2011 spring outlook: With hard-earned mileage, CSU drops lead on accelerator
March 18, 2011
By Zak Gilbert
FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- Six years ago, the average per-gallon price for regular unleaded gas in Fort Collins was $1.98, and St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild was entering a season with a returning starter at quarterback.
The times, oh how they have changed.
Welcome to 2011, where gas prices are expanding faster than a firehose filling a water balloon, and Fairchild, for the first time since St. Louis’ Marc Bulger retook the reins in 2005, begins a season with a returning signal-caller experienced in his offense, and no competition for the starting job.
Bulger in 2004 had passed for 3,964 yards, led St. Louis to a 12-4 record and a division title, and wound up MVP of the Pro Bowl. But that good fortune didn’t last. And since the seventh game of that 2005 season, when injury sidelined Bulger, Fairchild has had to tutor the Rams’ Jamie Martin, the Bills’ J.P. Losman and Trent Edwards, and CSU’s fifth-year seniors Billy Farris (2008) and Grant Stucker (2009), and true freshman Pete Thomas (2010).
Finally, the streak will end this spring with Thomas, who just completed one of the best seasons by a true-freshman starter in Division I history. And, make no mistake, Fairchild’s foot is firmly on the gas.
That’s because there’s another streak the Rams feel is far too long: Two seasons without a bowl. The Rams are hungry, and they know they’re not the only ones.
“Our fans should expect tangible results this year,” Fairchild said. “I knew when I took the job that 2010 might be a difficult year. But I am accountable and I expect us to be in a bowl. I will not allow anyone in this program to expect anything less.”
With expectations clear for everyone, from the campus administration to the equipment manager holding the down-marker at practice this spring, the sense of urgency is everywhere.
First, looking to create a fresh approach and believing that change can be a good thing, he restructured most of his the coaching staff on both sides of the ball. Most notably, he moved Larry Lewis from safeties to running backs coach, and freed up Larry Kerr to serve exclusively as a defensive coordinator. Fairchild then hired a new coach – former two-time national champion Bernard Clark – and gave him Kerr’s prior responsibility of coaching linebackers. Tim Duffie was promoted from cornerbacks coach to defensive secondary coach, while Anthoney Hill moved from running backs to tight ends, and tight ends coach Todd Stroud, a former noseguard at Florida State for Bobby Bowden, transitioned to defensive line.
Second, after reviewing case studies from around the country, he set out to change the defense, vowing to take a more hands-on leadership role on that side, and also changing many of the Rams’ schemes and techniques. CSU already had a 3-4 package it unveiled at least briefly during each game in 2010, but this year, expect to see that deployment more often.
On offense, to give the Rams a boost of new ideas, the team also brought in Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who runs the CSU version of the pro-style offense in San Diego. Rivers, like Pete Thomas, started every game as a true freshman in college, something very rare over the last decade. Several other individuals came to Fort Collins following National Signing Day, including Washington Redskins offensive line coach Chris Foerster, a former CSU assistant, and former CU coach Dan Hawkins.
Third, the coach changed the practice schedule, after gathering feedback on what successful programs have done. As a result, the Rams will practice this spring during weekday mornings, instead of the traditional afternoons. Every player has structured his classload to accommodate the change, which could remain in place this fall.
Finally, Fairchild changed up the format of the program’s offseason conditioning. In years past, players had worked only in their position groups. But this winter, seven tandems of seniors drafted their teams at an offseason meeting, and within those drafted groups, each team competed against other teams for points based on performance at early morning mat drills, academics, treatment for injuries, weightlifting and commitment to the Rams’ community service initiative, with the senior leaders keeping their teammates accountable. CSU, believed to be the only school in the nation that involves 100 percent of its players in community service, launched the 2011 initiative at several locations in Northern Colorado during February and March.
Humbled by disappointing finishes each of the last two years, the Rams took their wheels into the shop, and after a serious tuneup, they’ve emerged ready to create better memories. Now comes spring ball. Let the depth-chart competition begin.
