This weekend marked the beginning of the community college season, with ten of eleven teams in Minnesota squaring off at The Classic. The event is a wonderful showcase of football and affords coaches in the conference a chance to see the opposition live and in person. Rainy River, as the eleventh team to join the MCCC, is the odd team out. They'll get started on August 31 against Minnesota West.
Ward is optimistic about his squad's chances of competing for a conference title this year.
"We have a team that can compete with anybody. We're much better athletically and have more assistant coaches," said Ward whose 2001 team finished with a 4-5 mark. "A strength this year is that we have lots of starters back. Seven on offense including an All-Conference running back and five on defense. Speed is also a strength. Nobody on defense is slower than 4.7."
In Minnesota there's no limit to the number of out-of-state players a team can have on its roster and Ward is taking full advantage. He's got a number of athletes from Tennessee and Arkansas and they appear to bring a lot to the table.
Running back Larry Aldridge (5-9, 180; Brinkley HS, Ark.) could be the best in the conference. He's got tremendous vision, is explosive, and quick as a cat. Last year he gained over 1,000 yards behind a very mediocre offensive line, so Ward is anxious to see what his tailback can do behind a better line. "Larry is a multi-purpose guy. He catches the ball. Great on the perimeter. He had 221 yards rushing in the first half last year versus Northland and 204 yards versus Fergus Falls--and he did all by himself mostly," said Ward.
Other tailbacks vying for playing time, include freshmen O.J. Thomas (5-10, 205; W. Memphis, Ark.) and Adell Hawks (6-0, 200; Gainesville, Georgia).
Another threat on offense is speedy wide receiver Cedric Taggart (6-0, 185), who averaged 22.8 yards per catch in 2001. "When the ball is in his hands, he's gone," said Ward of this former track star. Keep an eye on freshman Chris Evans, too. He's a big target at 6-3, 190 pounds with excellent hands and above average strength. "Evans was a big recruit in Arkansas. He had 53 receptions and a ton of yards as a senior in high school. He looks like Keyshawn Johnson in many ways, but was just overlooked," said Ward.
Wesley Hill (6-0, 190) and Marcus Foley (6-0, 180) are two additional freshmen to watch. Hill started at Arkansas Tech as a true freshman and bring a pair of great hands and quickness. Foley runs a 10.7 hundred meters.
The skill position guys will be helped by the fact that the offensive line appears improved and capable, with as many as three future D1 guys. Ward says it's the biggest line that he has coached and that would include his line at the University of Minnesota-Crookston.
Right tackle Pete Mills goes 6-6, 375, and runs in the 5.2 range according to Ward. "Mills is a freak. He played nose guard for us last year and likes to kill people. He'll be a force."
The center is returning starter Torey Crutcher (6-5, 405), who entered camp a little overweight. Ward says that Crutcher benches 500 pounds and recently did 32 reps at 230 pounds, which is quite a feat.
A basketball player, Alvin Hawkins (6-6, 270), is lining up at left tackle this year. He signed with Grambling out of high school, but they didn't want him to play on the hardwoods so he chose another path. Ward believes that Hawkings will eventually fill out to 310 pounds.
Both guard positions will be occupied by freshmen with Jack Lemke (6-6, 300) the leading candidate for left guard.
Perhaps the least settled position on offense is quarterback where there's open competition. David Leyva (6-0, 180; Barbara Goldman HS, Florida) is the returning starter and brings good feet but only an average arm. A number of incoming freshmen will try to unseat the incumbent.
Rainy River's defense should be stout with good size and excellent speed.
Freshmen start at every position along the defensive line. One end spot will be occupied by Darren Reed (6-5, 250), a guy who runs a 4.65 forty and drew heavy attention from SEC recruiters in high school. "Reed played in the Shrine Game in Tennessee. He was a tailback in high school," said Ward. The other end will be Mack Armoster (6-4, 256), who runs in the 4.7 range. Lining up at the nose will be a very athletic LaMarcus Nowden (6-2, 255).
Ward is pretty excited about his defensive backfield, which features a couple of excellent prospects.
Cornerback Willie Greer (5-10, 175) is a returning starter with a knack for making the big hit. "He was our fourth leading tackler last year. And he will stroke you. Greer is very instinctive and adjusts to the ball well. A great man cover guy or he can roll up in a two-cover," said Ward of this December graduate. The other corner spot is up for grabs with Corey Brewer (5-10, 185) a potential candidate along with Terrance Collins (5-9, 175). Brewer was at Navarro College two years ago while Collins may be the fastest player on the team with a sub-4.4 forty.