2010 football outlook: Rams open spring practice Thursday
March 22, 2010
By Zak Gilbert
FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- On Dec. 11, before players began final exams and on one of the rare days he wasn’t out of town recruiting, Steve Fairchild held his last team meeting of the 2009 season.
Like a cloudless, low-humidity day in Colorado, he could not have been more clear.
“We will evaluate everything,” Fairchild told a room without seniors, “every aspect of this program, every decision we made last year, and every individual – including myself – and things will change. Let me be perfectly clear, we will get this straightened out.
“We will not settle for another 3-9. It will not happen again.”
And with that, in the Times Square of CSU football, the ball dropped and a new year began.
Fairchild and his staff proceeded to finalize CSU’s highest-rated recruiting class since Rivals.com began its annual rankings, and players returned Jan. 19 to begin their offseason conditioning and year-long quest for the Mountain West Conference championship.
Front and center in both the recruiting class and the offseason conditioning program was true freshman Pete Thomas. The Signing Day headliner and the catalyst in an explosion of excitement within the Rams’ fanbase, Thomas had already graduated from Valhalla High School in El Cajon, Calif., and enrolled at CSU, so he could immediately begin competing for the Rams’ starting job in spring practice.
Those spring drills will kick off the third year of Steve Fairchild’s tenure as head coach in 2010. The team exceeded preseason expectations in Year 1, when the Rams registered their first winning season in five years behind conference rushing champion and NFL Draft selection Gartrell Johnson. The Rams fell short of expectations in Year 2, when they opened 3-0 and were earning votes in both major polls before injuries and a brutal conference-opening schedule sent them on the road to a disappointing finish.
So if the Rams surpassed expectations in Year 1, then fell short in Year 2, what are expectations for Year 3?
“For the first three years of our program,” Fairchild said, “all I’m interested in is, ‘Are we getting better?’. We’ll have our first spring practice here March 25 and from that point on, we’ve got to take every opportunity we have on the field to improve. That’s what we did in ’08. I don’t know that we did that in ’09 as effectively. As long as we keep taking steps, and keep improving, I’ll be satisfied.
“Eventually we’ve got to beat one of the elite teams in the league. I just think the last two years, just like this upcoming year, we knew we were going to have to scratch and claw and do everything we can to compete and find a way to win close games.”
Winning those close games, something in which the Rams excelled in 2008, eluded their grasp in 2009, when CSU lost four contests by a touchdown or less. The Rams are intent on returning to their winning ways in that category.
“We just need one more stop, defensively, a couple times, and one more play, offensively, a couple times, and we just didn’t get that last year,” Fairchild said. “You can search forever to determine why you’re not getting those plays, but the only way I know how to get them is to go at and practice at such a fevered pace so we get them consistently on the practice field, and once we do that, they’ll transfer into games.”
Defense, where all but two starters return, doesn’t present as many personnel questions. And that experience is one of the many positives the Rams can build upon in rising from a 3-9 campaign.
“We had a lot of guys who got playing time, because of various injuries here and there,” Fairchild said. “A lot of guys got a chance to play. Therefore, we have some guys coming back this year who have been on the field a lot, so that’s a positive. It reaffirms how close 3-9 and 9-3 are. It gives us some motivation to finish games in better fashion. It’s been a very good motivating factor in our offseason program.”
That offseason program for the first time has members of the Class of 2009, the first class he and his staff signed after a full year’s efforts. Officially, Fairchild signed his first recruiting class in February 2008, less than two months after returning to Fort Collins. This spring, those classes will be on the field competing against each other for the first time, and coaches are excited that they finally have the opportunity to see the fruits of their recruiting labor.
“We’ve obviously got some good, young talent in the program now,” Fairchild said. “I’ve always viewed this as a multi-year building process. This season is another great opportunity to get better, continue to improve our program. As long as we’re getting better, I’m quite confident we will get to the top of the Mountain West Conference.”
