KINGSTON — The University of Rhode Island football team isn’t making any excuses for what happened during a disastrous 2012 season.
The Rams went winless in 2012 and aside from a 10-point loss in the Governor’s Cup game against Brown, URI wasn’t competitive. The Rams allowed at least 30 points in nine of 11 games and only crossed the 20-point mark twice as URI went winless for the first time since Harry Truman was president.
“It was such a crazy year because it wasn’t like the kids were underperforming, we just weren’t very good and there were a lot of reasons for it,” URI coach Joe Trainer said. “We had 45 and a half scholarships in a conference where everyone was playing with 63. There’s no excuses for poor performance, but I couldn’t get despondent.”
“I think we had talented guys last year, but when one went down we didn’t have much depth behind them,” senior quarterback Bob Bentsen said. “I feel like that’s changed this year.”
And the Rams aren’t going to make excuses this year. Trainer said the team, which was working its way down to 30 scholarships because of a planned move to the Northeast Conference, is now back up to 60 after athletic director Thorr Bjorn decided the team was staying put in the ultra-competitive Colonial Athletic Association.
The extra scholarships, along with the return of defensive standouts Doug Johnson and Dave Zocco have the Rams believing wins won’t be an endangered species in Kingston this fall.
“I feel like we’re a different group than last year,” senior offensive lineman Andrew Belizaire said. “Last year we were inexperienced and we had a bunch of young guys playing. The good thing about last year was a lot of young guys played. Across the board we have a lot more depth. As long as everyone stays healthy we should be good.”
“Honestly, we’ve been working since January for this year,” Johnson said. “We’re more of a team. You don’t see kids walking into practice one by one, you see groups coming in together. You can’t just win with one person, you have to win with the 22 people that are playing. You have to play as a team and everyone has to do their responsibility.”
Trainer believes the 2013 team can be like the one he coached during his second year in Kingston, the 2010 team which was coming off a season in 2009 when it won the first game of the season against Fordham and proceeded to lose the final 10 games.
In 2010, a team led by linebacker Matt Hansen, defensive end Victor Adesanya and Jarrod Williams won five games and finished an impressive 4-4 in the Colonial.
With seniors like Bentsen, James Timmins, Johnson, Belizaire, Zocco, Justin Favreau and Josh Moody leading the way, Trainer believes the team has the talent and leadership to be competitive.
“That was my first year here and we had some great leadership here,” Timmins said of 2010. “I feel like the seniors we have now are ready to go and provide leadership. I don’t see why we can’t do what they did.”
“I think they can do that,” Trainer said. “There are some guys here who have strong personalities, which is always a positive in football. I think guys like Moody, Timmins and Zocco and a lot of these guys – I know it seems like a long time ago– played on a 4-4 team in the CAA. There’s a ton of pride in this group.”
Pride and leadership are great buzzwords for the Rams to use this season, but if the squad is going to pick up its first win since 2010, the offense and defense are clearly going to have to improve on last season.
Warwick’s Bentsen is back under center for the third season and he’s looking to improve on a 2012 where he dropped back nearly every snap knowing the defense was coming for him. Because the Rams didn’t have a running game and because URI was often behind by multiple touchdowns, defenses played URI to pass.
Bentsen threw for 1,553 yards to go along with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also finished second on the team in rushing with 226 yards. Only Jordan Sebastian, who had paltry 291 yards in 11 games, rushed for more yards than Bentsen out of URI’s zone-read attack. URI only ran for five touchdowns.
“We want to go fast,” Bentsen said. “Once we start going that’s when we are at our best. We talk about it all the time, but our motto is P-and-10. On the first play of the possession you have to move the ball and get four yards. We have to move and get the tempo up a little bit.”
URI should have an easier time moving the ball early in drives thanks to three solid running backs. Sebastian and East Providence’s Rob Delgado are both back to go along with Miami of Ohio transfer Justin Semmes, who is trying to work through a hamstring injury.
Semmes, who is a graduate student, carried the ball for 228 yards during his three seasons in the FBS. Semmes hopes to help URI earn more than the 48 first downs it earned on the ground last year.
“I think the running backs have done a great job,” Bentsen said. “They’re really impressing me. They’ve gotten bigger and stronger and older with the addition of Semmes. I’m excited to see what they can do with the ball.”
