CSU football notes: Thomas out to cut down on sacks as spring begins
March 23, 2011
By Zak Gilbert
FORT COLLINS, Colo. – Pete Thomas, who kicks off his second spring when the Rams open practice Thursday morning, established some pretty lofty numbers for a true freshman in 2010.
The nation’s only true freshman to start each of his team’s games at quarterback, his .647 completion percentage not only was a single-season school record for a player of any class, it also surpassed Peyton Manning’s 1994 mark of .618, before 2010 the highest known percentage ever by a player just out of high school. His 2,662 passing yards were the most ever by a Mountain West freshman.
But while Thomas set the bar fairly high, there’s one number from last season the sophomore feels is far too lofty – 3.67.
That’s the number of sacks per game allowed by the CSU offense a year ago. It ranked 118th at the Division I FBS level, and ranked very high on the cause-and-effect list of items that hounded the CSU offense last year.
“If I don’t take a 10-yard sack,” Thomas said, “we’re in third-and-5 instead of third-and-15. I think I can improve on that.”
And if Thomas and the offensive line, which returns four starters at five positions, can improve on that, the Rams are likely to enjoy more success in converting third downs and scoring touchdowns in the red zone, two areas they’ve also targeted to improve this spring.
The Rams converted only 36.7 percent of their third downs last year, 86th in the nation. They also finished tied for 110th in red-zone scoring percentage (.743). Head Coach Steve Fairchild doesn’t believe in bad luck, and knows that number can increase dramatically with hard work.
“The first year we were pretty good offensively as a third-down team,” said Fairchild, who led his initial CSU team that season to a bowl victory. “That had something to do with the success of how we played that year offensively. It is a critical down and we dropped off offensively.”
Both Thomas and Fairchild attribute much of that dropoff to the quarterback’s inexperience, and both believe it will improve.
“Taking sacks can kill an offense,” Thomas said. “When you don’t take a sack, you can either throw it away or check it down and those are both better than sacks. I feel like with me being more comfortable with the offense now, it’ll give me a better opportunity to either check the ball down or throw it away. Last year, I was kind of going back and forth between reads. Now, with how comfortable I am with our offense and other teams’ defenses, I feel like I’ll be able to go through a progression of reads and check the ball down, throw it away or try to get some yards running the ball.”
That comfort level in the Rams’ pro-style offense is big. Thomas said in addition to that comfort level, with more time in practice beginning Thursday, he’ll be better able to trust his offensive line and trust that his receivers will be in the correct spot. He learned quickly last season, sometimes literally the hard way, that he couldn’t extend a play as often as he could at Valhalla High School eight months earlier.
“In high school, I was playing against linebackers smaller than me,” said Thomas. “I think we will get a lot better this spring, which will cut down on sacks and I won’t need to be making a play.”
Before their first practice, the Rams can already chalk up zero sacks of Thomas allowed this spring. Those sacks will need to be of the imaginative variety at least until the fall, and fans worried about the lack of QB experience behind him will sleep much more soundly knowing Fairchild has declared the starter off limits to contact this spring.
“That’s fine with me,” said Thomas, who revealed that he played the entire 2010 season with a slightly separated shoulder. “I think I’ve played enough football in college now where going live in practice would be beneficial. I like doing live. You can say you’re live, but don’t hit the quarterback, but it’s still not really live. But if Coach feels that way, I’ll support him on that one.”
Early to bed, early to rise: One of the major changes Fairchild made following a disappointing finish last season was the weekday practice schedule. No longer are the Rams practicing during the traditional afternoon slot. Following the lead of many successful programs, CSU will practice on weekdays this spring early in the morning. Trainers will begin taping ankles at 6 a.m. Formal drills begin at 7:15 a.m. and the team hopes to be off the field by 9:30 a.m.
But players already have acclimated physically to the change, thanks to the offseason workout program, not to mention functioning in an academic environment with classes later in the day since the start of the semester in January.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal,” Fairchild said. “It’s worked out good so far, with our training. Other than mat drills, we still lift on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, condition, meet and get a lot of things done. So, I don’t think it’s going to be drastically different. I think they like it, at least enough of the players I’ve talked to. I like it in the offseason. We’re still evaluating whether we’re going to do it in the fall or not.”
Fairchild expects to decide by the end of next week whether the Rams will hold morning practices in the fall.
Saturday’s practice is at 1:30 in the afternoon, while Sunday the Rams will don full pads for the first time, and practice at 10 a.m., before returning to the 7:15 a.m. schedule Tuesday.