As early as this season, the Rams’ backfield could have a pair of players who were four-star athletes coming out of high school in Thomas and UCLA transfer Raymond Carter.
Quarterback: Most eyes, those of coaches and fans alike, will be on the quarterback position when the first whistle blows at spring practice March 25. Always vowing to start the player that gave the Rams the best chance to win, Fairchild in each of his first two seasons went with a fifth-year senior.
But things could be different this year. For the first time since Caleb Hanie in 2006, the Rams could start an underclassman under center, and for the first time since Hanie in 2004, that QB could be a freshman. That player could be 2007 Central Frorida Player of the Year Nico Ranieri, a redshirt freshman this year, or it could be Thomas. Or, the Rams could go with senior Jon Eastman, a JC transfer in 2009 who started one game last season. The other candidates are juniors T.J. Borcky, a part-time wide receiver, and Klay Kubiak, who looks to rebound from October shoulder surgery.
“In the offseason,” Fairchild said, “our goal with Pete is to get him to the point where he will have a chance to compete. It is a very complex position, and he is fresh out of high school, so with relatively no experience, we’re going to try to put him in a position where he can compete for the starting job this spring. We’ve got some good, young talent at that spot, just like a lot of spots, and eventually we’re going to be pretty good there, but we’re going to have to develop in a hurry.”
Borcky will begin the spring as a quarterback, but don’t be surprised to see him back at receiver, a position he volunteered to play in 2008, in the future.
Running back: Whoever emerges as the CSU signal-caller, behind him will be one of the deepest backfields in the nation.
The Rams return 92 percent of their rushing yards, including the accumulations of leading ground gainer Leonard Mason (766 yards in ‘09), primary starter John Mosure (650) and Lou Greenwood (147), whose talent led coaches to play him as a true freshman in 2009. Add to that trio UCLA transfer Raymond Carter, a speedy junior eligible after sitting out ’09, and redshirt freshman bulldozer Chris Nwoke, and CSU’s rushing attack is among the most formidable in the Mountain West.
“We’re always going to try to be a power-running type of football team,” Fairchild said. “We’ll see how that plays out, whether we employ more of a committee or give it to one guy. If somebody like Gartrell two years ago takes a lead role, he’ll be our go-to guy. With Kyle Bell (in 2008), I never thought that would happen heading into that season, but Gartrell took it. That could certainly be the case again this year, because he was really hot that year, but we’ll see how it unfolds.”
Wide receiver: While the Rams return everyone at running back, they lost both starters and 1,227 of their yards at wide receiver. Decimated by graduation, if the Rams can achieve production at the position in 2010, it will be a remarkable surprise because the group has a combined six career starts, five by 5-foot-9 walk-on Tyson Liggett, and one by Borcky, who split his time at quarterback last season.
Among those who will begin the spring full-time at the position, everyone other than Borcky, the group has just 27 career catches, Liggett’s 20, Matt Yemm’s five and Byron Steele’s two.
A former prep quarterback, Liggett already owns a playmaker reputation on the coaching staff, after making a splash during the 2009 season, when he went off for 156 yards on 11 receptions against BYU and against SDSU made one of the more spectacular plays of the year when he caught a one-handed pass from Grant Stucker then weaved through defenders for a 40-yard touchdown. A senior, Liggett enters the spring as a leader at the position.
Sophomore Byron Steele will open spring opposite Liggett at the top of the depth chart. But keep an eye on a pair of redshirt freshmen, blistering-fast Vernon Scott and walk-on Chris Robinson. Sophomore Marquise Law and senior Jyrone Hickman also will get opportunities at the position. At 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-4, respectively, Steele and Law provide the team with prototype receivers who are not only fast, but tall enough to make tough catches over defenders. Hickman is the cousin of NFL Pro Bowler Anquan Boldin, now with the Baltimore Ravens.
And, if the need arises once fall arrives, the Rams won’t hesitate to use one of several immensely talented wideouts from their recruiting class of 2010.
