By Joe DeLeone
KINGSTON, R.I. – Losing any senior captain can be impactful to the overall integrity of a roster. However, losing one of the best running backs in school history is far more challenging to move on from.
Harold Cooper played his final down in 2017, leaving enormous shoes to fill for this year's crop of running backs. It will be a daunting task to move on from a five-time all conference player with 2,000 career rushing yards. Although, this should not deter Rams fans from being excited about the young group of rushers taking over in 2018.
Leading the pack is sophomore Justice Antrum (Hamden, Conn.) who comes into next season as the favorite to be the Rams' feature back. As a true freshman, Antrum contributed early on special teams, playing in seven games. He is Rhode Island's active leader in career rushes with eight, an indication of how new running back contingent will be. As the season progressed, Antrum worked his way up to the third running back on the depth chart. He finished with nine touches, among a running back rotation that heavily leaned in the favor of graduated seniors Cooper and T.J. Anderson.
Antrum received a majority of first team reps during spring practice, while back mate Zoe Bryant (Pennington, N.J.) recovered from injury. A redshirt junior, Bryant might be most intriguing prospect amongst this committee. He spent two seasons as a linebacker, starting five of the 10 games he played as a redshirt freshman in 2016. He made the transition to the backfield during training camp last year. Many would consider this to be his natural best fit, especially considering he was ranked as the No. 1 running back in the state of New Jersey coming out of high school. A shoulder injury suffered early in the season limited him to two games.
Adding to an already talented group is recently converted wide receiver Matt Pires (Lincolndale, N.Y.). Pires gives the Rams a huge threat in the passing game coming out of the backfield. In 2017, Pires primarily served as a punt returner, where he earned CAA Football Third-Team All-Conference honors as a freshman.Most notably, Pires broke the school record for longest punt return in school history, with a 90-yard weaving scamper against Elon.
Capping off the returning backs for Rhode Island is local product Prince Asiedu-Johnson (Pawtucket, R.I.). Asiedu-Johnson has yet to appear in any games after he redshirted his freshman season, but saw a lot of action with the second unit and as a kick returner during spring practices.
While the talent is plenty, the URI coaches knew they needed to bring another offensive weapon into the mix. They did exactly that by adding junior college transfer Naim Jones (Coram, N.Y.) from Nassau Community College. At 6-0 and 210 pounds, Jones was a dominant force at the Junior College level. Just last season, Jones averaged an elite 8.5 yards per carry, and a career yardage total of 1,300 yards, combining a physical style with breakaway speed.
Another transfer joining the mix is Conor Dowd (Madison, Conn.), a junior coming in from Pima Community College. The 6-0, 220-pound Dowd is more of a fullback who also could contribute on special teams.
While Rhode Island must move on from a senior driven running back group, they certainly have enough pieces with big-play potential to make the ground game a strength in 2018.
Check GoRhody.com Thursday for a look at the linebackers on the 2018 roster.