Feb 18, 2013, 9:00 AM EST
Editor’s Note: With National Signing Day officially in the books, over the next two weeks we will talk with local journalists and bloggers covering our 11 schools to get their take on the teams that they cover. Each day will be devoted to a different program. Today we talk with Rhode Island area blogger Matt Swiss about the URI Rams.
What are your general impressions of Rhode Island’s 2013 signing class?
I think it’s good. When you go 0-11, you can only go up. This is going to be a step in the right direction. They did a really good job of going out and filling every position that they could. The only position that they didn’t cover was cornerback. I’m not sure if they were satisfied with what they have or weren’t satisfied with what they’ve seen, but they didn’t get a cornerback but faired well with every other position.
They got some skill players, which will help excite fans. You’ve got some transfers and some prep school guys, so you have a bit of an older class. They did as good a job as they could after getting the scholarships back and having more of an opportunity to target better players. So they’ve got the talent, and now it’s just a matter of coaching them up and getting them ready to play at the next level.
You had a chance to sit down and talk with head coach Joe Trainer about his recruiting class. What were his thoughts on this year’s group?
He’s impressed and happy. He said it’s going to rival the class from a couple years ago when he brought in Jason Foster and Willie McGinnis; both turned out to be great players, although it didn’t translate into too much success in terms of the team winning.
He believes this class has the potential of that one though. He thinks they hit a lot of different areas and got a lot of older guys. Joe mentioned that so often in the past they always had to rely on guys right away because of a lack of depth and injuries. It’s always a problem to have to rely on freshmen, especially in a strong conference like the CAA. He had to do it out of necessity year in and year out, but this year it’s almost a good thing to have to rely on them because so many of them are older. He’s willing to rely on some of these guys. They’ve been around. A big thing in addition to filling a number of different positions is getting an older, more mature class that he can rely on. He’s very excited about that.
Rhody’s signing class of 20 players is among the largest in the league. How much of this had to do with the school regaining scholarships after it decided to remain in the CAA instead of joining the NEC, and how much had to do with other factors?
Certainly getting the additional scholarships after making the announcement that the school was staying in the CAA helps. But I really see this as a discussion of quantity versus quality. Having the 20 scholarships to give is great in terms of them having more to offer than these last couple of years when they were going down to the NEC. I think it’s also important to note that this has a lot to do with the quality of players you’re able to bring in. They were able to go out and get that higher caliber of player than they were able to get the last couple of years with the team having thought it was headed to the NEC.
What are some of the draws outside of the football program itself that have brought recruits to campus?
Over the past couple of years after covering Rhode Island Athletics, I’ve noticed how much students like coming to URI. I think it offers a lot. When kids come here for visits, they can take advantage of a lot of different things. It’s small enough where you feel like you belong to a community, but it’s big enough where you feel a sense of independence. It’s right by the water, it’s not far from the city and it’s near Newport. Rhode Island as a state has a lot to offer for being such a small state.
In addition to that, the university’s academic reputation has improved dramatically over the last 20-25 years. It’s among the top 15 universities in the northeast for getting graduates jobs coming out of school. So its reputation in that regard has improved tremendously. They’re also building all kinds of new dorms and academic buildings. It’s a university on the rise, and I think students understand that.
There’s more to it than just being an athlete, so when they first come here and see all of the opportunities they’d be offered, it gives them a lot to think about. Not every school can necessarily say they have a beautiful campus and a beach right down the street, so all of those factors seem to be a big selling point up here.
How important was the school’s decision to remain in CAA Football to this year’s recruiting process?
It’s big. You have to remember that this proposed move to the NEC wasn’t an overnight thing. It was an announcement that came a couple years ago and more or less affected last year’s recruiting class and the class the year before as well. So over the past two years, you have fewer scholarships to play with and by and large players who are less talented but still expecting them to play at the CAA level.
So the fact that they’ve decided to stay in a conference that is well respected speaks a lot. I think that speaks volumes and you’re able to go out and get a certain caliber player. As I mentioned before, I think this goes back to the quality of the player you’re able to bring in. It just so happens that they had a larger quantity of these players coming in this year, too.
What has the consensus been in and around the URI community about the football program’s decision to continue its membership in the league?