Perhaps the team’s most entertaining position battle will come at running back, where the Rams have operated a starter-by-committee system over the past two seasons, partly because no individual stepped forward like Gartrell Johnson in 2008 to take command of the position. This spring, senior Raymond Carter and sophomore Chris Nwoke represent the team’s only RBs with starting experience (all of which came last season), but don’t count out darkhorse Derek Good.
At wideout, Marquise Law, T.J. and Bobby Borcky, Matt Yemm and Thomas Coffman – the team’s fastest offensive player -- vie for a starting role opposite incumbent Lou Greenwood, while three players will compete for the starting role at tight end: Ben Tedford, Cameron Moss and Jameson Gann. Joe Capriolglio, one of the four returning starters on the offensive line, will shift from guard to his natural tackle position, opening up a competition at strong-side guard between senior toiler Josh Tashiro, redshirt freshman Alex Tucci and sophomore Jordan Gragert, the most experienced of the trio.
On defense, the biggest question mark is at free safety, where the Rams opted to shift starter Elijah-Blu Smith back to his natural position, cornerback, prior to his senior year. Talented redshirt freshman Austin Gray, who signed out of high school as a wide receiver, has impressed coaches enough to earn the top spot on the depth chart entering spring. He’ll battle Ezra Thompson and Immanuel Mitchell for playing time at that position.
Also, CSU lost its two starting defensive tackles, including first-team all-conference performer Guy Miller. Nuku Latu, a senior, is an ironman much like Miller, and will slide into the top role at Miller’s nose tackle spot, but the neighboring post will feature a battle between now-healthy Zach Tiedgen, redshirt freshman John Froland and junior-college transfer Colton Paulhus.
No longer on roster
The bad news, though, is graduation devastated the skill positions. Gone are a four-year starter at fullback (Zac Pauga) and a three-year starter at tight end (Eric Peitz), as well as the team’s leading receiver and team captain (Tyson Liggett). Also gone is leading rusher Leonard Mason, whose flashes of success seemed to parallel those of the team over the last two years.
To combat those losses, and to enhance its identity as a smash-mouth, downhill running team, CSU made some intriguing offseason position moves. Most notably, the Rams completely made over their fullback position, a key cog in the overall offense.
In addition to the constant threat of simply stuffing the ball down opponent’s throats, Fairchild and offensive coordinator Pat Meyer have some interesting weapons that will diversity their attack, specifically Raymond Carter and Lou Greenwood, who are virtually interchangeable as receivers and ball-carriers.
Quarterback: For the first time in four springs, the Rams will hear a familiar voice (Thomas) calling the cadence, and that’s big. But nothing worthwhile comes without a price. The Rams’ price for returning a starting quarterback is depth, or lack thereof. After the 2010 season, fellow freshman Nico Ranieri opted to transfer for a better opportunity to play. Meanwhile, senior-to-be Klay Kubiak opted to graduate early and get a jump on a career in education. Developing that depth will be a primary goal of spring practice.
The good news is that Thomas wasn’t the only quarterback in an outstanding 2010 signing class. CSU also landed in 2010 Garrett Grayson, the No. 22-ranked all-purpose quarterback in the country after the ’09 prep season. Grayson opted to grayshirt the 2010 campaign, and enrolled in January, to create separation between him and Thomas. Grayson isn’t a traditional drop-back passer, and offers CSU more of a mobile threat.
Junior M.J. McPeek, who put on 20 pounds in the team’s offseason workout program and begins spring weighing in at 244, has taken the most practice snaps of the remaining QBs on the Rams’ roster. McPeek, who walked on at Kansas State as a true freshman, then transferred to CSU and his home state, is a 6-foot-4 pocket passer.
In the fall, the Rams’ depth will improve, with the addition of true freshman Conner Smith (6-5, 220) from the Houston area.
While depth is a security, Thomas is the Rams’ reality, and everyone knows who owns the keys to the ignition. The nation’s only true freshman to start all of his team’s 2010 games at quarterback, he broke the overall CSU single-season record with a .647 completion percentage, one of the highest marks ever recorded by a true freshman at the FBS level. He threw for 2,662 yards and 11 touchdowns on 253-of-391 passing, with 13 interceptions.