Team manager helping QBs to manage the game: Thomas and backups M.J. McPeek and Garrett Grayson had a familiar face helping them at voluntary workouts during the offseason. Klay Kubiak, whose father Gary is the head coach of the Houston Texans, is helping the signal-callers before he graduates this spring. Kubiak, who would’ve been a senior this year, opted to graduate early and get a jump start on a teaching career in English. His role is technically as a team manager.
Q&A with HEAD COACH Steve Fairchild
On how ready he is to get spring ball going: “I’m anxious to get started. This is always a very fun time of year because you get done with recruiting and you get to put a lot of time into football and training our players. It is always a good time. I’m anticipating it a little bit more because we got some changes, which I think will help us, and we also got a little more experience across the board than we’ve had in the last couple, three years, which I think will make it fun as well.”
On having a returning QB for the first time in four years: “Yeah, it’s really nice. This time last year was just so hard to take a young man that should be in high school and try to get him ready doing the things we do. The whole time you’re thinking, ‘I’m not sure he can pull this off.’ Likewise, the last two previous years, we had guys that literally had not played college football much. This is nice. Got a guy that’s kind of been down the road, seen a few things, so we can probably do a little bit more in the spring than we’ve done.”
On how to balance Pete Thomas’ learning and getting a backup QB ready: “I think Pete’s ahead of the game. This time last year he had to take every rep just to give him a chance. He certainly doesn’t need to take every rep, so we will gauge it as we go. That competition between Garrett Grayson and M.J. McPeek, we’ll see how that goes. I’d like to get someone in that No. 2 slot as soon as I can because, again, you are dealing with limited reps.”
On how he will divide the reps: “There will be three huddles in some team periods so it will be a third, a third, a third. Then the other periods where we go two huddles, Pete will get half and they’ll split the other half.”
On how much competition Pete Thomas is involved in: “We’ll see. Anything is possible. We always try to tell our football team that the depth chart is very fluid. Within a practice we can make some changes. I just know Pete and knowing the way he works that I think he will be our starting quarterback. But we got a lot of guys competing for a lot of positions. Like we always talk about, even in August, if you’re a wide receiver you aren’t just competing to be one of the top two. You want to get yourself in on packages, the third and the fourth wideout package. Then you want to demonstrate out there that you are a guy we want to get the ball to. That’s almost one of the things that kids have the hardest time realizing. They think they go out to practice and they’re a starter that we are going to design things to get it their way. Where as if a guy really produces, you go out of your way to kind of find a way to get Chris Nwoke the ball and find the things that he does well. Again, the more you get of that, the better it is.”
On whether spring ball is more for teaching or position battles: “I think I want to get to where it is both. Getting back to that position-battle competition thing, we have some very, very talented young offensive linemen but we have four starters coming back. So who’s to say that one of those other guys isn’t better than one of those starters? But now is the time to find that out; now’s the time to find out if we have a third or fourth defensive end. So that’s kind of what this is about. People earn the right to get on the field in the fall, or at least be in our plans in the next 15 practices.”
On position changes other than new CB Elijah-Blu Smith: “I’ve still got some things going through my mind. Looking at it, obviously, we’ve juggled receivers around from one side to the other, but that’s not really a position change. I don’t see a ton of changes in that regard.”
On remaining a 4-3 base defense: “There are still different shades and different ways of playing. There’s different man-type coverages, different zone-type coverages, different techniques in playing a particular shade up front or different techniques in playing man. There is a lot more to it than saying we’re staying in it (a 4-3). There are some four-man front contexts in the NFL or college that are polarized different than other four-man front contexts.”
On how he feels about this team talent-wise: “I think we are better. There is no question that we are a better football team. We are not out of the woods. To be where we need to be, we need to have a couple, three guys that are ready to play at every spot. Our roster has improved, there is no question; but how much and how much farther we got to go, this fall will be a good measuring stick.”
On position battles other than the backup QB: “Well, backup quarterback is one. I think we are solid up front; the thing there is to develop the younger guys. Obviously at tight end, how we play there, who we play there is a particular concern.”
On Joe Brown being in the mix at tight end: “He and Kivon Cartwright are kind of off-set tight ends and how we use them is one of those things that as we develop in the spring we will see. Kivon is a little hurt. How far have Cameron Moss and Ben Tedford come along? That’ll factor into that equation. Tight end is an issue offensively, and how we use the off-set fullback kind of thing.”
On whether a team needs a go-to guy at RB: “I don’t think you do at any level. I think you need good players. But I’d like to have a good receiver that, you know, if they leave him alone and don’t double him up that he’s going to win every time. We got to develop a little bit there.”