At URI the excitement is generally around the basketball program. I’ll be honest and say that there just unfortunately isn’t as much thought given to the football program around the community. There just isn’t as much interest in the football program.
That being said, I think fan interest would have potentially hit rock bottom had they made this move to the NEC. That’s my opinion. While this is not to say that URI will stay near the bottom of the league, I truthfully think fans here would rather have a team that competes at the lower to middle of the pack at the highest level than triumph in a lower-level conference. With all due respect to the NEC, the CAA is a much more competitive conference.
While the interest was kind of dwindling at one point, I think it’s a good thing they stayed where they were. If they were going down to the NEC, the interest would likely have dipped to an all-time low.
When it comes down to it, fans want their team to win and that’s when you start to see more interest in a program. Unfortunately, Rhody just hasn’t given us much to cheer about in terms of wins in recent years, especially in terms of consistently doing so. We’ll see if that starts to change now after deciding to stay in the CAA and with having more of these recruiting classes.
Is the coaching staff done recruiting or should we anticipate additional guys signing at this point?
It’s never a done deal. I won’t say that they’re actively recruiting. When I talked with Joe, he says you never really know what may happen when spring comes around; there could be a guy at a 1A level where things weren’t working out as planned and he wants to transfer, so Rhode Island could pick him up. The same is true at the high school level with guys who do well on their SATs and get admitted after it didn’t look like they originally would. It’s not to say they’re actively shopping, but if the opportunity arises in the spring with a guy not fitting in where he’s at or in other unique cases, they would probably be open to bringing in a few more of those guys.
What particular holes were the Rams looking to fill with this year’s class?
The only position that they didn’t attack was that cornerback position. Whether they’re content there or not, we’ll see. There really wasn’t a spot that they wanted to pinpoint, but the focus was more on getting older, bigger, more athletic and versatile guys. Especially looking at this URI team over these last several years, they like guys who are very athletic and can play a couple different positions. I think that’s what they were going after.
In terms of specific holes, though, they needed to bring in skill guys. They’ve graduated a number of great players recently. Brandon Johnson-Farrell at wide receiver is a big loss now. The same was true with a number of guys in the backfield a couple years ago. And now Bob Bentsen is a senior quarterback, so they had to go out and get a quarterback as well.
So I think they attacked those skill positions more than anything. They went out and got guys to fill the void left behind by all of these solid skill players over the last couple years who had a big impact.
Among Rhody’s 20 signees are five transfers, including two from FBS schools, and five prep school standouts. What impact will this sizeable group have on the program, particularly in terms of making an immediate impact?
I think it’s going to have a big impact. No question about it, especially looking at the fact that half of these guys already have experience in terms of being transfers or prep school guys and have already played at a higher level than other recruits coming right out of high school.
I can’t necessarily say that I think it will have an immediate impact. Just because you have a good-looking recruiting class doesn’t mean that you’re going to go from 0-11 to a 6-5 team. I think it’s going to be baby steps. We’re probably looking at several years down the road because it takes a few of these classes in a row to really turn things around.
Even though Joe’s been here for four years in a row, it’s been a unique situation. Two of those classes were with NEC level players. Now that they’re committed to the CAA, they can go out and start rebuilding by getting three or four CAA caliber classes in a row. Hopefully then they’ll begin to see the impact.
So as far as an immediate impact, I’m not sure. A few of these guys will certainly get some playing time. The older guys will see the field, but as a whole I don’t see a big-time impact right away. They’ll be better for sure, but I don’t see a big jump from that 0-11 team a year ago.
I’d imagine that most of these signees not coming directly out of high school are already on campus taking classes. What kind of advantage will this early enrollment afford them?
There’s a handful on campus and that’s huge. You have to remember that these are kids, so that’s big time for them to be enrolled on campus and in classes because they’re able to familiarize themselves with college life – their teammates, classmates and the campus environment here. You get all of the kinks and hiccups of out of the way right now in the winter, and then once spring practice rolls around you get a lot of those college transition issues out of the way. That’s helpful to get those issues worked out now so they don’t have to worry about them when they’re really in the grind in August and September.
There are a lot of adjustments that have to be made when you go to college. Many of them are overlooked, but they can play a big factor for athletes, so it’s going to pay big dividends for them to be here now versus having to deal with certain issues later in the summer and into the fall. They won’t have to worry about all of the little things.