Running back: Graduation did a number on the Rams’ backfield, claiming leading rusher Leonard Mason and dependable John Mosure, not to mention starting fullback Zac Pauga. Until a dazzling crop of backs is on campus this summer, the Rams will need to get through the spring with just three primary players, but each offers his own unique skill set.
Raymond Carter, a versatile senior from Los Angeles, is the leader of the group. The UCLA transfer, a four-star prospect out of Crenshaw High School in 2007, saw his first CSU games last fall after sitting out the 2009 season. Carter battled injury in 2010, but is healthy entering the spring. Last year, Carter proved himself dangerous out of the backfield and as a pass receiver. In the Rams’ first win, Sept. 25 vs. Idaho, he became only the second CSU player to top 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving in the same contest (Lawrence McCutcheon did it twice in 1970).
Derek Good might be one of the more remarkable stories in the Mountain West this season. After joining the Rams as a walkon from nearby Berthoud, Colo., his work ethic put him on CSU’s special teams in 2008, when he earned the first of three letters. Good has overcome several trials, including the death of his dad, and is poised to take off in 2011. He made a name for himself as an explosive kickoff returner last season, setting the MWC single-game record with 263 yards against Air Force, and leading the nation at one point. This year, the quick, slashing senior’s goal is to show coaches he can start as a tailback.
Chris Nwoke, a 6-0, 214-pound sophomore from Highlands Ranch, Colo., is the team’s power back. His 357 rushing yards in 2010 were the most by a CSU freshman in 11 years. A starter in three games last year, Nwoke (WOH-kay) provides a nice combination of speed and strength.
Dorian Brown is also a unique story. One of the nation’s most highly recruited tailbacks following his junior year in Loveland, Colo., he tore a knee ligament on the eve of his senior season. After graduating one semester early, like Thomas a year ago, he enrolled at CSU ahead of other members of his signing class and will go through spring ball as a true freshman. Fairchild hopes Brown’s spring will operate much like that of Kory Sperry in 2008. Sperry, now in his third NFL season, came off a season-ending knee injury and wore a no-contact jersey throughout his senior spring, but still went through most of the plays.
Fullback: Losing Pauga, a four-year starter and one of the team’s leading receivers in 2009 and ’10, will hurt, so much so that the Rams opted to change the makeup of personnel at his position.
They shifted career lineman Scott Carter into the backfield and paired with him extremely athletic redshirt freshman Kivon Cartwright. Along with explosive sophomore Joe Brown, if the changes work the way the Rams hope, the fullback spot could create matchup issues for opposing defensive coordinators. Of the three, Brown is the most similar to Pauga, and has a prime opportunity to start at the position, unique to the Rams’ pro-style set, something not a lot of defenses see with the proliferation of spread offenses.
Cartwright, like Brown, was injured as a high-school senior, and earned a scholarship largely on his potential. Look for Cartwright to line up all over the field, behind the quarterback as a lead blocker or pass catcher, on the line as a tight end, or split wide as a 6-foot-4, 226-pound target.
Scott Carter also is a noteworthy story. After joining the Rams as a walk-on and playing defensive line in 2007 and ‘08, he’s toiled on the offensive line over the past two years. Now, entering his senior season, the veteran has dropped a little weight and will line up as a 279-pound lead blocker.
Both the running back and fullback spots also have a new coach this year. Associate head coach Larry Lewis also carries the responsibility of coaching the fullbacks. In past years, the tight ends coach has tutored fullbacks, because the positions were fairly interchangeable.
Wide receiver: The Rams lost their leading pass-catcher in Tyson Liggett (41 receptions) but they return their most dangerous threat in starter Lou Greenwood, a converted running back that led the team with 474 receiving yards a year ago, including three catches of 43-plus yards. The versatile athlete can line up split wide or in the slot, and will again make a handful of appearances in the backfield.
Opposite Greenwood, at the “Z,” expect an all-out fight between Marquise Law, an inexperienced junior with prototype size, senior T.J. Borcky, a former quarterback, his sophomore brother Bobby, and former safety Jarrad McKay.