On how much Dorian Brown will be used: “He’s going to be a lot like (Kory) Sperry was my first spring. He’s going to have a red jersey on, he’s not going to be in contact, he’s going to work his way into some team things, like 7-on-7.”
On who will have contact during the spring: “We think Kivon Cartwright eventually will have contact in the spring. We think Thomas Coffman’s going to have contact in the spring. We weren’t sure on (Cameron) Moss; we think Moss will eventually have contact in the spring, maybe not that first day or so. Dorian (Brown) you can’t say that. Maybe, maybe not; we’ll see where he’s at.”
On Austin Gray being listed as No. 1 at free safety: “He’s impressed us in some of the things he’s done out there, but that is today. Even taking a guy like Shaq Bell, who has played quite a bit and moving him back over to a safety spot is something we are considering. That’s the biggest concern defensively, how we play at safety, how we develop some of the guys there. Or, do we move some people? We got some running backs that can go over there and do it, too.”
On Shaq Bell: “He’s what we want here at corner. He’s got good speed, he’s got good length, he can tackle, and he’s a competitive guy. The thing is, I wish I was in a spot where you could recruit a Shaq Bell and the Shaq Bell you recruited two years earlier was playing. But I haven’t been here that long, long enough to have enough of that.”
On Jake Gdowski’s shoulder injury: “That doesn’t bother me. It means more reps for the other guys.”
On positions of concern: “Yeah, safety, we’re probably not where we need to be. Tight end. Fullback right now, probably not where we need to be. We’re going to have to develop in certain areas.”
On areas of confidence: “Both of our lines (offense and defense) are where they need to be. For some reason, we got that straightened out quicker than we did at other spots. You look across the board and we’ve got guys that have played, and guys coming up through the system that we think are very good players. So now you let it run its course and continue to recruit. We’re still a little light in some spots.”
On defensive linemen that could help the Rams this year: “I think John Froland could help us. (Nuku) Latu’s in the best shape he’s been in. I think Curtis Wilson and Te’Jay Brown are about ready to give us something. We’ve got a junior-college guy (Colton Paulhus). We’ve got three defensive ends, (Broderick) Sargent, (Davis) Burl, and (C.J.) James that have played. I think Crockett Gillmore is an extremely talented kid. Then, guys like Charles Green and Nordly Capi have a chance.”
On Crockett Gillmore, and potential to move back to tight end: “Yeah, there is a thought on that. I want to evaluate what’s going on (in spring). If we want to be good at any spot, defensive line’s got to take precedent. When we’ve had good teams here, we played better defense and obviously did good up front.”
On Derek Good taking more of a leadership role during the offseason: “Yeah, I let the seniors be captains (during mat drills) and he’s a senior. Derek, every time we’ve asked him to do something, he’s done it very well. He probably should be playing more than we’ve played him and that’s my fault. Very, very good kid; does the right thing. He’s got ability.”
On whether he likes the health of the team: “Yeah, I do, and obviously it creates the level of competition we’re looking for. Now, I’d like in that spring game to do a little more than we did last year. It seemed like with Sonny (Lubick), when we were here before, we always got so nicked up in spring that it was hard to have 10 offensive linemen healthy at the end there. We’ll just see how it goes, but right now, going in, we’re as good as you’d like us to be.”
On when he will decide whether to continue morning practices in the fall: “I don’t have that much time, because of registration. Probably going to look at it and by the end of next week, I’ll have to make up my mind.”
On mat drills and how they went: “I thought we did a nice job; I really did. I think we have some good leadership when you start talking about Mychal Sisson and (Mike) Orakpo and Pete Thomas and Weston Richburg and guys like that, that care. Our true test now is Phase II (spring practice) and prove that we can go out there and not just play hard some of the time, but play hard all of the time.”
On what happened at the end of last season: “You can look back and try to put your finger on a lot of things. We just didn’t play well. There’s no question. But all those things, whether it’s leadership, whether we’re beat up and tired, under-confident, whatever, all those are are excuses. There’s no excuse for going out and not playing hard.”
On many of his leaders being underclassmen: “Yeah, they’re young guys. That’s not to say we don’t have guys like (senior) Paul Madsen. I was just throwing out some names. We’ve got more guys that are out front, doing that type of thing, and that’s what good football teams have.
“Oh it’s great (having leaders that will be around for 3-4 more years), guys that have played, and played well. You take a Weston Richburg, a Freshman All-American, and now he’s going to be around for three more years.”