Tight end/fullback: The Rams have dominated in the run game the past two seasons, despite changing starting tailbacks. The one constant has been lead blocker Zac Pauga, a senior fullback and captain-to-be in 2010. And in addition to his highly trusted blocking assignments, Pauga last season saw more of something than ever before – the ball. He averaged 3.7 yards on the first 15 carries of his career, in addition to his 25 catches (tied for second on the team and most among returning players) for 219 yards and three TDs, all career bests.
At tight end, the Rams are equally secure with Peitz, who opens spring at 100 percent after a Week 9 shoulder injury truncated his 2009 campaign. Plus, three talented redshirt freshmen – Matt Weems, Joe Brown and Cameron Moss – led coaches to move senior Adam Seymore from tight end to defensive line.
Offensive line: In 2009, the Rams had the deepest offensive line in the country, with four senior starters. In 2010, they have one of the most inexperienced.
First, the good news: Guard Shelley Smith, likely a mid-late-round selection in next month’s NFL Draft, sustained a high-ankle sprain on the eve of the 2009 season. That opened the door for Jake Gdowski, a junior this year, to start the season’s first four games in Smith’s place, helping the Rams to a 3-1 record. Gdowski should fill one of the four voids on the CSU line.
That leaves only two positions whose candidates have little or no starting experience. At center, junior Tyler McDermott will get the first reps, while at strongside guard, senior Ryan Griffith – a converted tackle – and senior Connor Smith, a transfer from Northwestern, will get the initial looks with the first team.
“I like our young offensive line,” Fairchild said, “but there’s not a lot of experience there right now, so we’re going to have to develop in a hurry.”
“We took a step that first year (2008),” Fairchild said, “and if you look at the beginning of last year we took another step up, and then with injuries we couldn’t sustain it. But I’d like to think that we will another step forward there on that side of the ball. We’ve got a lot of experience on defense.”
CSU lost only two starters on defense, DT James Morehead and CB Nick Oppenneer. The Rams return 82 percent of their 2009 tackles, 85 percent of tackles for loss, 83 percent of their sacks, 100 percent of their forced fumbles and 88 percent of their fumble recoveries.
And like running back, the Rams add to an already loaded area with a talented player sidelined in 2009: Ricky Brewer, a legitimate NFL prospect who was an all-conference linebacker and CSU’s leading tackler in 2008 before a year-long suspension.
Defensive line: Several seniors, complemented by richly talented underclassmen, will give the Rams a solid defensive front in 2010. Cory Macon and Guy Miller return to their respective starting roles, at defensive end and nose tackle. Senior Ty Whittier, a versatile veteran who has started on both the inside and outside of the line, moves back inside to open the spring and will compete with Nuku Latu at the spot vacated by Morehead. Junior Eugene Daniels will get the first look at Whittier’s old spot, right defensive end.
But count on sophomore C.J. James, who played as a true freshman and flashed enormous potential in 2009, and redshirt freshmen Curtis Wilson and Te’Jay Brown to see plenty of reps and push, if not supplant, the starters. Also, keep an eye on sophomore tackle Ben Tedford and a pair of converted offensive players, former tight ends Seymore and Broderick Sargent. Once fall opens, sophomore Zach Tiedgen, a seven-game starter in 2009 slowed by a shoulder injury this spring, will be back in the rotation.
Linebacker: Since he was a freshman All-American in 2008, Mychal Sisson has slowly cemented himself as one of the most exciting defensive players in the Mountain West. Now, entering his junior year, the second-team all-conference selection in poised to reach previously unattainable heights.
Sisson replaced Brewer in 2009 at the playmaking weakside position and now stands just 116 tackles from the program’s career top 10. After welcoming back Brewer, defensive coordinator Larry Kerr will open the spring with Sisson penciled in to remain on the weak side and Brewer to open on the strong side, where he starred as a redshirt freshman in 2007 before flipping sides in ’08. But that could change.
