NARRAGANSETT — Big bodies packed into school buses. The spring game on a high school field.
Far from the big stage and bright lights, the University of Rhode Island football finished up a spring session that it hopes will have it ready for a new stage in the fall.
The Rams played their annual Blue-White Game at Narragansett High School while construction continues on Meade Stadium, which will have artificial turf and lights for the upcoming season. Those improvements go hand-in-hand with strides on the field, as URI is coming off its first winning season in 17 years and is hungry for more.
“It’s a similar team to what we had last season. Along with experience comes the comfort that you can go out and execute at a higher level quicker, and I thought we did that,” head coach Jim Fleming said. “I thought, fundamentally, we made some improvements. We still have a ways to go. We’ve got some issues in our kicking game that we’ve got to address. But we’ve got a good football team and as long as we’re able to put a good summer together and go in and compete hard, we’re looking for a championship-level performance.”
Spring practice began around the same time as the facility improvements. The Rams held one final practice on Meade Stadium’s natural grass on March 30, giving way to bulldozers the next day.
“There’s an excitement but it’s also a source of pride for our guys, because I think it’s something they’ve earned,” Fleming said. “Went out and have gotten better and better as a program, hold them to a higher standard. Now to see the visible results and investment in the program – they’re things that really give our kids hope and give the future of our program a lot of hope.”
If all goes according to plan, the Sept. 7 home opener against Delaware will be a night game on the new turf.
“We’re so excited,” redshirt junior lineman Andre Bibeault said. “It feels like it’s all coming together finally. We came here, the class of 2020, and we just had that dream of building it up. Sure enough, we’re a part of it.”
The defense looked ready for the big moment in Saturday’s game, dominating from start to finish and taking advantage of a sloppy offensive performance. Scoring points with stops, three-and-outs, interceptions and other achievements, the defensive side won the intrasquad matchup 94-51.
“Coming out of last season, I really felt like the focus of our improvement needed to be on the defense,” Fleming said. “I think we took a big stride forward offensively last year. Defensively, there were times when I was disappointed last season. To win a championship, the same story always exists – you’ve got to play great defense. I thought they came out with a really good attitude and it kind of built during the course of the scrimmage.”
Cayvian Holmes had an interception for a touchdown, while James Makszin and Henry Yianakopolos also picked off passes. Bibeault had two sacks, with Tez Wilson, Emil La Marca, Malik Wilder and Brandon Ginnetti recording one each. Redshirt freshman linebacker Chris Arrington led the team with 13 tackles.
“It felt good today, but all spring we’ve been going back and forth,” Bibeault said. “I felt like we came out and played for each other today and it showed. Still a lot of improvement but this is a good template to build off of. Keep working hard and this is maybe what we’ll get during the season if we keep playing this.”
The flip side left some concerns about the offense, which returns high-level talent at the skill positions but is replacing star quarterback JaJuan Lawson. Vito Priore, who started four games when Lawson was hurt last year, took the first team snaps on Saturday and finished 7-of-23 for 40 yards. He left in the second half after taking a hit on his throwing hand, but the early indications were that it was a bruise.
“When you watched all the way through the spring, it was clear that Vito was a really good operator. This wasn’t his best day today, but he can get the ball to those guys,” Fleming said. “We’ve got very high expectations for what we can get out of the quarterback position and I do believe Vito can handle that job. I think Jahkari [Grant] made some improvement. We’ve got to still bring more into the program. We’re thin there. Glad to see Nick [Dionizio] get some snaps and do some good things, and we’ve got a good freshman coming in.”
Grant completed 21-of-37 passes for 167 yards, with two interceptions. Dionizo hit on 8-of-14 for 90 yards. Naim Jones led the running back crops with 37 yards on seven carries.
Spring awards were presented at halftime. Bibeault was honored as the defense’s most improved player, while running back Justice Antrum won the offensive nod. Grant was named the Iron Ram for work in the weight room.