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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...COLORADO STATE RAMS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


A new era has dawned at Colorado State...again. This time, however, it’s with none of the “back to the future” talk that dominated former head coach Steve Fairchild’s rhetoric when he took over in Fort Collins four years ago.

But before we get into where the Rams might be going under new HC Jim McElwain, it might be a good idea to see where things went so wrong in the preceding coaching regime.

At the time of his hiring, Fairchild’s goal was to resurrect the best times of the Sonny Lubick Era, which at the time seemed a pretty good idea. After all, the Lubick model, focusing on solid defense and a balanced offense that could run the football, won consistently, the first time in decades that the Rams had been able to sustain gridiron success. It didn’t last for the duration of the Sonny regime, however; by the time Lubick retired after the 2007 season, the Rams had descended back into mediocrity, off 4-8 and 3-9 campaigns; in fact, none of Lubick's last four teams finished above .500. Many believed that Fairchild, who had been a CSU QB in his playing days and a member of Lubick’s staff during the glory years before working in the NFL, seemed the right fit to resurrect the program.

Fairchild (right) provided some brief hope when unexpectedly steering his first Ram edition to a New Mexico Bowl berth and a mild upset win over Fresno State in Albuquerque, but it was hardly a banner year, with CSU scrambling to win its last two just to get bowl-eligible for one of the lowest postseason rewards. Although 2008 indeed turned out better than expected for the Rams, in retrospect it was hardly the signal of a turnaround.

Regional sources noted that Lubick’s coaching hadn't changed in the failing final years of his tenure; rather, CSU simply stopped attracting the sorts of playmakers who helped the Rams to so many wins and bowl appearances in the best Lubick years. Mountain West insiders say the CSU downturn was really no more complicated than the inability to attract better players. Period.

And, as the Fairchild regime lurched forward after 2008, stuck on a maddening three-win treadmill for the next three years, that fact was continually hammered home. Rocky Mountain sources insist that Fairchild simply wasn’t recruiting any better than Lubick was during his last few years in charge. It was inevitable that the Rams would continue to regress, eventually costing Fairchild his job.

Enter McElwain, fresh from a stint on Nick Saban’s national champion Alabama staff as its offensive coordinator, who along with new AD Jack Graham is plotting a course for a CSU revival. Outwardly, the hiring McElwain, whose background beyond Bama includes past jobs in the West as well as NFL experience on the Oakland Raiders staff in 2006, seems a worthwhile risk. The Saban disciples have all been exposed to the “Nicktator’s” legendary organizational skills; within the industry, it is well known that no college coach runs a program as efficiently as Saban. It is also no secret that Saban is a demanding boss and not much fun to be around, so no one could blame McElwain, or any Tide assistant, for eventually looking to make the move from Tuscaloosa.

Still, we have seen too many high-profile, career coordinators fail as head coaches to automatically assume that McElwain has the stuff to forge a turnaround in Fort Collins, as some preseason publications have insisted. We also reject the usual cliches and platitudes offered by several of the preview magazines which suggest that CSU has enough “talent” to manage a breakthrough straight-away.

Talent? No, the Rams don’t seem have nearly enough of it; the fact is the talent base inherited by McElwain was bad enough to get Fairchild fired. To the contrary, seasoned regional observers almost universally suggest that CSU football is nowhere close to making a comeback, at least any time soon.

The Rams are in trouble and it is going to take McElwain a while to fix things, if he can at all.

The offseason, including spring football, was hardly chock full of good news. McElwain had no sooner commenced spring drills when he decided to rip CSU’s indoor practice facility, a modern 66,000 square-foot practice center devoted almost exclusively to Ram football and completed just two years ago. McElwain, however, suggested the facility just wasn’t good enough. “To be productive and successful, it doesn’t do us any good to practice in here,” said the coach, who must have toured the indoor center with his eyes closed during the hiring process, or perhaps sported invisible blinkers during his introductory press conference last December that was held in the same facility.

Mountain West observers were aghast, noting that Fort Collins is not Tuscaloosa, and that it took a Herculean fundraising effort by CSU to raise the dollars to build the indoor practice area. McElwain’s complaints were taken by many as an insult to the Ram football community.

