this team better,” Rivers said. “If I do that, then everything else will fall into place. I don’t have to worry about being the Player of the Year. I just have to worry about playing ball and being the best player I can be for this team. If I do that, everything else will fall into place.”
Also returning for his senior season is Camilla native Jessie Atkins, who was Rivers’ top target last year and spent the offseason creating even better rapport with his quarterback. Rivers and Atkins will be led by new quarterback coach Brian Von Bergen, the team’s only new addition to the coaching staff this offseason.
Von Bergen, who was the passing game coordinator and wide receiver coach for Division I Montana State the past five seasons, inherits an offense that was third in the SIAC in passing in 2013 and saw its efficiency take a meteoric rise in the second half of the season.
“Ending the season how we did, we rolled over in the spring with the same momentum,” Atkins said. “We came into summer workouts with that momentum, and now it’s shifting to the season.
“We understand that we have expectations and that we have people looking for us to do certain things (in the passing game), but we can’t let that bother us or let it interfere with what we are doing on the field. We just have to come out and play to have fun.”
The Rams are less than a month from their season opener Sept. 6 against Valdosta State, and White said his biggest goal between now and then is to help the new players fit in with the returning starters.
“I just thought it took us too many games last year to come together as a group and find our weaknesses and strengths as a team,” White said. “It took us probably until midseason last year before we started playing better. I’m just hoping we can get it together before we face our first opponent.”