HERO Sports welcomes you to "Three-a-Days", where we will preview every single one of the 126 FCS programs from June 17 to August 6. Then, we'll preview all 13 conferences from August 12-15. Today, we present … Rhode Island.
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RHODE ISLAND (6-5 IN 2018)
CAA (URI was 7th in 2018)
COACH: Jim Fleming – At School: 6th year (13-43 record) Overall: 8th year (34-43)
LAST FCS POSTSEASON: 1985 (Quarterfinal loss to Furman)
2018 OFFENSE: 30.3 ppg. (37th in FCS)
2018 DEFENSE: 28.2 ppg. (58th in FCS)
KEY GAME: Oct. 5 @ Brown: Never underestimate the feeling of bringing home a trophy, and that's exactly what this game has had at stake since first being played in 1909. This is the 104th meeting, and the Governor's Cup is at stake for these two Rhode Island FCS programs. Rhody won 48-0 last year, so you know Brown will be out for revenge.
SUM IT UP: The improvement in this Rhody program has been gradual but consistent since Jim Fleming came from UCF prior to the 2014 season. Last year the Rams posted their first winning season since 2001, even with their electric quarterback JaJuan Lawson injured for part of the season. With Lawson at full strength, the program began the year 4-1 with just a narrow loss to FBS UConn — its second close FBS game in a row after taking Central Michigan to overtime the year prior. The Rams began by beating ranked Delaware and Ivy League power Harvard along the way. Rhody was looking playoff-bound, then the QB injury happened and knocked the program off balance. Yet still, this team produced a winning season and truly was just one win, maybe two, away from its first postseason trip since the mid-1980s. It was a testament to the kind of kid that is in this program.
Well, a lot of key guys are back from that group — 15 starters, to be exact when you count special teams. The top two rushers (Zoe Bryant and Naim Jones) are back on offense with nearly 900 yards and seven touchdowns between them from last year. The top two receivers (Aaron Parker and Isaiah Coulter) are back, and lineman Kyle Murphy is one of the FCS' top pro prospects coming into the season. The quarterback position is certainly something to keep an eye on with Lawson graduated. Vito Priore filled in admirably last year during the injury, and Jahkari Grant also looked good at times in the spring. That's obviously a key question, but the offense was popping last year and the goal is to keep that momentum.
The defense returns the entire front, which is a massive plus. And while that front unit didn't pile up the negative yardage plays like some defenses do, it certainly held its own in critical situations. If some new names step up and perform well in the linebacking corps, this group should improve statistically. That's impressive when you realize this was already a Top 30 program in the FCS when it came to total defense. Lastly — and we don't always mention special teams in these previews — this program is really good in the return game. And this team is also strong when it comes to turnovers — causing them and not giving them up. Let's just say the Rams do the little things well.
OUR TAKE: Rhode Island is truly perplexing coming into 2019. They play in one of the toughest conferences in the FCS, so notching a win isn't easy in this league. But last year this program was very much in the mix. A nice contingent returns, but you do have to wonder about the quarterback position and the line stabilizing around senior returning starters Murphy and Kevin Lawrence. If this offense can produce at the level it did last year, and also considering the defense looks like it will improve thanks to experience, this could be an upper-half CAA team again. And let's face it, half the CAA went to the postseason last year. This schedule is a challenging one, and I think we're looking at a seven-win potential ceiling here, and the worst-case scenario is five wins.
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COUNTDOWN: The Best Player in FCS Who Wears Each Number, 1-99
TOP RETURNEE: Sr./OL Kyle Murphy (HERO Sports Preseason All-American – 25 consecutive starts, 40 pancake blocks)
THE FOUNDATION: Sr./WR Aaron Parker (1st Team 2018 All CAA – 61 catches, 955 yds, 10 TDs); Sr./RS Ahmere Dorsey (2nd Team 2018 All CAA – 11.1 yards per punt return, 1 TD; 28.4 yards per kickoff return, 2 TDs); Sr./TE-FB Joey Kenny (Preseason All CAA – 16 starts, outstanding blocker); Sr./DT Brandon Ginnetti (Preseason All CAA – injured in 2018 but still played – in 31 career games, 85 tackles, 11 sacks, 19.5 TFLs); Jr./QB Vito Priore (781 yards passing, 7 TDs); Sr./LB Branyan Javier-Castillo (team-leading 78 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 2 INTs last year); Sr./DE L.B. Mack III (52 tackles, 5 sacks); Jr./DL Andre Bibeault (40 tackles, 6.5 TFLs); Sr./CB Rashod Dickerson (33 tackles, 2 INTs);
TOP NEWCOMER: Fr./OC Dimitrios Gkountoudis (Native of Germany who signed in the spring – held a UMass offer and three other FCS offers)
THE QUOTE: "It was a feat that was achieved for the first time in 17 years, but these kids have a championship on their mind and we have to prepare them accordingly. It’s earned, it really has been. These kids came in, we came in five years ago. There weren’t even thoughts of doing this kind of project. The kids have gone out and showed a reason to invest and the university has been behest to us, so we are just thrilled to be able to continue to build the university." — coach Jim Fleming said in the spring
WERE WE RIGHT?: Last Year's Rhode Island Preview
FCS 2020 NFL PROSPECTS: The List
BEST FCS TRADITIONS: The List
PREVIEWS: The Rest Of CAA
Albany | Delaware | Elon | James Madison
SUBSCRIBE: HERO Sports FCS Podcast