Some, however, suggest the new coach’s response could be part of a propaganda offensive designed (perhaps in concert with new AD Graham) to jar the CSU athletic community into bigger and better things, which includes building a new 42,000-seat stadium. A vocal wing of Ram supporters, championed by Graham, want the facility on campus instead of several miles away at the base of the foothills, where current but decaying Hughes Stadium (left) is located.

Graham, however, is running into some stiff local opposition from the environmental sorts in Fort Collins (remember, this is only an hour or so away from Boulder), and the subject is driving a pretty good wedge into the community. Indeed, the “to build or not to build a stadium” controversy has caused some curious battle lines to be drawn, including a “Save Our Stadium Hughes” group. Pro and con stadium signs populate lawns across the city. There are billboards, petition drives, and social media campaigns.

Obama and Romney? Not as much in Fort Collins, where it's Stadium or No Stadium dominating the local chatter.

Though Graham insists his stadium (artist's rendering at right) can be built without help of public funds, a very civic-minded wing of the Fort Collins constituency believes a new stadium on campus would cause more harm than good, creating more local traffic problems on game days (what, six times per year?) and not addressing more-urgent infrastructure inadequacies within the city.

What a different world this must look like to McElwain, used to Alabama football snapping its fingers and getting its way in Tuscaloosa and much of the state.

Welcome to Fort Collins, indeed!

Other spring developments were hardly encouraging for the CSU faithful. Two of the Rams’ best defenders, DE Nordly Capi (the 2011 Mountain West sack leader) and All-MW LB Mike Orapko, plus DE Colton Palhaus, were kicked out of school in May for their roles in a brutal off-campus brawl. Defensive end C.J. James and safety Drew Reilly (who has since landed at BYU) also transferred out at the end of spring football. Moreover, reports of steroid and marijuana use within the program have forced Graham to respond to those allegations.

And then there was spring football, which hardly suggested that McElwain is anywhere near getting his new offense up to speed. Quarterback Pete Thomas, a San Diego-area product who was supposedly the cornerstone of Fairchild’s recruiting efforts and a starter since his frosh year in 2010, had earlier transferred out (to NC State), leaving soph Garrett Grayson (left), who filled in as a frosh late in 2011 after Thomas injured a knee last November, as the primary option at QB. Remember, the strike (out) force scored only 21.4 ppg in 2011, ranking a poor 101st nationally. There isn’t a lot of room to regress.

Perhaps it was the adjustment phase to McElwain’s new “pro-multiple” offense, or the fact the OL was dealing with nagging injuries, but the McElwain “O” couldn’t get out of its way in the spring, allowing a whopping 27 sacks (!) in one early scrimmage and not once scoring a TD all spring vs. a defense that allowed 31.3 ppg in 2011. That included the spring game, when the only TD came via an interception return.

In a perfect world, Grayson would be entering a RS frosh season this fall, with four years of eligibility remaining, but Thomas’ injury last fall forced Fairchild to blow Grayson’s redshirt year by throwing him into the starting lineup for the last three games. Grayson was understandably shaky, tossing 6 picks in his 77 pass attempts, although he showed he could be a dual threat by also rushing for 193 yards. Needless to say, to become the offensive leader McElwain envisions, Grayson’s arm is going to have to catch up with his legs as a threat to opposing defenses.

For the time being, it appears as if the offense will pivot around punishing 6'0, 214-lb. jr. RB Chris Nwoke (right; 1130 YR last season despite not cracking the starting lineup until the seventh game), whose late-season explosions included eye-opening efforts of 232 and 269 yards rushing vs. San Diego State and Air Force, respectively. The forward wall returns three starters, including potential Rimington Award contender jr. C Weston Richburg, but remember how this unit was manhandled in the spring.

