At a time when head coach Jim Fleming and his University of Rhode Island football team continue to sit idly by, the Rams are still finding ways to squeeze their way into the conversation.
On this particular occasion, the table is being set by former URI players with NFL ties. Once the dust had settled after the league’s mandatory cutdown day, Fleming was pleased to see former Rhode Island wide receiver Isaiah Coulter had earned a spot on the Houston Texans’ initial 53-man roster. Meanwhile, former Rams Aaron Parker, Kyle Murphy, David Steinmetz, and Justin Rohrwasser had been signed to the practice squads of their respective NFL teams after initially being placed on waivers.
It’s not every day that the state’s flagship university can claim this many NFL connections at one time. In Kingston, the reciprocal effects are helping to provide a much-needed jolt to a college football seeking a positive spin in the aftermath of the 2020 fall season falling victim to COVID-19.
“I’m proud of the fact we can attract that type of athlete to the University of Rhode Island and coach them well enough that they’re able to get a good look by the NFL,” said Fleming when reached recently. “You’re proud of their individual efforts in getting where they got.”
It had been 34 years since a URI prospect had heard his name called during the NFL Draft when Coulter went to the Texans in the fifth round this past April. His 72-catch, 1,039-yard, eight-touchdown 2019 campaign helped earn him an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine. He could have returned to the Rams for his senior year, yet Coulter had enough faith in his ability to believe that somewhere out there, an NFL team was willing to take a flyer.
“He made a leap of faith going out as a junior from an FCS program. If it didn’t work out, he had nothing,” noted Fleming. “He set his sights and opened up enough eyes. Now he’s on a 53-man roster for the Houston Texans. It’s a helluva story.”
Coulter didn’t make his NFL debut last Thursday night as Houston kicked off the 2020 season against defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City. A neck injury landed him on injured reserve for a minimum of three games. If everything checks out, Coulter could make his NFL debut as soon as Oct. 4 against Minnesota.
Until then, Coulter will have to settle for the distinction that goes with becoming the first Ram to appear on an NFL roster since Tyler Catalina saw time in seven games (two starts) with Washington in 2017.
Murphy, an offensive lineman, and Parker, a wide receiver, had traveled similar paths en route to sticking with their respective NFL clubs after signing as undrafted free agents. Like Coulter, neither Murphy nor Parker had had the opportunity to learn the lay of the NFL landscape through traditional springtime staples such as organized team activities and mandatory minicamp. When training camp opened in late July, they had found themselves needing to get onboard with the program … and fast.
Fortunately, Murphy had turned enough heads with the New York Giants and Parker likewise with the Dallas Cowboys to stick around as part of each team’s 16-person practice squad. To Fleming, there’s a reason why it’s important to mention Murphy and Parker in the same conversation.
“Kyle and Aaron were the first two captains I ever named instead of having a vote because of the leadership capabilities they showed,” said Fleming about an inherent connection that forever links the pair to their time as teammates in Kingston.
Steinmetz was a rock on URI’s offensive line, having started three straight seasons at right tackle before heading to Purdue as a graduate transfer in 2017. At 6-foot-8 and 320 pounds, Steinmetz joined the Washington Football Club on Aug. 22. His first taste of NFL life came in 2018 as a member of the Texans’ practice squad.
A kicker, Rohrwasser recorded 84 points during his two seasons at URI (2015-16) before transferring to Marshall University. His return to the New England region was made possible after the Patriots had selected him in the fifth round of this year’s draft.
“It’s definitely good for our program, for sure,” said Fleming about the wave of former URI players who are currently spreading their wings in the NFL.
Many of the current URI players were eyewitnesses to how Murphy, Parker, and Coulter had conducted themselves and what had awaited each of them on the other side of the rainbow.
“Every kid has a dream to be able to get paid to play this game,” said Fleming. “I continue to point out to the players about the tough road to hoe in order to get there, but those three certainly represent the hard work that it takes. Even then, there’s no guarantees. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re in the midst of the best four years of your life. It doesn’t have to be all about the NFL, but it’s certainly something that helps us as we continue to build the program.”
Expanding further on the recruiting aspect now that the Rams have former foot soldiers stationed in multiple NFL ports, Fleming shared a story about Dwayne Scott, a former three-year starter at center for the Rams, who in 2019 moved on to Boston College as a grad transfer.
“He says he did it for educational reasons, but what he really was saying was, ‘Coach, you’ve got to get the [NFL] scouts here.’ I replied, ‘I’ve got to have the players in order to bring the scouts,’” said the coach. “When you get the players and you get that kind of traffic, it validates the recruiting message that I’ve been preaching since Day 1. Wherever you’re at … if you’re good enough, prepare hard enough, and grind and work, you have a chance to achieve through the University of Rhode Island.
“Until there’s a proven track record, they’re looking at you like you’re a used car salesman,” Fleming added. “Now we have a little bit of a track record where we take kids, develop them, and give them a chance to play.”
Fleming made sure to touch base with Parker, Murphy, and Coulter once it became clear they would be part of the NFL establishment entering the 2020 season.
“Those teams obviously saw enough in those guys to invest in them and keep them around so they can develop,” said Fleming. “The upside for Aaron and Kyle is that they have more time to train. They’ll continue to get better and better. Hopefully they get on the active squad.”
If such a scenario does come to fruition, that will mean the spotlight will shine even more brightly on the college football program from which they came.