In looking at the class as a whole, who among the signees stands out to you?
Luke Casey, the quarterback out of Maryland is a great get. They haven’t been able to establish much consistency at the quarterback position. A couple years ago they had Chris Paul-Etienne. They expected big things from him given how athletic he was, but it didn’t work out with him. Then they brought in Steve Probst, who they were excited about because of his big arm. Again, didn’t really work out with him either. Now they have Bob Bentsen, who they got in their own background of Warwick. Credit him for working hard and earning the starting spot, but it’s really not like he had a couple years and was “the guy.” He essentially snuck in as the starter because the other guys didn’t work out.
Now you go out and get a 6’4”, 200-pound kid in Luke Casey. He’s athletic, versatile and he can play out of the shotgun like they like to do at URI. I think that they should be high on him and that he will be a formidable replacement for Bentsen when he’s gone. He may even get some snaps this year if Bentsen isn’t getting the job done.
So Casey might get his name called. I think he’s the guy you’re optimistic about and that can deliver some big things once Bentsen has finished his career. In terms of if he actually gets in, though, we will see if this year turns out to be a wash year where you’re just trying to develop for the future with these stronger classes or if they’ll go ahead and utilize a lot of the guys.
Coach Trainer also has a number of strong skill position guys coming in that includes a couple running backs and receivers. But I really think that for the first time in awhile, they seem to have a guy who they see as the future of the program at the quarterback position rather than someone who’s been forced to replace several guys who haven’t worked out in the program.
How does this year’s recruiting class stack up to others of previous years?
A couple years ago they had a very good class, and for Coach Trainer to speak of this class in the same light says a lot. Having been here to see the last several classes and knowing what I know about the class he’s bringing in, what he says speaks volumes. He expects it to be one of the best classes since he got here and truly believes that it stands up to any recruiting class in the conference.
And while he’s excited about the talent, he’ll be the first to admit that now it’s all about developing these guys. He always says that recruiting is like a marriage: You never know what you’ve got until you’re living with it. So you’ve got these guys and you’re excited about them, but now it’s time to get to work.
It seems like there’s reason for optimism and hopefully a number of these guys will develop into big-time players.
The 2012 season was a rough one for the Rams after they finished the season with a winless record. What are Coach Trainer’s early thoughts on the upcoming season?
You never want to make excuses as a coach or player. You don’t want to blame a lack of success on one thing, but truth be told, there’s really no denying that they brought in two straight recruiting classes whose players were not of the same caliber as others across the league. And on top of that, they had to deal with the injury bug this past year. There’s no question that every team has to deal with injuries, but to lose some of your better guys, to have your underclassmen be NEC caliber players and to have your upperclassmen that you rely on be hurt is a recipe for disaster. I think you have to acknowledge this in terms of their struggles.
That being said, it will be big if they can avoid the injury bug this year and have their upperclassmen be productive. In addition to that, maybe some of these higher caliber guys that you’re bringing in will be able to step in and make an impact.
What kind of sense do you have of the Rhody community’s expectations for this fall?
The fans are kind of taking a wait-and-see approach. They’re obviously frustrated and some have even questioned why we have a program if the team hasn’t been good in so long. But at the same time, they’re excited about the prospect of staying in the CAA. Like I said, I think you’d rather be competitive and working your tail off in a competitive conference than coasting past conference teams that no one is exciting about coming out to see play.
On the whole, fans aren’t lining up to get tickets necessarily because of a good recruiting class here. With better teams come wins though. If the wind starts blowing their sails a little bit, things could really begin to turn around here.
Given your insight into the program, what should we anticipate from the Rams in 2013?
They’re obviously greater than going into last year. The team is pleased with the class and just hoping that the team doesn’t face so many injuries as was the case this year when they couldn’t play with their bigger name guys. It will also be big for them to get some production from these higher caliber players that they’re bringing in and that they didn’t have the fortune of having these last couple of years.
It’s really just a matter of staying healthy, developing guys and hoping to just take one step forward this year. I think most people realize it’s going to be a couple years before they can really start to make their name known in the league. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a few more of these classes and some good luck, which is something that they didn’t have this past year.
This class seems to be a strong one, and when you get a few of them strung together you can really begin moving in the right direction. That’s just the nature of recruiting.