Should Grayson ever get settled in the pocket, he will at least one established receiving target who developed good rapport with the departed Thomas, TE Crockett Gilmore (left; 45 catches LY), who might be the Mountain West’s best at his position. Soph Thomas Coffman displayed homerun ability (26.2 yards per catch) in limited snaps during an injury-plagued frosh campaign (also watch for Coffman as a kick return threat), while sr. Marquise Law, little-used in the past, hinted at making real contributions during spring. McElwain and new, but veteran, o.c. Dave Baldwin were also intrigued by ex-DB Dominique Vinson, a speedburner who moved to WR in spring and if nothing else presents a secondary-distorting threat.

Meanwhile, the reality of last season was that the “D” was just as ineffective as the offense; spring work either suggested progress by the stop unit, or worrying regression by the attack force. CSU fans certainly hope the former is more true.

McElwain has authorized new co.-d.c.’s Marty English and Al Simmons to alter the Fairchild defense recipe that was almost helpless in stopping the run; the Rams were trampled last season, allowing a whopping 234 ypg on the ground, ranking an awful 116th nationally in that category. The stop unit thus transitions into a 3-4 this fall, although English and Simmons will allow for adjustments back to a 4-3 when warranted by the opposition.

The changes were enough to stonewall the offense in spring, but, again, was that just a product of ineptness or the McElwain “O” being in adjustment phase?

The apparent losses of Capi and Orapko, the biggest impact performers on the platoon, are hard to measure, although the staff believes there are still enough capable LBs in the mix to at least withstand the loss of Orapko, which helps explain the switch to the 3-4. “At Alabama you can get a bunch of D-linemen,” said co-d.c. English to the Denver Post during the spring. “But it’s easiest for us to recruit some linebacker-types here.”

What encouraged most in the spring was the work of the secondary, which as mentioned allowed nary a TD pass, although some of that might be attributable to offensive ineptness. But keep in mind that CSU ranked 13th nationally (179.6 ypg) in pass defense a year ago (even if much of that statline was due to the fact that foes were simply ramming the ball down the Rams’ throat on the ground instead). Two redshirt frosh, CB DeAndre Elliott and SS Trent Matthews, are likely to start, but CB Momo Thomas (left) is a fifth-year senior who knows Mountain West receivers intimately, and athletic specimen Shaq Barrett, a jr. hybrid who can line up at OLB or as a nickel back, is another returning starter who accounted for the only score in the Ram Bowl spring game with his interception TD.

In Orapko’s absence, don’t be surprised if soph Max Morgan, who was a terror in spring, emerges as a new playmaker on the defensive edge. Well-regarded frosh LBs Deonte Wortham and Kevin Davis could also make an impact, as could another newcomer on the defensive front, thick 295-lb. juco NT Calvin Tonga, who would certainly add to the bulk of a lightweight defensive front with no projected starter over 254 pounds. One of those, however, soph DE John Froland, a Snohomish, WA product, was a pass rush terror in spring.

McElwain was auditioning for new placekickers in spring and likely continues that process into the fall, although he has no concerns about jr. P Pete Kontodiakos, whose punts boomed for a 43.6 yard average a year ago (helped in part, admittedly, by the thin Colorado air that makes many punters look like Ray Guy clones).

We would also keep an eye on McElwain’s impact upon the Rams’‘ pointspread performance, which started out positively during the Fairchild years but then began to deteriorate midway through the 2009 campaign; since then, the Rams have covered just 10 of their 30 games on the board, including 13 losses in their last 17 spread decisions away from Fort Collins. Indeed, CSU has been more road "worrier" than "warrior" the past few years.

Summary...We have long since passed the point where we became excited about every high-profile assistant coach who finally gets a head coaching job; our experience tells us that more of those coordinator types end up failing than succeeding. Mostly, we're now more apt to be unconvinced until seeing real progress, so excuse us for needing a lot more evidence before we begin to believe Jim McElwain will prove a savior in Fort Collins. The adjustment phase to a new coach and new offensive and defensive systems hardly went smoothly in spring, and there is sketchy evidence whether CSU can actually win with run-first Garrett Grayson at QB. Besides, as McElwain surely knows, the Rams are not Alabama, as CSU enters the fall off three straight 3-9 campaigns. It will likely be a long slog for the Rams to get back to Sonny Lubick-like respectability; if a payoff is to come from the McElwain hire, it likely won’t happen until a few years down the road, and almost certainly not this fall.


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