For a second straight offseason, football recruiting at the University of Rhode Island may be the toughest job in CAA Football, yet the easiest in the Northeast Conference.
A year ago, URI head coach Joe Trainer and his staff faced having to assemble their first recruiting class since the university announced two summers ago it would leave the CAA to join the smaller NEC for the 2013 season.
The coaches basically had to attract players who would enter college at a higher level of competition than they would leave it. That could have alienated the Rams from some prospects whose aspirations rest with playing on the highest level of the FCS.
Trainer said he didn't sense reservation from last year's incoming players about the impending switch, and after the newcomers showed promise this past season, URI is clearly inching closer toward being a NEC contender from a CAA also-ran.
URI expects to bring in 13 or 14 recruits in a signing class that can be announced Wednesday on National Letter of Intent Day.
"To be candid, we've never beaten Villanova and William & Mary and James Madison and Delaware and those schools for kids anyway," Trainer said. "To me, it really hasn't changed much. You're trying to go and find diamonds in the rough and maybe go into some areas that other people don't necessarily go in there to pick kids.
"I think time with tell. A lot of times my analogy is always recruiting's like marriage - you don't know what you get until you're living it. A lot of those kids are going to be really good players."
The CAA allows for the full 63 scholarships on the FCS level, but URI has to shed some in moving down to the NEC, where 40 will be allowed in 2013. In addition to the athletic grants, NEC programs are allowed to offer need-based aid.
Trainer kept his recruiting class to 12 last year. It produced a gem in gritty junior college transfer Doug Johnson, a linebacker who was second on the team with 79 tackles and first with six sacks and two interceptions. He was named to the All-CAA third team.
Among the freshmen, linebacker Andrew Bose was particularly effective on special teams while winning URI's rookie of the year honors. Running back Assani Mudimbi had his redshirt taken off late in the season and showed promise, while offensive tackle Andrew Kestenbaum and defensive tackle Damen Vargas played well in reserve roles.
"I know personally I take a lot of pride in evaluating players," Trainer said. "You know I think I'm probably a better evaluator than I am a coach. Whatever kids you get, you hope you're doing a better job developing them than some of the big teams you compete against."
URI coaches are targeting offensive and defensive linemen as well as defensive backs as the focus of this year's recruiting class because they are areas of concern due to graduation.
With fewer scholarships, but a chance to have more impact players in the NEC than the CAA, the Rams can be selective in recruiting. As Keith Croft, the veteran head coach of Rhode Island's top-ranked 2011 high school team, Division I state champion Bishop Hendricksen in Warwick, points out, the Rams don't necessarily have to find talent that possibly slipped through the FBS cracks. They can focus on players ready to be performers on the FCS level.
"I think maybe the expectations and the realistic ideas of recruiting may be toned down a little," Croft said.
"I think they're going to be more selective. I think they're probably going to look for some kids that academically will be a little stronger than they've had in the past.
"I think it's a positive. I think the people in Rhode Island, especially the high school coaches, are excited about URI moving to this new league."
Although URI has posted only three winning records in the last 26 seasons - it was 3-8 last season - NEC coaches fully expect the Rams to be a strong program in their conference. The Rams will have an instant rivalry upstate with Bryant University.
The Rams were an original member of the Yankee Conference, now the CAA. In their final season in the conference this fall, they hope to build off their 7-3 home record over the last two seasons, which included victories over CAA stalwarts Delaware and William & Mary last season.
Quarterback Bob Bentsen, a Rhode Island native who threw for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns in a part-time role, will return for his junior season with an improved command of the offense.
The Rams also will return wide receiver Brandon Johnson-Farrell (44 receptions, team leader in all-purpose yards), running back Travis Hurd (team- high 433 rushing yards) and linebacker Dave Zocco (team-high 99 tackles) as well as running back Ayo Isijola, wide receiver Daril Geisser (another member of last year's recruiting class) and defensive lineman Ali Muhammad from injuries.
"I think we're going to know who our top 15 players are, but we'll be trying to find out who that next group of 15 is, knowing you go into every season with probably 30 to 35 players that are in the mix, so to speak," Trainer said.
"Honestly, at this level, teams that win championships in my personal opinion are teams that are developing the kids when they get there, not necessarily recruiting people. You can argue the kid from Towson (running back Terrance West), he was an unheralded recruit and he comes in and has an All-American freshman year. The great players at this level, recruiting isn't an exact science."
If Rhode Island picks the recruits correctly on the CAA level, imagine what they can be in the NEC in future seasons.