But the best off-the-radar candidate is Thomas Coffman, an explosive wideout from Austin, Texas, who reminds many of Wes Welker. Coffman (4.39) recorded the team’s second-fastest time in offseason 40-yard dash testing, an encouraging sign after an August knee injury sidelined him for several weeks, leading coaches to redshirt him as a true freshman.
Tight end: Like fullback, the Rams also lost a big contributor at tight end, with the graduation of three-year starter Eric Peitz. The starter entering the spring is Ben Tedford, who converted to tight end early in the 2010 season. The godson of the late Keli McGregor, an All-American tight end at CSU in 1984, Tedford wears McGregor’s number, 88.
The darkhorse is Cameron Moss, who once his knee is healthy figures to give the Rams a speedy, athletic threat in the passing game they haven’t had since Kory Sperry helped them win the New Mexico Bowl in 2008.
Behind Moss is big Jameson Gann, who actually signed with the Rams in 2006 out of Chaparral High School in Parker, Colo. The sophomore is 23 years old after completing his two-year Mormon mission.
While they lack experience at tight end, they certainly don’t lack size. Tedford is 6-6, 254, Moss is 6-5, 245, and Gann is 6-5, 244. Also look for Jade Pender, a 6-6, 222-pound freshman from Castle Rock, Colo., who transferred to CSU from Texas San-Antonio. Recruited to UTSA by former Miami (Fla.) coach Larry Coker, Pender can’t play in games until Fall 2012 per NCAA rules, but he will practice with the Rams beginning this spring.
Offensive line: For the second time in three years, the Rams return four starters on their offensive line. The last time that happened, in 2009, all four signed NFL contracts the following spring. But the difference between this year and 2009, when four of those returning starters were seniors, is youth. Only two of the four returning starters are seniors, Jake Gdowski and all-conference tackle Paul Madsen.
One of the other two, the center, is fresh off a freshman All-American campaign, sophomore Weston Richburg. The other is junior Joe Caprioglio, a guard last year that will shift over to his natural position, tackle, in place of graduated Mark Starr.
While Pete Thomas is critical to the offense once it’s in motion, Richburg supplies the spark to move the pistons. A first-team Freshman All-America center (Phil Steele, CollegeFootballNews.com) and honorable-mention all-Mountain West Conference, he started all 12 games for the Rams, the first three at guard and the final nine at center. Richburg, up 10 pounds to 302 entering the spring, did not have a bad snap all season and allowed only one sack all year, and no other pressures. He posted a team-high 54 knockdown blocks and also led the team with 22 outstanding efforts and 12 "Meyer mauls," the coveted game-film award distributed by offensive coordinator/line coach Pat Meyer. The Rams ask a lot of their center, but they have great confidence in Richburg. Few other players carry more respect in the CSU locker room than the sophomore from Bushland, Texas.
Overall on both sides of the ball, the Rams struggled last year, but one silver lining was the experience they gained. And on the offensive line, Meyer took some fortuitous steps in 2010 to build depth, getting Jordan Gragert, Justin Becker, Connor Smith, Brandon Haynes and Jared Biard playing time, using either seven or eight players on the line in every game. The dividends, he hopes, will begin to pay off this year. Gragert enters spring as a starting guard. Adding to the team’s depth, senior Tyler McDermott started the season’s first three games at center.
That speed also should fit well in the team’s 3-4 look, which it figures to deploy several times each game, in addition to the base 4-3 defense. The Rams also have changed their technique, to better complement that speed.
The team has a big void in the middle of its line, where both tackles graduated, and at free safety, where CSU has little experience. But everywhere else, the Rams have filled holes with talented and seasoned personnel.
The only position on the defensive side of the ball with a starting candidate that lacks starting experience is strong-side linebacker. That’s where the Rams will count on Mike Orakpo, younger brother of Lombardi winner, All-American and first-round selection Brian Orakpo. CSU’s Orakpo played all 12 games last year as a backup outside linebacker, and delivered the hit of the year, a helmet-popping blast against UNLV, an instant SportsCenter highlight.
