Albany State coach Mike White, right, and Tuskegee coach Willie Slater sit in front of the SIAC championship trophy during the stage session of Monday’s SIAC Media Day. Albany State and Tuskegee are predicted to win their respective divisions and meet in the conference championship game. (SIAC/Steven T. Lockhart)
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Albany State ended the 2013 season as the hottest team in the SIAC, closing the year with a conference title and five straight wins.
The Rams are expected to pick up right where they left off.
Albany State was predicted to repeat as conference champions at Monday’s SIAC Media Day, where the Rams were a unanimous pick by the league’s coaches to win the East Division and ASU quarterback Frank Rivers was named the preseason SIAC Offensive Player of the Year.
ASU coach Mike White, a four-time SIAC Coach of the Year who has guided the Rams to six conference titles in 15 seasons, said high expectations are just part of the Rams’ program.
“There’s always pressure with Albany State,” said White, whose Rams open the season Sept. 6 at Valdosta State. “You are expected to win. The faces change, but the expectations don’t. You expect to be there.”
For the second year in a row, Albany State was followed in the East Division predicted order of finish by archrival Fort Valley State, which received 17 points in the coaches poll — three points behind ASU.
Fort Valley State coach Donald Pittman, a former offensive coordinator with the Rams, said it was no surprise to be in the shadow of Albany State again this preseason.
“They are always the team to beat because they’ve been winning year in and year out,” Pittman said. “Coach White has been very successful, and he does a good job of getting guys conditioned and playing. They will always have a strong defense, and his players will always respond to him.”
It was a banner day for the Rams, who topped every preseason coaches’ poll the SIAC released. A lot of that predicted success is riding on the right arm of Rivers, who brushed off a shake start to the 2013 season and led Albany State to their biggest turnaround season in program history.
The Rams started the season 1-4 and were in danger of having the team’s worst record since White took over the program in 2000.
Instead, they rallied for their 12th straight winning season and 14th SIAC title — and Rivers’ 2,000 passing yards and 19 touchdowns highlighted an offense that averaged 27.8 points a game during the Rams’ season-ending, five-game winning streak.
“We have had some really good quarterbacks play at Albany State, and Frank has been a good student and good leader and good all-around student athlete,” White said. “You enjoy working with a kid like that.”
White said Rivers, who was a relief pitcher for the ASU baseball team this year, had a rough spring on the football field because of the time he was splitting between the two sports but that the 6-foot-5 signal caller has had a better summer tossing the football.
“I thought throwing the baseball and football at the same time kind of bothered him during spring practice, but after the (baseball) season and with a little rest he is back to his old form,” White said. “With a year under his belt, I look for him to have a good season, a better season than he did last year.”
Other Rams joining Rivers on the Preseason First Team were Camilla native and standout receiver Jessie Atkins, Camilla native and defensive lineman Grover Stewart, offensive lineman Victor Moli and kicker Zach Holley. Linbeacker and former Monroe star Larry Whitfield, running back Phillip Moore, defensive lineman Damien Goosby, punter Ryan Latner and punt returner Adrian Alexander were members of the Preseason Second Team.
“All of them are very deserving,” White said. “They have worked very hard, and it makes a coach feel good when you have guys like them. They have been a pleasure to work with and to coach, and I look for them to have a good year.”
With 23 points and three first-place votes, Tuskegee was picked to finish first in the SIAC West Division ahead of Miles (21), Stillman (17), Kentucky State (14), Lane (8) and Central State (7).
“With Tuskegee, the expectations are always high,” Tuskegee coach Willie Slater said. “I am excited about this team. I think we have a group of young men who have really worked their tails off in the offseason. They feel like they are going to have a good team. And if they feel that way, I think we will be OK.”
Also honored during Monday’s luncheon was Miles linebacker Julantate English, who was named the preseason Defensive Player of the Year after a 2013 season when he had 90 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
Miles and ASU will play Sept. 27 in Albany in a rematch of last year’s conference title game, which the Rams came from behind to win and are still riding momentum from the dramatic victory.
“They won the conference, and they want to win it again. And they know what they need to do,” White said. “When you are winning like that, you have no problem getting your guys to have a great attitude or to get them to go at the speed they need to. Everything is a positive when you are winning.”
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. ALBANY STATE 20 (4)
2. Fort Valley State 17
3. Benedict 12
4. Morehouse 11
5. Clark Atlanta 8
6. Paine 7
1. Tuskegee 23 (3)
2. Miles 21 (2)
3. Stillman 17
4. Kentucky State 14
5. Lane 8
6. Central State 7
PREDICTED OVERALL CHAMPION
1. ALBANY STATE 111 (3)
2. Tuskegee 103 (5)
3. Miles 102 (4)
4. Fort Valley State 87
5. Stillman 64
6. Kentucky State 63
7. Benedict 62
8. Morehouse 56
9. Clark Atlanta 43
10. Lane 42
11. Central State 31
12. Paine 28
PRESEASON FIRST-TEAM OFFENSE
FRANK RIVERS, QB, ALBANY STATE
Jacquise Lockett, RB, Kentucky State
Hoderick Lowe, RB, Tuskegee
VICTOR MOLI, OL, ALBANY STATE
Terrance Owens, OL, Miles
Matthew Reece, OL, Tuskegee
Michael D. Thornton, OL, Tuskegee
Aderus Hood, OL, Miles
Delarius Webb, TE, Miles
Jamion Dunning, WR, Lane
JESSIE ATKINS, WR, ALBANY STATE
Dondre Purnell, KR, Stillman
ZACH HOLLEY, K, ALBANY STATE
PRESEASON FIRST-TEAM DEFENSE
GROVER STEWART, DL, ALBANY STATE
Bryshon Jones, DL, Miles
Gabriel Mass, DL, Lane
Clarence Christian, DL, Morehouse
Julantate English, LB, Miles
Bre’Nard Williams, LB, Clark Atlanta
LeRon Furr, LB, Fort Valley State
Joe Beckham, DB, Miles
Cameron Stallings, DB, Stillman
Michael Robinson, DB, Tuskegee
Robert Crosby, DB, Stillman
Austin Casillas, P, Clark Atlanta
Rodney Hall, PR, Benedict
PRESEASON SECOND-TEAM OFFENSE
Demetrice Price, QB, Miles
Montavious Taylor, RB, Clark Atlanta
PHILLIP MOORE, RB, ALBANY STATE
Montell Collins, OL, Miles
Shea Martin, OL, Morehouse
Daniel Ford, OL, Kentucky State
Brandon Baker, OL, Fort Valley State
Zach Thomas, TE, Central State
Dondre Purnell, WR, Stillman
Antonio Pitts, WR, Miles
Darius Mitchell, KR, Lane
Trevor Wylie, K, Tuskegee
PRESEASON SECOND-TEAM DEFENSE
Peter Dele, DL, Stillman
DAMIEN GOOSBY, DL, ALBANY STATE
Benard Little, DL, Fort Valley State
Justin Woods-West, DL, Central State
Terry Horton, LB, Kentucky State
El’Malik Chinn, LB, Tuskegee
LARRY WHITFIELD, LB, ALBANY STATE
Dewayne Brown, DB, Lane
Bryan Walker, DB, Fort Valley State
Breon Issac, DB, Fort Valley State
Tyrin Thurmon, DB, Tuskegee
RYAN LATNER, P, ALBANY STATE
ADRIAN ALEXANDER, PR, ALBANY STATE