By Derek Mancini
It's officially time for some football. Rhode Island is set to kick off the 2018 regular season as it hits the road to play the Delaware Blue Hens Thursday night. The Rams are coming off a 3-8 campaign in which they won two of the final four games of the season. Although they have been picked to finish 12th in preseason rankings, there is a lot of reason to be optimistic going into the 2018 season. The Rams have made plenty of improvements, getting better every year under head coach Jim Fleming, now entering his fifth season with the Rams.
Expectations for the Rams has never been higher in Fleming's tenure as head coach. This team is arguably the most talented and experienced team Fleming has had, and they feel they are capable of competing for a CAA Football championship this season. For Rhode Island to have a successful season, it will need to answer some questions and sure-up some key spots on the team. Here are three things to watch going into the first game of the 2018 season.
Lawson's command of the passing attack
The Rams had an explosive offense a year ago, finishing third in the CAA in passing offense with 234 yards per-game in 2017. It's worth noting that eight of last year's offensive starters are back for 2018, beginning with senior quarterback JaJuan Lawson. Lawson started the last five games of 2017, completing nearly 60 percent of his passes. He's a dual-threat quarterback who can beat opposing offenses both through the air and on the ground. Lawson had 270 rushing yards with three rushing touchdowns, along with 1,198 passing yards and seven touchdowns.
He'll look to get the ball into the hands of one of the most dangerous receiving corps in the conference. Junior receiver Aaron Parker had a breakout sophomore season a year ago, making 51 catches for 823 receiving yards. His seven touchdown grabs were tied for third in the league. Redshirt senior Marven Beauvais had 46 receptions for 732 yards and five touchdowns, while senior Khayri Denny added 39 receptions for 339 yards. Also keep an eye on Ahmere Dorsey, who flashed in a recent scrimmage when he caught a 65-yard touchdown catch while breaking multiple tackles in the process. Dorsey could potentially be one of Lawson's top receiving threats.
If the Rams want to build off of the success of the offense last season, they'll need quarterback Lawson to continue to improve and build a strong chemistry with this highly talented group of wide receivers.
Who leads the pack for the running backs?
The biggest question for this Rams team is how will the lack of experience at the running back position affect them? They will be without last year's senior captain, running back Harold Cooper, who was one of the best running backs in program history. Cooper was a five-time all-conference player who racked up 2,000 career rushing yards during his career. There are a few backs to keep an eye on as potential candidates to take over the job as the lead back.
Redshirt junior Zoe Bryant, Jr. has seen most of the workload with the first team during training camp. He missed the final nine games of last season after suffering a season-ending injury. So far, he is the favorite to be the Rams starting running back. Another running back who can make an impact on this team is local product Prince Asiedu-Johnson (Pawtucket). He didn't appear in any games during his freshman season last year, but he has broken out for some big runs during training camp. Fellow sophomore Matt Pires was a wide receiver last season, but has transitioned to the backfield this year. He has shown big-play ability as a receiver and on special teams and should see touches out of the backfield.
Naim Jones, a junior transfer from Nassau Community College, is also to likely be in the mix. Jones averaged 8.5 yards per carry, racking up a total of 1,300 yards. It will be interesting to see who ends up being the Rams' feature back.
For a team with a strong passing attack, it will be important for them to get consistent production from the running game in order to have a well-balanced offense. An experienced offensive line to run behind, led by redshirt junior captain center Dwayne Scott, should also benefit the young backs.
Will the defense be the Rams' leading weapon?
For all the talk about the potential for a great offense, the Rams' defense might be the strongest part of the team. The defense also brings back eight starters, including junior defensive lineman Brandon Ginnetti, who made the preseason All-Conference defensive team. The 6-foot-3, 275-pound lineman had a team-leading 7.0 sacks last season.
The defensive line is arguably the most talented position group on the whole team, especially at the defensive end spot. Senior defensive end Tez Wilson recorded 12.5 tackles for loss last season, which was tied for the sixth most in the league. Junior L.B. Mack III also shined last season with a team-high eight QB hurries.
The linebacking core is led by senior captains Justin Hogan and Nas Jones. Hogan started all 11 games last season and led the team with 90 tackles. Jones had 33 tackles along with two pass breakups.
The secondary is also loaded with depth. Senior captain safety D.J. Stewart was second on the team with 79 tackles. Senior cornerbacks Ahkema Evans and Zay Hill will bring a much-needed camaraderie to the secondary. Juniors Rashod Dickerson and Momodou Mbye are two of the team's most promising players. Dickerson is considered one of the best young corners in the CAA, producing 48 tackles and four pass break ups in his sophomore season. Mbye led the league with three fumble recoveries and had a team-leading seven pass breakups.
With defense being Fleming's main expertise, the Rams' defense has a chance to be a major strength to the team. It will be important for the defense to be too, as it will take the pressure off of the offense and can only improve the Rams' chances of being a major threat in the CAA this season.
Rhode Island senior journalism major Derek Mancini will check in throughout the season with his Tuesday Take for GoRhody.com. Before his current internship with the communications office, Mancini interned with WPRI 12. In high school, he was part of a state championship football team for North Providence in 2013.
Tuesday Take: Passing Game Key to Success in Thursday's Opener
By Derek Mancini