Officially, six starters return: DE C.J. James, DE Broderick Sargent, LB Mychal Sisson, CB Elijah-Blu Smith, CB Shaq Bell and SS Ivory Herd. But that group doesn’t include CB Momo Thomas, whose early season shoulder injury ended his 2010 campaign before it got off the ground, LB Michael Kawulok, who started the final two 2010 games as well as the first eight in 2009, DE Davis Burl, who got the nod in seven 2010 contests, or DT Zach Tiedgen, who started seven straight games as a redshirt freshman in 2009 before injury erased his sophomore year. All told, 13 players with starting experience are available on defense for the Rams, including a veteran at defensive tackle in Nuku Latu (37 games, two starts).
The coordinator remains the same in Larry Kerr, but every coach on the defensive side of the ball is either new to the program (linebackers coach Bernard Clark), new to his position responsibilities (former college nose guard Todd Stroud, defensive line) or has expanded duty (secondary coach Tim Duffie, who coached only cornerbacks last year). Additionally, Kerr is free to focus on the defense as a whole, and isn’t tied down to a position. He coached linebackers previously, on top of coordinator responsibilities.
Defensive line: At first glance, the Rams appear to have a gaping hole in the middle of their line, where graduation claimed two-year starter Ty Whittier and first-team all-conference nose tackle Guy Miller. But enter junior Zach Tiedgen, a former defensive end that has added 26 pounds and enters the spring as the starter at defensive tackle. As a redshirt freshman in 2009, Tiedgen played in 11 games, including seven straight starts on the edge, before a spring knee injury shelved him for the 2010 season.
Next to Tiedgen will be Nuku Latu, a 6-2, 300-pound senior from Mesa, Ariz., that hasn’t missed a game since he redshirted as a true freshman, having played in 37 straight on the defensive line, including two starts.
The Rams return both starters at end, all-conference candidate Broderick Sargent and ready-to-launch C.J. James, and three total ends with significant starting experience, including Davis Burl, the former defensive back that started much of the 2010 season opposite Sargent.
Watch out for John Froland, a 6-5, 260-pound redshirt freshman tackle from Snohomish, Wash., rated by Rivals.com the No. 9 overall prospect from his state, and No. 60 tackle in the nation after his senior year. Also battling for playing time at tackle will be newcomer Colton Paulhus, a high-motor junior-college transfer with exceptional strength. Rounding out what figures to be a deep rotation are Nordly Capi and former tight end Crockett Gillmore – who both played as true freshmen in 2010 -- and end Charles Green, a redshirt freshman. Sophomores Curtis Wilson and Te’Jay Brown will jockey for position behind Latu.
Linebacker: If the season started in March, CSU would line up with three “Mike” linebackers.
And if the Rams are to enjoy any level of renaissance in 2011, the edge of their spear will be Mychal Sisson. Sisson is one of the most unique players in the college game, because he somehow stuffs an unbelievable amount of intelligence, striking ability, production and a well-known knack for making game-changing plays into a 5-foot-11, 207-pound body. Fairchild and every coach, on both sides of the ball – and both sides of the field for that matter --knows that if Sisson can have his best year as a senior, somehow improving on an exceptional first three seasons, big things are in store for the Rams.
An All-America candidate, Sisson led the nation in forced fumbles last year and ranks among the country’s active leaders in career tackles for loss. With the graduation of Ricky Brewer, Sisson moves back to the weakside, a launching pad for the Rams’ best defensive player. In the season-opener at New Mexico Sept. 3, the fourth-year starter will become only the 14th CSU player to reach 300 career tackles, and should finish among the school’s all-time top five.
Another senior, Michael Kawulok, returns to the middle. Kawulok, who hails from CU’s back yard in Boulder, has started at least one game in each of his first three seasons, including eight as a sophomore and the Rams’ final two contests as a junior, when he replaced an injured Alex Williams, who graduated.