On talent in the sophomore class: “I don’t know sophomores or juniors per se, but you (reporters) are looking past next year (2011), which I am not doing. I’m just trying to say that next year (2011), there will be more people on the field that have played, more than we’ve had in quite some time. I do do what you, and look down the road, and we’re starting to get to where we’re starting to look like it should. It’s taken time. I know everybody’s frustrated; I am, too. There’s no question we’re recruiting the way we need to recruit here.”
On players and areas he wants to watch closely this spring: “Probably Garrett Grayson and M.J. McPeek. All the questions that we talked about, the safeties, the younger offensive linemen, those defensive tackles we talked about. And, it’s fun; this spring, too, because of all the changes. From a scheme standpoint, just how we align, and from a technique standpoint how we play, and those sort of things. That’ll be interesting as well.”
On potentially moving high-school QB Matt Yemm back to quarterback, and developing depth there: “No. If we had to, we could move T.J. Borcky or Matt Yemm back there, but no plans. But a year from now, the quarterback thing will start to have the depth you need. It’s hard to fix it all in a 20-some-player recruiting class; that’s hard to do. We’re not going to tackle Pete in the spring, I know that.”
On Year 4 being a critical year and what needs to happen: “Success. I’d like to think we’re going to be in a bowl. We’ve obviously got to play better than we have the last two years.”
On seeing players take ownership of that: “Yeah. I think they’re (ticked) off at how we finished up. They, like all of us, thought we were probably better than what we showed last year.”
On areas he’d like to see Pete Thomas grow: “We’re going to be able to expand and do a little bit more in areas we need to improve in, third down, red zone and getting touchdowns. But when you’re dealing with a kid just coming out of high school, you may like a certain play that week against somebody’s defense, but he hasn’t run it, he hasn’t been through a spring ball or two. So we’ll be able to have a little more flexibility with him, just because he’s experienced. He can probably do a little bit more at the line for us, just getting us out of a bad play now and then, directionalizing a run, those types of things.”
On whether Thomas gets more freedom to do that: “Yes. We’ll probably allow him to look to recognize those things. Last year, he had so much on his plate, you wanted him to just learn how to line up in the huddle and figure out what the snap count was, how many steps to take on a dropback, those types of things. Now you can say, when we run this run, in this set, we’ll go away from the secondary rotation, or we’ll go away from the shade of the nose, and he’ll be able to do things like that. He’s a sharp-enough kid to do that.”
On Thomas’ offseason leadership: “Oh, he’s big-time. I think even as the fall went on (last season), our football team realized what he was, how much he brings to the table in that area.”
On his performance in 2010: “When he set that record (MWC yardage by a freshman), it’s not like he was a redshirt freshman; he was a true freshman. I think, he struggled a little last fall, but he’s got a very, very bright future. There’s a lot of things I obviously have to do as a head football coach here, but my upbringing has been coaching quarterbacks and personally I’m excited to see how far we can take him.”
On spring reps for running backs, with just three healthy scholarship players: “I think we owe Derek Good a good, honest look to see if he can’t be in the rotation. I think Chris Nwoke is a very talented young man. I don’t even think Chris knows how good he can be, but he’s a little bit of a raw running back and there are some things that we can do better coaching him, getting him the kind of feeling for his entry points, and finishing runs the way we want and so forth. But Chris has got a huge upside, I mean from a building standpoint; I’m excited to see what he can do.”
On whether CSU will have enough competition at the running back spot: “Yeah, I think we will. And I think a young guy (a true freshman) will have to come in and carry for us as well (in the fall).”
On whether Tony Drake is exclusively a wide receiver: “He could go back (to RB). He gives us a little bit of a luxury in that regard. We’ve still got to figure out what Tony is and how best to use him. And I was very critical of Lou Greenwood early on, that Lou didn’t realize his freshman year that if he would go out there and show it on the practice field, we would probably utilize him more. We probably under-utilized Lou that first year. Tony’s the same way. Tony didn’t practice consistently enough to allow us to get the ball to him all the time. Now, it’s Round 2, and those guys come out in the spring and they start to figure out that if they line up right, and produce, that all of a sudden they’ll start getting a lot more balls coming their way.”
On candidates for CSU’s go-to receiver: “Lou’s got a huge upside; he’s still learning the position, but he’s ready. He could be a go-to guy. He’s got to deal with press coverage and those types of things, but it could be Lou. Byron (Steele) and Marquise Law are both going into their fourth year, redshirt juniors. Marquise has had a tremendous offseason. They’re ready to take a step; we’ll see where they’re at. Thomas Coffman flashed. One day, he’s going to be a very, very good receiver for us. I hope it’s sooner than later. Matt Yemm’s been solid; he’s going to play a lot of football for us. T.J., both Borckys (including brother Bobby) are there; we need to find a way to keep T.J. healthy.”
