For the Colorado State football program, the question is not about how to repeat last year's success, but how to achieve more. Amidst the exhilaration that has followed the program's first bowl win in five years, two words continue to describe the mindset of everybody in the program: Not satisfied.
The win showed what is possible when a group of players and coaches believes in one another and never gives up. How else do you score 18 points in just under three minutes to erase a 15-point deficit and win a game you never led until the clock read 0:00?
It is precisely that belief that third-year head coach Jim McElwain has instilled in his team. As exciting as that New Mexico Bowl win was, McElwain knows it was not a destination, but a starting point.
"The experience was great," McElwain said. "The practices that we gained from it, as far as developing our young guys, were very, very important. The momentum that we took from that experience and from the win into our Ram U program and into spring ball, I'm not sure you can put a price tag on that because our guys had a little extra bounce. They took a little pride in it. To give them a bowl ring was very exciting."
But McElwain and his team know the real challenge now is to turn the page and raise the bar.
"We learned a lot about what it takes to begin this climb," McElwain said on the eve of preseason camp, referencing the beautiful views to the west of Fort Collins. "When you look at the foothills, we kind of climbed those foothills. Then, all of the sudden, the clouds lift and you see Long's Peak. That's another heck of a climb now. Our guys have to understand, and us as a program, that all we've done is kind of made it up the horse trail, and now we have to be able to take that next step and climb that second mountain. That's what we're excited about doing."
In two short years at the helm, McElwain has completely transformed the mindset within the CSU football program, and elevated expectations. This is a new team that has spent the offseason and spring ball training diligently in preparation for the 2014 season. Many familiar faces return and new leaders emerge, but this team has to be built from the ground up. Last year's seniors--and All-America running back Kapri Bibbs--have moved on, but what they leave behind is something they helped rebuild in Fort Collins: The resolve to never give up and the sense of family necessary to succeed.
"I'm excited about the way these guys have attacked the whole offseason and summer, from the standpoint of, there's no reason to be satisfied with the little success that we had."
That sentiment was echoed by senior tight end Kivon Cartwright, who revealed the affirmation he and his teammates chose for the 2014 season.
"Our slogan is The Climb," Cartwright shared. "We're not looking at the end result, we're looking at the process, we're looking at every day, day-to-day, to climb. Once we reach one peak, we're going to the next one."
The new class of incoming freshmen arrived on campus in June and have had nearly two months to assimilate with their new teammates. They have undergone an aggressive acclimation process involving both classes and workouts.
"We have 25 new players who we need to indoctrinate into the Ram Family," McElwain said. "We need them to understand the principles and foundation to be successful, and the investment it takes in yourself, and then the unselfishness it takes to give to others; 'Can your older guys help in the teaching process,' and I think our guys can."
"The young guys who came in are really doing a good job, and really what that is, is the leadership of the older guys bringing them along. I'm excited to see what shows up in August."
Colorado State will have an opportunity to make a statement early. After the annual Rocky Mountain Showdown against Colorado, the Rams face an early start to Mountain West play with a Sept. 6 visit to Mountain Division favorite Boise State in a prime-time clash on ESPN2.
The non-conference slate also includes a Sept. 27 trip to Boston College, between home games versus UC Davis and Tulsa, before MW play resumes Oct. 11 at Nevada. Highlights of the home schedule include an Oct. 18 visit from defending Mountain Division champion Utah State and the Oct. 25 Border War with Wyoming, played in Fort Collins this year for the first time since 2011.
"I like this team," McElwain said. "We've got an outstanding coaching staff that's been together. We have an organization and support system in place that our guys trust and that's important. We're going to get better. We're going to get better every year, and I'm excited about this football team."
Spring drills provided an opportunity for four new starting offensive linemen to work together following the departure of seniors Jared Biard, Jordan Gragert, Brandon Haynes and Weston Richburg. That quartet combined to start 132 games at CSU. The anchor of the line is senior All-America candidate left tackle Ty Sambrailo, a 31-game career starter. Fully healed from offseason shoulder surgery, his absence from spring drills allowed even more reps for those pushing for new starting positions.
The benefit this group enjoys is having spent the past two years learning the footwork and technique introduced in 2012 by new offensive line coach Derek Frazier that is required in offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin's system. Redshirt-freshman Jake Bennett emerged from the spring as the favorite to fill the void at center left by Richburg's ascension to the NFL, and he will likely be flanked by senior Mason Myers at left guard and sophomore Fred Zerblis at right guard. Senior Mason Hathaway will compete with mid-year junior college signee Jordan Finley at right tackle, depending upon Finley's availability in the wake of a spring knee surgery.
Senior Garrett Grayson brings two-and-a-half seasons of starting experience at quarterback. Coming off a school-record performance as a junior with 3,696 yards and 23 touchdowns, Grayson's poise and comfort with the offense blends with a deep and talented receiving corps that will allow the line time to jell.
Grayson, who was named to the preseason watch list for the Walter Camp Player of the Year, Davey O'Brien National Quarterback and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm awards, spent four days in July working at the Manning Passing Academy at the invitation of the "first family" of quarterbacks. He is expected to be backed up by redshirt-freshman Nick Stevens.
The receiver corps features both experience and young talent, led by sophomore Biletnikoff Award candidate Rashard Higgins, who paced the team last year by setting freshman records for receptions (68), receiving yards (837) and receiving touchdowns (6). Six of the top seven pass catchers return, including junior Joe Hansley (52-613-1), senior tight end Kivon Cartwright (27-462-6), senior Charles Lovett (26-396-2) and sophomore Jordon Vaden (22-255-3). Additional depth and size is provided by three redshirts from the 2013 class, Sammie Long, Elroy Masters and Xavier Williams.
