SOUTH KINGSTOWN — There have been many senior classes in the history of the University of Rhode Island football team, but it’s unlikely that any of those past groups were a part of as much change as the current class. This group of 11 seniors were part of a class that helped turn around a decade-plus of on-field futility, weathered a once-in-a-century pandemic and got to reap the benefits of the improvements made to Meade Stadium.
“Those guys have been through a lot of stuff here,” URI head coach Jim Fleming said. “The group that is about to graduate, I look at them like they’ve been here since 2014 [when I was hired]. It’s been an incredible journey for all of us.”
That lengthy journey for the seniors made one of its final pit stops on Saturday. The Rams took down the UNH Wildcats in their final home game of the season, 28-3. The win got the Rams back above .500 in CAA play and helped to further revive their playoff chances.
“I’ve been watching [URI] since last spring,” UNH head coach Sean McDonnell said. “They’re a good football team. This is one of the better football teams we’ve played this year. They do a lot of things well.”
Freshman Jaylen Smith provided the bulk of the offensive production for the Rams. After his breakout effort last week against UMass, the Shea product made it two straight 100-yard rushing games on Saturday. The speedster scored two touchdowns, including an 81-yard screen pass that came on the first third down of the afternoon. He accounted for 207 of his team’s 379 yards in total.
“I really never expected to,” Smith said, of playing a big role as a freshman. “I knew it’s next man up, if anyone gets injured.”
Smith only secured a solid place in the running back rotation after both teammates in front of him went down with injuries. Kevin Brown Jr. has been out all season, and Justice Antrum has also been out recently. Smith has made the most of the opportunity, using the same speed that has made him a special teams threat throughout this season to power the Ram offense.
“[The other running backs] have been good role models for me, especially Justice Antrum,” Smith said. “When I do something wrong, he addresses it. He’s really just been a great mentor since I got here. Appreciate him and Kevin Brown.”
“For Jaylen Smith to step up the way he has, it’s a testament to the depth of our football team,” Fleming said. “He’s been there when we needed him.”
The seniors were equally dependable in the dominant win. Fullback Joey Kenny accumulated 36 yards through the air, including a wild leap over a defender that brought the crowd to its feet.
“Kenny’s been around here for a long time,” McDonnell said. “Speaks volumes about their program that they have a bunch of hard-nosed kids who have become a good football team.”
Even amongst the super seniors, there is an elder statesman. L.B. Mack III has been with the team since the summer of 2016, and his experiences as a Ram have run the gamut. The team won a combined five games in his first two seasons on campus, but the lack of on-field success, and even a serious neck injury that threatened his career, didn’t phase Mack.
“For the first three years of my college career, it didn’t really show,” Mack said of the extreme effort and work he sees on a daily basis from his teammates. “We knew and believed that if we continued to work everyday, and kept pushing, we could lift each other up.”
“We all know we’ve been through tough times,” Fleming said. “It’s really cool to see [the success]. Watching all that these guys go through – you would be shocked at the personal things that go on in their lives. They continue to get to school and get their education. They practice every day extremely hard.”
Mack is one such player who has had to balance personal tribulations with the rigors of being a Division I athlete. Mack’s father passed away last March from a heart attack, right as the pandemic began to tighten its grip on the country. For his Senior Day ceremony, Mack was accompanied by his mother and two childhood friends.
“My mom is a strong woman,” he said. “She’s been through a lot in the last year. Everything I do, I do for her. I wish my pops was with me, too.”
The team’s on-field success has come with plenty of help from Mack, who will end his lengthy Rhody career all over the program record book. Currently, he is in fourth place all-time with 21 sacks, and second all-time in tackles for loss. On Saturday, he was part of a suffocating defensive effort that held the Wildcats to just a field goal. He led his unit with eight tackles and two sacks.
The win over the Wildcats was a fitting tribute to the senior class, but it was also vital in keeping their FCS playoff hopes alive. A win in the season finale over Elon next Saturday would put the Rams at two games above .500 in CAA play, and firmly on the bubble for postseason play.
“We’ve got to get to eight [wins] and then hope to the football gods to be able to give us a chance to play more with this group,” Fleming said.
“We want some more football,” Mack added. “Story is not over yet.”