SOUTH KINGSTOWN — On a February day in 2016, they represented a glimmer of hope.
Last fall, they started to turn it into reality.
And now, the University of Rhode Island football team’s class of 2020 is looking for a big finish.
“We’re all close, the whole team, but this 2020 group is definitely special,” senior defensive lineman Brandon Ginnetti said. “We all came in here, and everyone knew the history of Rhode Island football. Our whole goal was to change that and that’s what we’re doing.”
They started as a 29-man signing class back in 2016. The Rams were coming off a second consecutive one-win season in Fleming’s second year at the helm, but the staff’s sales pitch resonated. There was opportunity for immediate playing time in the naton’s best FCS league and there was the chance to lead a turnaround, to make a lasting stamp on a program. With every commitment, the belief seemed more reasonable.
“It’s a great day for us,” Fleming said at that year’s signing day press conference. “We’ve ended up with an unbelievable class that I think will add to the foundation we’ve laid over the last two years. These guys will fight and compete for us. And they will win.”
Every signing day press conference in the country features similar sentiments, but there was some juice behind Fleming’s words. The staff really liked the group they had. There was talent, size and depth. Two of the players had previously been FBS commits. And soon after signing day, 247sports.com ranked URI’s class as the best in the Colonial Athletic Association.
“It was a significant step in the growth,” Fleming said as he recalled those days. “We were muddling along. We were making improvements the first two years, but not much in the win-loss record. When that crew came in, they were full of chutzpah. They were young. They were ambitious. There was a culture dynamic that was a little bit different.”
The players were fully aware of the recruiting rankings. Instead of breeding over-confidence, it had the more positive impact of creating expectations, a boost the program needed.
“Our class, we had the swagger,” senior offensive lineman Kyle Murphy said. “I wouldn’t say we were cocky, but we were confident and we were ready for the challenge.”
There have been some additions and subtractions over the years. Some of the players redshirted and still have another season remaining. And they all had plenty of help last year from another strong senior class, which included transfer quarterback JaJuan Lawson.
But the core group has been a driving force behind the steps in the right direction. URI won two games when they were freshmen and three the next year, while missing out on a host of opportunities. Some of the close losses of 2017 turned into victories in 2018, and the Rams delivered their first winning season in 17 years.
“I remember them saying they had a good recruiting class coming in and we could really change it,” Ginnetti remembered. “The people that said yes just bought in. That’s what we’ve been doing. We believed in each other, and that’s a bond that can’t be broken.”
The group includes two preseason All-Americans in Murphy and wide receiver Aaron Parker. Both were also preseason all-conference selections, along with Ginnetti, tight end Joey Kenney and kick returner Ahmere Dorsey. Outside of Dorsey, a junior college transfer who joined the Rams last year, the all-conference nominees were all part of the 2016 recruiting class.
Other standouts from that group include defensive end L.B. Mack, who led the team in sacks last year, defensive lineman Andre Bibeault of Cumberland, defensive backs Rashod Dickerson and Kwadir Brown, and offensive linemen Raess Johnson and Kevin Lawrence. Quarterback Vito Priore filled in admirably when Lawson was hurt last year and may end up as the starter this year.
“It’s been special,” Murphy said. “We grew more and more each year. We have such a close bond. This year, most of us stayed down here in the summer. We’ve built even more chemistry than we already had.”
That has trickled down through the rest of the roster. In addition to their success on the field, the members of the class of 2020 set the tone.
“No talking. We’re about that action,” Ginnetti said. “We just go out there and do it. We know what it’s like to be a dog, and that’s what we are. We just put our heads down and work.”
“They don’t talk a lot,” Fleming agreed. “They go out and work every day. It’s what was expected. Now they’re in a position where the team has started coaching the team. When that happens, that’s really the formula for success.”
It was not a straight line from signing day in 2016 to this point. After all, on that February day, Aaron Parker – the future All-American wide receiver – was listed as a linebacker.
“We were very excited about a number of those guys, but in our infinite wisdom, Aaron Parker was a linebacker,” Fleming said with a laugh. “It was a significant group. Recruiting is not an exact science. We were very fortunate to hit on a number of these guys. It’s through good evaluation and hard work, of course, but do you ever know four years ago, that Aaron Parker is a possible NFL draft pick? Maybe, maybe not. But they’ve all worked extremely hard and they’ve adopted a common culture.”
And now they want to see it through. Last year’s taste of success wasn’t nearly enough.
“It felt great but I don’t think that was even the tip of the iceberg for us,” Ginnetti said of last season. “This year, we’re really going to put it all together. There were a few games last year where there were one or two plays, if we did something that we were supposed to do, it could have changed the whole outcome of the game. This year is it. We’re all full go. This is the last one.”