Junior Jasen Oden moved from safety to running back and had a solid spring, where he competed primarily with redshirt freshman Bryce Peters. The competition for carries will likely include sophomore Eric Williams, junior college transfer Treyous Jarrells and freshman Deron Thompson along with a host of young talent.
Cartwright, a preseason nominee for the John Mackey Award, will likely be joined in CSU's often-used two-tight-end sets by converted linebacker Nolan Peralta, a junior, or mid-year junior college signees Christian Montes or Steven Walker, both juniors. Additional help should come from sophomore Jordan White and redshirt-freshman Brett Jordan.
Though a new starting defensive front will need to take shape, the Rams return nearly intact at linebacker and in the secondary. Senior captain Max Morgan, the team's leading tackler in 2013, returns along with Butkus Award watch list candidate senior Aaron Davis and junior playmaker Cory James. Junior SteveO Michel has emerged as the favorite to fill the "Buck" linebacker spot previously manned by 2013 MW Defensive Player of the Year Shaquil Barrett.
The linebacking corps also boasts significant depth of players with game experience, including junior Nu'uvali Fa'apito, sophomores Bryan Ohene-Gyeni and Danny Nwosu, and senior Ken Hulbert. McElwain also points to the impact some younger players in the group can have, both from scrimmage and on special teams.
"I think we've got a great crew of linebackers, and some young guys that have played some snaps," McElwain said. "You look at Kevin Davis, coming off an injury, who played for us a true freshman (in 2012). Deonte Clyburn played some valuable snaps as a true freshman last year. Where it's going to help us also is in our special teams."
Two other potential contributors, Kiel Robinson and Evan Colorito, redshirted in 2013 as true freshmen.
Junior Joe Kawulok enjoyed a breakout year as a defensive end in 2013 and will likely be joined in the starting lineup by experienced juniors Terry Jackson and LaRyan King. Depth and rotational substitutions will likely come from a group including freshman Josh Lovingood, sophomore Johnny Schupp and juniors Justin Hansen and Martavius Foster. Lovingood began to see significant playing time early last season as a freshman, but became injured and ultimately received a medical hardship waiver to regain that year of eligibility.
Four players with starting experience return in the secondary. Despite the loss of versatile senior Shaq Bell, senior Bernard Blake and junior DeAndre Elliott started nine and 10 games, respectively, at cornerback and each posted double figures in pass breakups to lead the team. Talented and hungry players from the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes angle for the nickel corner spot and to add significant depth to the secondary.
Sophomore Tyree Simmons proved he was ready for the challenge as a true freshman in 2013, playing in all 14 games and starting three. Speedy junior Davon Riddick moved from running back to cornerback in the spring to bolster depth, where he will be joined by redshirt-freshman Justin Sweet and sophomore Saladin McCullough as primary candidates for playing time.
Junior Trent Matthews returns as a third-year starter at strong safety after leading the Rams in interceptions with four in 2013. Now with 26 starts under his belt, Matthews emerged in 2013 as a playmaker in the secondary with one sack and 2.5 tackles for loss to go along with his four interceptions. Junior free safety Kevin Pierre-Louis completes the quartet of returning starters in the secondary, which is bolstered by promising talent primarily from juniors Nick Januska and Willie Udofia, and freshman Jake Schlager.
With the exception of replacing four-year long-snapper Tanner Hedstrom, who consistently delivered for the Rams, the Colorado State special teams return intact. Senior placekicker Jared Roberts earned first-team All-Mountain West honors in 2013 as he became the most accurate career field-goal kicker in school history.
Sophomore punter Hayden Hunt returns after a solid freshman season, and the Rams' arsenal of punt and kick returners includes junior wide receivers Joe Hansley, sophomore cornerback Tyree Simmons and sophomore wide receiver Rashard Higgins. The Rams in 2013 ranked 18th in the nation in kickoff return average (23.8) and 28th in punt returns (11.4).
"To build consistency within organizations--it doesn't matter what the organization is--takes guys that consistently go through and understand the message that must be sent from top to bottom," McElwain explained. "To have a group of guys who were young when I came in and have kind of adapted to the principles and values we're trying to get across, and to see those guys spread the word to the new guys as they come in, it's kind of exciting."
Colorado State was picked to finish third in the Mountain Division in the preseason poll of media members, exactly where it finished 2013, and behind the same two teams: Boise State and Utah State. The Rams, however, did receive one first-place vote. To show progress, this team must demonstrate that it's capable of beating those teams. To do so, McElwain explains, the focus should not be "about them, but about us."
"Every year it's about adjusting," McElwain said. "It's about adjusting to the new players you have and what kind of team you're going to be. There's a lot of things that go into it, so I think the constant evolution is what's important, and staying with the base fundamentals and principles that you know build success. But then understanding that you have to adapt certain things to whatever kind of team you have that year. Part of the offseason is to look at what you did and what direction you want to go, and not to lose the things you did well. 'Hey, maybe what we did here didn't quite work. Let's take a look at adjusting that." That's what the practice is all about. I think you constantly have to evolve and change, but at the end of the day there are some core building blocks and foundations about being successful that will never change, and I don't think you can compromise those."
Not unless you are satisfied. And the 2014 Colorado State Rams are not. It all begins Aug. 29 in Denver with the Rocky Mountain Showdown.
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