On what he’s looking for in receivers: “Well, something like what San Diego State had, those two guys (DeMarco Sampson and Vincent Brown, 1-2 among the league’s leading receivers in 2010).
On Coffman: “He can run. He might be as fast a guy as we have.”
On the 2011 schedule, with two byes: “We wanted the one bye for sure. You’d like to open at home, but that’s just part of the deal. Somebody will be very good, like Nevada; we beat them the year before (in 2009), and all of a sudden they cycle into a pretty good football team. Everyone’s different. Who knows how good all these teams are going to be.”
Q&A with QB Pete Thomas
On what he will focus on this spring: “I feel like I know the offense pretty well. Just getting in sync with the receivers, and having the whole offense come together better. We have a lot of new stuff, two-minute drives, no huddle, we have to get that down, and I’m really looking forward to trying to get into a groove heading into summer.”
On targeting improvement in third-down and red-zone situations: “Definitely. After reviewing film from last year, one thing we’ve got to get better at is third-down conversions and scoring touchdowns in the red zone. Too many times we got down there and turned the ball over and had to settle for field goals. So, yeah, those are two real important assets of our game that we have to get better at.
“I feel like myself and the whole offense have been through a lot of adversity; we know how to handle ourselves better. Now we know what to do, what we have to do to not put ourselves in those situations, with stupid penalties, me taking too many sacks.”
On whether he likes having more freedom at the line of scrimmage this year: “Definitely. Of course. There were times (in 2010) where we called a deep ball and they were in a coverage where we couldn’t get it deep. I think this year, with some of the stuff we’re doing, I’ll be able to check off it. I’m real confident in my abilities to get us in the right play. I think that’ll in turn be better for our whole offense, receivers, running backs, everyone, that we work in the right play every time.”
On getting a better grasp on opposing defenses, and what they’re trying to do to him: “I think I’m pretty smart when it comes to seeing what other teams are trying to do. I feel like I pick up on film, whatever, what defenses are trying to do. I feel like last year there weren’t too many times where I was overwhelmed with what they were doing, schematically; it was just their guys making plays and plays we didn’t make. But, yeah, just getting more comfortable with our offense and other team’s defenses, and this spring with our defense, because we have changed our defense a lot. So, it’s going to be brand new for the offense, too.”
On what he’s looking for in his receiver group this spring: “I think we have six or seven guys that are all real capable of doing some big stuff. They all do different types of stuff. I think just getting in sync with all those guys, learning more about what those guys can do. We have some guys that are more possession receivers, some guys that are more slot receivers, and then we’ve got some young guys like Thomas Coffman we’re just trying to figure out. We know he can play; he’s one of the fastest guys on the team. We just have to figure out what he can do. I’m really excited to get out there and throw with those guys again, out on the practice field, going against our defense in a live situation.”
On the difference this spring, knowing he has no real competition for the starting job: “Obviously I’m way more confident and more relaxed, and I think that’s a good thing. Now we can just focus on what we need to do to get better, and improve ourselves offensively, which will also help the team out.”
On how much help he tries to give the inexperienced backups behind him: “We’ve been watching film, M.J. (McPeek), Garrett (Grayson). I’ve been in there with them trying to help them as much as I can, watching extra film.”
On being worn down last year having to take so many reps: “I would agree with that. Last spring it was really good, but during practice in the fall, those Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, I was basically getting all the reps, and then come Saturday my arm, and with my shoulder not 100 percent, I was wearing down. (Fairchild) has a plan, it’ll be a good thing, and he obviously knows what he’s doing.”
On the health of his shoulder now: “It’s fine. One hundred percent. I feel a lot stronger. I’ve been rehabbing it a lot and just getting strong in the weight room. I feel like that will help me with my deep balls.”
On the shoulder injury: “I just had a slightly separated shoulder. Grade 1, if that’s the lowest one. Never had any surgery. Just played through it. It’s all good now.”
On one specific aspect of his game he’s targeted for improvement: “Definitely not taking sacks and not turning the ball over.
On the disposition of the players following last year’s 3-9 season: “We were (ticked) off about last year and our fans were, too. I mean, 3-9 is unacceptable. We did everything we could (in the offseason conditioning program) to turn it around this year, and I think we will. I have personal goals and team goals, and I think we can reach those if we keep up what we’re doing. This has definitely been a way-different offseason compared to last year, in terms of leadership, people working hard, stuff that Coach Fairchild changed up. I think they’re all for the positive. I think we’ll be a different team this year on the field and I just can’t wait to get out there and show these fans and everyone else what we can do.”