Jim Fleming gets a little sentimental when he thinks about the last time his University of Rhode Island football team opened a season against a Football Bowl Subdivision foe.
On the road at Central Michigan, a young group of Rams offered some of the first hints of their new identity when they took the Chippewas to triple overtime.
While it was only two years ago, it feels longer. Those young players are now leaders and their identity features more than hints.
“The same guys that are here now were the crew that was running around the field, with the addition of a couple of others, that got themselves into a four-quarter football game and found an opportunity to win,” Fleming said. “It was really interesting to watch how that unfolded for this group. They were young, they were ambitious, they made plays.”
Older but still ambitious, the Rams will be trying to make plays again when they visit Ohio University on Saturday for their season opener. Kickoff is at 2 p.m.
The game represents a chance for the Rams to make an opening statement, before the expectations fueled by last year’s winning campaign really set in for the home opener. That’s the game that’s been circled – the first on the new Meade Stadium turf, under the lights, against a quality conference opponent.
Seven hundred miles away, a week before, URI will aim to do what it did at Central Michigan – and then some.
“At the end of the day, football is football,” senior wide receiver Aaron Parker said. “You strap up your girdle, you strap up your helmet and you go play. They’re an FBS school. The projection is 41-28 right now. We’re going in there for what other people would call the upset, but I’m thinking it’s expected.”
URI didn’t open with an FBS opponent last year, but did play UConn a few games into the season and also acquitted itself well, losing a 56-49 shootout. Its last struggle against a higher-level squad came in 2016, when it lost 55-6 to Kansas.
“We know that we can compete at that level of football,” Fleming said. “We’ve got a number of kids on this squad that could play at that level of football. The experiences at UConn and Central Michigan have been very positive. We’ll go on out and look at this as another very good CAA football team and we’ve got to be prepared for them to win.”
Ohio profiles as a tougher opponent than UConn – URI was the Huskies’ only win last year – but may be on par with Central Michigan, a fellow member of the MAC. The Bobcats went 9-4 last year and beat San Diego State in the Frisco Bowl. Their coach is former Nebraska head man Frank Solich.
This year’s edition was picked to win the MAC championship in the league’s preseason awards.
“You really don’t know what either team’s all about until that team takes the field for the first time,” Fleming said. “Regardless of returning experience and all that stuff. You can evaluate that going into the season, but that first game really gives the exposure to what your team is all about. Coach Solich and I don’t know right now until that ball’s kicked off what our teams are all about. We all have senses and we all have built foundations and probably both feel good about our chances. We’ll have to have a good week of practice and walk in confident – knowing what to do, limiting errors. First games, hold on. There’s usually some kind of atrocious error that makes a major difference in the game, and we’re hoping to put that on them, not us.”
URI returns much of its nucleus from last year, including preseason All-Americans Parker and Kyle Murphy and all-conference picks Ahmere Dorsey, Joey Kenney and Brandon Ginnetti.
There will be new blood at the quarterback position, though as of team picture day – the culmination of fall camp – a starter had not been named. The competition to replace JaJuan Lawson is down to redshirt junior Vito Priore and true freshman Darius Perrantes.
“It was four guys who were very competitive for the starting position,” Fleming said. “We whittled it down to two last week, which was a difficult decision. Difficult for the players, difficult for the coaches. And now we’ve got to make the right decision going forward on who takes the starting snap. We feel like we’re as healthy as we’ve ever been at the quarterback position and that we could win with all four. But you can only prepare two and a half.”
While that item still remains on the to-do list, Fleming felt the Rams checked a lot of other boxes in training camp.
Now they get to see where it takes them.
“It’s just kind of been a continual improvement of everything,” he said. “Just like everything around us is getting better, so is their approach to the training camp piece. You go through training camp and you always look for that lull. I really didn’t sense it here. I felt we worked extremely hard all the way through. We didn’t really have an off day. We had some days that probably weren’t exactly what we wanted, but they were still positive steps forward. The overall body of work was outstanding. Their attitude and work ethic was the caliber we needed it to be.”
URI is looking to win its season opener for the second straight year, having beaten Delaware to start last season.
Saturday’s game is the first of two opportunities against FBS schools on URI’s schedule, with a trip to Virginia Tech set for Oct. 12.