And keep an eye on Mike Orakpo, No. 1 on the depth chart at strong-side linebacker. While he didn’t start last year, he played every game as a true freshman, and earned ESPN time after a resounding hit on UNLV’s Tim Cornett. The brother of the Washington Redskins’ Brian Orakpo, the CSU linebacker also is out to distance himself from his brother’s shadow, making his own name.
Fairchild singled out Sisson and Orakpo as standouts during the team’s offseason mat drills. Those two are expected to make up for the loss of graduated Ricky Brewer.
Behind the three starters is versatile junior James Skelton, who has started four games and played in all 24 over the past two years. He’ll line up behind Kawulok to start the spring, but Skelton has played all three positions. Don’t be surprised to see redshirt freshmen Max Morgan and Eric Niederberger turning heads; the duo will battle for backup snaps behind Sisson on the weak side. Backing up on the other side is Austin Gillmore, Crockett’s older brother.
The group also has a new position coach in Bernard Clark, who won two national championships as a starting linebacker at Miami (Fla.), including Orange Bowl MVP honors when he helped the Hurricanes knock off top-ranked Oklahoma in 1987.
Secondary: With Elijah-Blu Smith shifting from safety to his natural position, CSU is deeper at cornerback than at any time in recent memory. Smith (24), Momo Thomas (21) and Thomas’ former Kissimmee Osceola High School teammate Shaq Bell (9) combine for 54 career starts. What’s more, after the MWC granted a medical hardship waiver to Thomas, preserving his final two years of eligibility, Smith is the only senior in the group. Bell played every game as a true freshman in 2010.
Adding depth is junior Dominique Vinson, who saw plenty of action last season as a JC transfer, and redshirt freshman Bernard Blake, the team’s fastest player (4.37-second 40-yard dash). Blake likely would’ve played as a true freshman in 2010 if not for an August leg injury that set him back several weeks.
Smith’s former position, free safety, is up for grabs beginning this spring. The initial contenders are redshirt freshman Austin Gray, a former wide receiver, sophomore Ezra Thompson, who started three games last season, and former cornerback Immanuel Mitchell.
Senior Ivory Herd returns as the Rams’ dependable strong safety. Since Klint Kubiak’s season-ending injury midway through 2009, Herd has started 17 of the Rams’ last 18 games at the position, including all 12 last season. Newcomer Drew Reilly, a 21-year-old true freshman after completing his two-year LDS mission, will push Herd for playing time, along with redshirt freshman Najee James from Orlando, Fla.
DeLine, who handled placement duties the first half of his true freshman season for an injured Jason Smith, enters his final year needing 20 field goals to become CSU’s all-time career leader. A 74.4-percent field-goal kicker, he’s also in range of Smith’s school record for accuracy (.776). And, with 146 career points, DeLine should leave a legacy on that list as well.
Kontodiakos, the Mountain West’s second-team all-conference punter in 2010, is riding a positive career slope. After battling consistency issues as a true freshman, he seemed to put everything together last season. But everyone seems to agree, his best days are still ahead. As a sophomore, the Florida product finished with a 37.6-yard net punting average, up from 32.3 as a true freshman. He also improved his gross average from 40.9 in 2009 to 43.7 in 2010, and his 17 punts inside the 20 were the most by a CSU punter since all-conference selection Jimmie Kaylor had 19 in 2007.
Hedstrom handled both short- and long-snapping duty over the season’s final seven and-a-half games last year, replacing NFL prospect Scott Albritton, who sustained a season-ending knee injury against No. 5 TCU Oct. 2.
The return game also should be in good hands, as the Rams return both Good and Drake. After becoming the nation's leading kickoff returner midway through his junior season, Good went on to post a 25.8-yard average, seventh in CSU history and among the nation's top 40 in 2010. He burst onto the scene at No. 25 Air Force last season, establishing an MWC single-game record with 263 kickoff-return yards, on eight attempts (32.9 avg.), breaking the mark set by Drake four weeks earlier. Good nearly scored on a second-quarter return that set up a CSU touchdown and went for 70 yards.
The savvy Thomas figures to retake his role as the Rams’ deep man on punt returns. Until a shoulder injury ended his season, he was averaging 11.4 yards on seven returns.