Alex Williams, who played through injuries to both knees in ’09, returns to full health to reclaim his starting middle linebacker role. Meanwhile, three players who picked up invaluable starting experience as redshirt freshmen last year, Davis Burl, James Skelton and Chris Gipson, figure only to improve as sophomores. Sophomore Andy Clements and redshirt freshman Cam Loughery also will see plenty of reps.
Defensive secondary: CSU struggled on defense in 2009, primarily due to injury, but the silver lining in those injuries was the playing time they allotted to several youngsters, especially in the secondary.
Two of those players, junior strong safety Ivory Herd and senior cornerback DeAngelo Wilkinson, will depend on the foundation they laid as injury replacements in the Rams’ lineup last year when they open spring as starters for the first time. Senior safety Travis Ford and sophomore cornerback Marcus Shaw also saw valuable time in filling injury voids last season.
Free safety Elijah-Blu Smith, a consistent spark for the Rams since he replaced an injured Klint Kubiak midway through the ’08 season, figures to emerge as a leader during his junior season. For the first time since their days at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, Smith will be on the same field with Raymond Carter, whom Smith helped recruit last summer.
Momo Thomas, another gifted playmaker, returns to start opposite Wilkinson at left corner. Also watch for talented redshirt freshmen cornerbacks Immanuel Mitchell and Dru Taylor, and safety Ezra Thompson to ascend and compete for playing time. Grayshirt freshman Mike Orakpo will also battle for reps at safety.
The Rams have plenty of confidence in Ben DeLine’s placekicking. In his first full season as the team’s primary kicker last year, DeLine hit 12-of-16 field goals, including 4-of-5 from 40-plus yards. He struggled, however, on his kickoffs and midway through ’09, CSU brought in walk-on Chad VanderMolen to serve as a kickoff specialist. Special teams coordinator Larry Lewis is prepared to enter 2010 with DeLine and VanderMolen in the same roles.
Lewis is not prepared, however, to list anyone as a kickoff and punt returner this early in the football year, because there are simply too many candidates entering spring.
For the third straight year, the Rams enter a season confident in their long-snapper, Scott Albritton, now a senior. And WR Matt Yemm, a quarterback at Fort Collins High School, returns to his holding duties for placements.
But realistically, Fairchild knows the team still has a lot of work to do. And one thing’s certain, CSU will definitely put in the work.
“No one should ever question our work ethic as long as I’m here,” he said. “There’s some inexperience at certain spots, still, but I see us taking steps. Every time we do something, every time we recruit, every time we go through spring ball, eventually it’s going to come together. I hope it’s in 2010, but if not, I know we’re doing the right things, and we will get there.”
Returning statistical leaders
* — led team in 2009
Starters Returning (14)
Others Returning with Significant Starting Experience (8)
Lettermen returning (41)
Offense (13): QB/WR T.J. Borcky, OL Scott Carter, G Jake Gdowski, RB Derek Good, RB Lou Greenwood, WR Tyson Liggett, T Paul Madsen, RB Leonard Mason, RB John Mosure, FB Zac Pauga, TE Eric Peitz, T Mark Starr, WR Matt Yemm.
Defense (24): LB Davis Burl, DE Eugene Daniels, S Travis Ford, LB Chris Gipson, S Ivory Herd, DE C.J. James, LB Michael Kawulok, DT Nuku Latu, DE Cory Macon, S Jarrad McKay, NG Guy Miller, CB Brandon Owens, DE Broderick Sargent, DT Adam Seymore, CB Marcus Shaw, LB Mychal Sisson, LB James Skelton, S Elijah-Blu Smith, CB Momo Thomas, DE Zach Tiedgen, DE Ty Whittier, CB DeAngelo Wilkinson, LB Alex Williams, DB Scott Zick. Specialists (4): LS Scott Albritton, K Ben DeLine, P Pete Kontodiakos, K Chad VanderMolen.
Starters Lost (9)
Key Specialists Lost (1) — KR Dion Morton.
Others Lost with Significant Starting Experience (1)
Lettermen lost (16)
Specialists (1): KR Dion Morton.