It’s been a long time since college football fans in Kingston, Rhode Island have had something to celebrate... a really long time.
In fact, the last team their hometown Rams were in the FCS playoffs (then known as DI-AA) the Kansas City Royals had just won their first World Series. The Chicago Bears were in the midst of their one and only Super Bowl run with one of the greatest defenses to ever play the game. Up in the FBS, Oklahoma were en route to their sixth national championship and Bo Jackson was on his way to the Heisman Trophy. The year was 1985.
A December afternoon in Greenville, SC that year was the last taste of postseason football the Rams have had. Furman thumped URI to the tune of 59-15 in front of just over 9,000 in Paladin Stadium. In a stat line that was truly absurd, Rhode Island quarterback Tom Ehrhardt attempted 78 passes. The team as a whole tried 90 and yet the only real thing that came of it all was seven interceptions and a mighty ugly loss. It was a bitter end to an otherwise very successful run. Few in the northeast, however, probably dreamed it would be the last such season to date.
To say the Rams’ football team has been snake bitten over the past four decades is an understatement. From unbearable stretches where the program has not even been able to muster two wins per season to tantalizingly close playoff misses, URI and its fans have truly been through it all. Many of those wounds are still very fresh.
In the shortened 2021 Spring season, the Rams were off to a promising 2-1 start before their final three games were canceled due to COVID issues thus rendering them ineligible for postseason play. That fall would spell much of the same heartbreak as the team finished 7-4 but was left out of the playoff field to the shock of many. Last season, however, may have been the most gut-wrenching yet as Rhode Island squandered a lead in a must-win game against New Hampshire with less than 30 seconds to play. The loss ended up putting them at that dreaded 7-4 mark and likely cost them the chance at finally stopping the drought.
When will it end?
It’s a question that haunts Rhode Island fans, players, coaches, alum and boosters. Statistically speaking, it has to at some point. But, will 2023 be the year? The Rams do return several starters and didn’t lose much in the way of big-time playmakers this offseason. With head coach Jim Fleming coming into his tenth season, they have enough steady hands still around to give it another strong push this fall.
On offense, quarterback Kasim Hill is perhaps the biggest name coming back. Hill, who threw for 2,588 yards and 19 touchdowns last year, was granted a seventh-year of eligibility by the NCAA earlier this offseason. The former Maryland transfer started all 11 games for the team last fall and helped the Rams become the third highest scoring offense in the CAA (30.6 points per contest). On top of all that, he also has 517 yards on the ground and 17 rushing scores on his Rhode Island career. Having him back is huge.
Joining Hill is one of his favorite targets; receiver Kahtero Summers along with last year’s team-leading sack-getter linebacker A.J. Pena (5.5). So too is one of his best protectors in offensive lineman Nick Correia. Even some of the guys who graduated didn’t go far as 2022’s top tackler Jake Fire is now a member of the defensive coaching staff. If anything is going to boost the Rams into the playoff mix come November, it’s likely going to be this consistency on both sides of the ball.
Players coming back, however, haven’t been the only reason the Rams have high hopes. The transfer portal has been kind to Fleming’s squad as well. After losing last year’s top rusher in Marques DeShields, Rhody reloaded and picked up a big piece with running back Ja’Den McKenzie. McKenzie comes in from Division II’s West Chester where he ran for 708 yards and eight touchdowns in 2022.
Outside of talent, though, the URI players are motivated by last year’s disappointing conclusion and that may end up helping more than anything.
“We just don’t want that feeling again,” admitted Summers after this year’s spring contest. “Sometimes you lose sleep at night just thinking about it. You’re just right there — one play away.”
If there’s a window for URI to make the postseason cut, it’s as open as its going to be for the foreseeable future. Hill loses his eligibility after this season as does Summers. The CAA as a whole is only getting stronger. The consistency is there. The talent is there. It’s just a matter of it all coming together. If not now, it may be another long wait.
The Rams kick off their season at Georgia State on August 31.