Bentsen’s three favorite targets from last season have all graduated, but Robbie Jackson (18 catches for 145 yards) will be joined by Jawaun Wynn, Wayne Seaton and Ross Kim to form a solid receiving corps. West Warwick’s Elijah Saintfleur and Andrew Siden will see plenty of time at tight end.
Belizaire, who is one of two URI offensive linemen to play in all 11 games last year, will anchor the line along with Andrew Kestenbaum. Kevin Muster, Tyler Catalina and Jeff Kennedy will also be key contributors to the line.
“Our offense is only disruptive when the chains are moving,” Trainer said. “Here’s the thing, none of us did well last year and Bob would be the first to admit it. Bob didn’t have a great supporting cast around him, but I think everyone has gotten better.”
While the offense was short on talent last year, the defense ended up being short on bodies after two of the most influential players couldn’t play a meaningful part in the season. Zocco, an all-conference linebacker in 2011, didn’t play a single down last year, while Johnson only played three games.
Without Johnson and Zocco the defense put up ugly numbers. URI allowed teams to average 233.5 yards per a game on the ground and teams scored 31 rushing touchdowns. Through the air URI only picked off two of 332 pass attempts. Teams averaged 6.9 yards per play against the Rams.
“Two years ago Zocco and Doug Johnson were on preseason All-American lists,” Trainer said. “The other thing that’s nice is I think we are seven or eight deep on the defensive line, so we can start to rotate guys, which we couldn’t do last year.”
Both players are back healthy this year and both expect to have big years. Johnson came to URI as a linebacker and was an all-conference pick in 2011, but he is moving to safety for his senior year to take advantage of his size and athleticism.
“Obviously I can’t be as aggressive on running plays because I have some pass responsibilities,” Johnson said. “I like the role, it should be fun. I think I will have a better vision of plays and I can make better decisions.”
Trainer believes with Zocco and all-CAA selection Andrew Bose on the field, URI has the best starting linebackers in the conference. Johnson will join Jamaal Bess, Mackenzie Elliott, Donovan Walker, Tyrone Jenkins and Tarik Pusey in a revamped defensive backfield.
The defensive line should be littered with battle-tested veterans. Timmins, who led the team with three sacks in 2012, will be joined in the starting lineup by Shomari Watts and Josh Moody. Trainer said he will also rotate Johnston’s Greg Doutre, Mike Ezirike, Narragansett’s Mark Murphy and Mike Rinaldi into the defense.
“We have speed everywhere you look,” Timmins said. “We have Doug, Zocco and Bose back and those three guys can basically cover the whole field. We’re going to be fast on the defensive line, so this defense is going to be about speed.”
Trainer said kicker Dylan Smith was one of the team’s most valuable players last year after the junior from New Jersey made five of seven field goals and 10 of 11 extra points. Smith started training camp slow, missing his first extra point in the opening scrimmage, but Trainer believes he will be one of the team’s key performers.
“Over the last seven or eight days I think he’s done a pretty good job,” Trainer said.
The other key players on special teams will be new as Rutgers transfer Anthony DiPaula will take over for defensive back Tim Wienclaw at punter. Wienclaw averaged 37.7 yards on 66 punts last year.
The Rams will also be starting a new kick returner and punt returner after the graduation of all-purpose threats Brandon Johnson-Farrell and Billy Morgan.
“Nobody spends more time on special teams than us,” Trainer said. “We’re going to be aggressive. To me, special teams took the biggest drop because guys who should’ve been on those teams were playing more than they should’ve been because of injuries.”
For the first time since Darren Rizzi’s lone year in charge in 2008, the Rams will play 12 games. The campaign starts Thursday at Fordham before the Rams return home to face Stony Brook on Saturday, Sept. 7
The CAA season starts a week later against conference neophyte Albany, which will be christening its new stadium when the Rams visit for a 7:00 p.m. start on Sept. 14. The annual Governor’s Cup game with Brown will take place on Oct. 5 at 6:00 p.m. at Brown Stadium.
“We’re hungry,” Trainer said. “I can’t quantify it, but we’ve done everything we can to give ourselves a chance to be successful; this season.”