Every Colonial Athletic Association team except the University of Rhode Island opened the spring football season this past weekend. The Rams were on a week one bye, adding further mystery to an already wide set of unknowns.
What will a spring season be like?
What will the Rams look like?
The answers will begin to arrive Saturday when URI opens its season at Villanova.
“Really looking forward to seeing how it all comes together under live bullets,” head coach Jim Fleming. “In practices, it’s gotten better and better as you would expect. Now we’ve got to go play a quality opponent, call some plays and see how we can execute. Not too much rocket science left - just got to get them out there and see what we’ve got.”
URI was supposed to open the season Feb. 27, but a non-conference matchup with Bryant was postponed due to COVID-19 protocol issues with the Bulldogs. The bye - necessitated by an odd number of teams playing in the CAA this year - tacked on another week off.
Players and coaches are just as eager as fans to see how things shape up on gameday. As they line up for the opening kickoff Saturday, it will be 476 days since the Rams last played a game, dating back to the season finale of a 2-10 campaign in 2019. In the interim, URI lost three players to the NFL, replaced both its offensive and defensive coordinators, brought in a host of transfers alongside a touted recruiting class, and dealt with the unprecedented postponement of the fall season.
“It’s all about embracing opportunity,” Fleming said. “We’ve had a tremendous attitude of gratitude just to get out there and practice. To have a chance to get out there and compete - they’re somewhat giddy. They had a chance to watch CAA football. We had a practice today and they’re excited and locked in.”
The Rams return two starting offensive linemen in Nick Correia and Evan Lovell, but running back Zoe Bryant is the only skill player back who was a regular starter. Star wide receivers Isaiah Coulter and Aaron Parker both headed to the NFL, while quarterback Vito Priore transferred to Austin Peay.
Fleming said transfer Kasim Hill will start at quarterback. The 6-foot-2, 234-pound redshirt junior was a four-star recruit out of high school. He started 12 games over two seasons at Maryland, before transferring to Tennesse, where he sat out the 2019 season. He arrived in Kingston ready to battle for the starting job and beat our Liberty transfer Brandon Robinson and freshman Jared Heywood.
“It’s going to be Kasim Hill,” Fleming said. “There was a good battle throughout training camp. Kasim has been coming along. They all had a strong fall and training camp. They’ve all got their skills and their talents.”
Bryant and UMass transfer Kevin Brown headline the backfield. Bryant was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA due to season-ending injuries in both 2015 and 2017. He tied for the team lead in rushing in 2019. A three-star prospect in Massachusetts, Brown was initially planning to commit to URI for the 2019 season before switching his pledge to UMass. He rushed for 120 yards in three games before being dismissed from the team, reportedly due to academic issues.
Senior Ivory Frimpong will be first in line to pick up the slack for Coulter and Parker in the receiving corps. Senior Matt Pires, redshirt junior Ed Lee and redshirt sophomore John Erby are also back. Former quarterback Jahkari Grant is now listed as a wide receiver on the roster. Transfers Jeremiah Fails (Western Kentucky) and Jelani Foster (Buffalo) are also in the fold.
“Ivory Frimpong is a name that you guys remember. Ed Lee has had a very good training camp. John Erby is a guy we count on quite a bit and he’s a dynamic type player,” Fleming said. “We’ve got some young guys that we brought in. I feel good. Obviously, when you think of that position group, I would be foolish to say we won’t miss Aaron Parker, Isaiah Coulter and Ahmere Dorsey. Those guys were three of the premier guys in the league.”
Lovell and Correia anchor the offensive line as returning starters, while Sebastian Delasoudas and Lorenzo Thompson have seen action. Freshman A.J. Cornelius is expected to start at right tackle.
At tight end, Warren made eight starts in 2019. Hunter Gorgas appeared in 10 games. The Rams also have veteran fullback/tight end Joey Kenny back after an injury knocked him out of all but four games in 2019.
On defense, URI is switching to a 3-4 scheme this season under new coordinator Jack Cooper. Linebackers Andre Blackett and Jake Fire top the list of four returning starters. Andre Bibeault returns up front, while Malik Gavek is in the secondary. Linebackers Andre Johnson and Chris Arrington also saw significant action, along with lineman James Makszin and Dylan Brown. Along with Gavek, the secondary returns Cayvian Holmes, Henry Yianakopolos and Kwadir Brown with experience.
Transfers may make the biggest impact on defense, where URI welcomes linemen Malachi Burby, Keshon Williams and Matt Thomas - all from Rutgers - linebacker Evan Stewart (Boston College) and defensive backs Oneil Robinson (UConn), CobyTippett (Towson) and Josh Doyle (Army Prep). Tippett was an all-conference selection at Towson.
“They’re a very excitable group,” Fleming said. “I like their spirit. I think they’re an aggressive group. We’ve had glimpses. The last time we played was 2019. We had a full scrimmage in the fall and we’ve had two go’s in training camp here, so we’ve got an idea of what we have. They’ve handled the changes in coaching staff really well. Although when you think about changes, we’ve been together for the full year, just haven’t had a chance to play a game yet.”
Freshmen could make an impact at various sports. About a month before the pandemic took hold in 2020, the Rams announced a recruiting class that had four players rated as three-star recruits coming in from the high school ranks. Two wound up elsewhere - quarterback Brady Martin is at Arkansas State and wide receiver Zion Jackson joined the Rams for the fall before entering the transfer portal. The other two are Heywood - who was in the quarterback competition - and defensive lineman Westley Neal, both of whom are on the roster. Rhode Island stars Jaylen Smith and Frederick Mallay are also in the fold.
The new personnel - and the new coordinators - will try to get the Rams back on track after a string of games got away in 2019 and cost the program significant momentum from the move it made in 2018.
The stage is set, finally, for the Rams to try to pick it back up.
“I think we’re all looking at it as, ‘Thank God we have a chance to do this,’” Fleming said. “And thanks to the people who have made it available to us. Looking forward to it and can’t wait to get down to Philly and give it a run.”