URI football

Head coach Jim Fleming watches a drill during spring camp.

 

ccotter@ricentral.com

NARRAGANSETT - The University of Rhode Island’s slow, steady return to football relevancy made a pitstop in Narragansett on Saturday morning. With Meade Stadium currently undergoing renovations, the Rams played their annual Blue-White scrimmage at Zepp Field. 

The defense carried the day, giving up a field goal and a late rushing touchdown. The defensive unit had a touchdown of their own, on a pick-six by Cayvian Holmes.

“Coming out of last season, I felt the focus of our improvement needed to be on defense,” head coach Jim Fleming said. “I felt we took a big stride forward offensively last year, and defensively there were times where I was disappointed last season.

“To win a championship, the same story always exists: you have to play great defense. I thought they came with a really good attitude and it really built during the course of the scrimmage.”

“Felt good today, but all spring we’ve been going back and forth,” defensive lineman Andre Bibeault said. “[The defense] just came out and played for each other today. It showed.”

Bibeault, a redshirt junior from Cumberland, was named the team’s Most Improved Defensive Player during halftime of Saturday’s scrimmage. After redshirting his first year on campus, the former Clipper only played in three games in his first full season.

Injuries and a logjam of talent paused the lineman’s progression. His breakout season wouldn’t come until last year, when he emerged as an integral piece of the raucous front seven for the Rams. He collected 4.5 sacks and 40 total tackles in 2018.

“Ever since I got here I’ve wanted to contribute,” he said. “[The award] means a lot to me because I’ve battled some injuries. Came back, but receiving [that award] meant a lot. I could name two dozen people that deserve that award.”

Those two dozen defensive players that Bibeault has in mind ran rampant against their teammates on Saturday. The defense - wearing their dark blue uniforms - tallied 14 tackles for loss, three interceptions and 11 pass breakups.

Their success came at the expense of the offensive unit, in particular the URI quarterbacks. JaJuan Lawson’s graduation leaves a void that will likely be filled by returners Vito Priore and Jakhari Grant.

Neither looked up to the task in the spring finale. Priore got the bulk of the first-team reps, but was an abysmal 7-for-23 on his pass attempts, tallying just 40 yards through the air. Grant completed quite a few more passes (21-37), but threw two interceptions, including the pick-six.

“Couldn’t really find a rhythm offensively,” Fleming said. “For everything good thing, there’s a disappointment.”

With both quarterbacks struggling, it was hard for any of the offensive skill players to get much going in the scrimmage. Running back Justice Antrum - named as the offense’s Most Improved Player - was the leading receiver with five catches for 18 yards.

“Vito is a very good operator,” Fleming said. “It wasn’t his best day today, but he can get the ball to those [skill] guys. The hard piece is that there’s only one ball to go around.

“We have very high expectations of what we can get out of the quarterback position. I believe that Vito can handle that job. Jakhari made some improvements. We’ve got to still bring more into the program.”

No. 1 receiver Aaron Parker was limited to four catches for 27 yards. Grant led the rushing attack - albeit in a scrimmage where hitting the quarterback was verboten - with a total of 75 rushing yards.

While the Rams geared up for their upcoming season in Narragansett, bulldozers and bucket-loaders continued their diligent work over in Kingston. Artificial turf and lights are being added to Meade Stadium, in advance of the team’s home opener in September.

“We are so excited,” Bibeault said. “It feels like it’s all coming together finally. We came here - the class of 2020 - me, [Brandon] Ginnetti, that class. We had that dream of building it up. Sure enough we’re a part of it.”

“I think it’s exciting and I’m sure these kids do too,” Fleming said. “There was a lot of wait-and-see. It’s a source of pride for our guys, because it’s something I think they’ve earned.”

If all goes to plan, the Rams will host Delaware on September 7 in the first game under the new lights. They open the season on the road, August 31 against Ohio.

“The experience level and the talent level is remarkably improved from Year 1,” Fleming said. “It’s a very similar team to what we had last year. Along with the experience comes the comfort that you can go out there and execute at a higher level, quicker.”

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