A trip to New Mexico Bowl may not seem like a big deal for many clubs, but after 4 years in the doldrums and mustering just 13 wins, the Rams had a winning record under second year coach Jim McElwain. The last time they managed it, back in 2008, they rode the efficient passing of Billy Farris and the tough running of Gartrell Johnson III.
Last season, the formula was the same, with Garrett Grayson throwing and JUCO transfer Kapri Bibbs carrying the load on the ground, and both breaking their respective single season yardage records. It wasn’t all about the offense last season, the defense did their fair share of the work, battering opponents into submission.
McElwain, a former Alabama offensive coordinator, is no doubt pleased with the team’s success in 2013. However, sustaining success is the key, and his time with the Crimson Tide will keep him wanting more. Can McElwain return to the glory decade of 1994-2003, when Sonny Lubick had the Rams spending time in the national rankings?
Bibbs was the driving force of the team last season, rushing for 1741 yards and 31 TDs, but it may surprise you that he only started 7 games and did most of his damage over the last 10. In the first 4, the sophomore managed just 213 yards, but had games of 201, 291 and 312 yards down the stretch. Also contributing were Donnell Alexander and Chris Nwoke, who combined for 826 yards and 4 scores. Alexander started the season after a hot finish in 2012, but was banged up much of 2013, and Bibbs was too good to keep of the field once he heated up.
Grayson certainly had a role too. After winning the starting job in camp, the junior passed for 3696 yards and 23 TDs, with 11 interceptions. He took advantage of the strong running attack, but McElwain kept him in good situations, using a high percentage passing attack to keep the chains moving.
A youthful receiving corps did a great job. Freshman Rashard Higgins (68-837-6) and sophomore Joe Hansley (52-613-1) did the damage out wide, while tight ends Crockett Gillmore and Kivon Cartwright combined for 74 receptions, 1039 yards and 8 TDs, as both saw plenty of action in 2-tight end sets.
Of course, these efforts would have been severely hampered if not for a strong offensive line which featured 4 senior starters. Center Weston Richburg and the sole underclassman, left tackle Ty Sambrailo, both made the all-conference team.
The running attack will be starting from scratch again next season, with the top 3 running backs from last season gone. Bibbs declared early for the NFL draft, Nwoke graduated and Alexander is transferring. Converted safety Jasen Oden looked good in the spring game and likely has the edge going into summer camp, but redshirt freshman Bryce Peters will see carries. There is help coming with the new recruits, and Bakersfield CC running back Preston Hodges could be a factor.
Grayson has the job to himself this season, and it will be interesting to see if McElwain opens up the playbook in Grayson’s senior season. More to the point, if the running game struggles, he may have to.
The receiving corps should be in good shape again this season with most of last season’s contributors returning. Charles Lovett (26-396-2) showed some big play ability last season and should see more of the ball. Gillmore will be missed at tight end, but JUCO Steven Walker looks like he could be a capable replacement.
Offensive line looks to be the biggest concern going into the season, with only Sambrailo returning. Right tackle Mason Hathaway is the only other lineman on the roster who has started a game (1), and the senior should start this season. Another senior, Mason Myers, should step in at one of the guard spots. Sophomore Fred Zerblis is the likely replacement at center. However, only Sambrailo is a lock for his spot, and the Rams have some good talent waiting in the wings.
It was a tale of two defenses last season, as Colorado State sported a tough front 7 who made life difficult for opponents, and a secondary that did a good job keeping the play in front of them. But, when they got burned, they got burned badly. Linebacker/defensive end Shaquil Barrett was the star of the unit. The senior made 80 tackles, with an impressive 20½ behind the line of scrimmage, 12 sacks, 6 hurries and 4 forced fumbles. Barrett also picked off a pass, broke up 2 more and blocked 3 kicks. Tackle Calvin Tonga didn’t trouble the stat sheet much – 25 tackles, 2½ for loss, 3 hurries – but he was a load in the middle. Joining him were Eli Edwards and Curtis Wilson, both of whom split time at tackle and end. The pair combined for 57 tackles, 6½ for loss, 3 sacks, and 5 hurries.
The linebackers were an excellent bunch, and certainly benefited from the guys up front. Max Morgan was a tackling machine in the middle, making 134 tackles, and also broke up 6 passes, picked 1 off and returned a fumble for a TD. WLB Aaron Davis wasn’t far behind him with 120, 7 for loss. Davis also had 5 hurries, broke up 3 passes and forced 3 fumbles. Cory James was the pass rusher, making 8 sacks among his 59 tackles, 12 for loss. He also had 5 hurries and 2 forced fumbles.
Shaq Bell was probably the most consistent player in a secondary that allowed 276 yards per game and 33 TDs. The senior was the nickel back, and also started 6 games at corner. He made 61 tackles, with 7½ in the backfield, broke up 5 passes and picked another off. The safety pairing of Trent Matthews and Kevin Pierre-Louis was decent, combining for 146 tackles, while Matthews led the team with 4 interceptions. The starting corners, DeAndre Elliott and Bernard Blake, fit in with the aggressive mould of the defense, breaking up 22 passes between them, but made the occasional bad gamble that cost the team.
Like the offense, most of the rebuilding this season will be on the front lines, with all 3 linemen AND Barrett gone. They should be able to maintain a pass rush with junior Joe Kawulok back – he had 3½ sacks among his 13 tackles – and he’ll get to strut his stuff as a starter. Also in the mix is regular Terry Jackson, another junior. Jackson only started 1 game last season, but he played as often any other starter. He tallied 29 tackles, with 5½ in the backfield. Also in the mix will be LaRyan King and nose tackle Justin Hansen, who is possibly the only player with the size (310) to replace Tonga effectively.
Apart from Bell, who is a considerable loss, the rest of the gang are here for 2014. The good news is they return some nice depth at corner in Tyree Simmons, and redshirt freshman Justin Sweet looked good in the spring. Depth is also good at safety with Nick Januska and Jake Schlager, although one of these may be asked to replace Bell, if the Rams want to keep Elliott at corner.
Kicker Jared Roberts was all-conference last season, hitting 21 of 24 field goals, although he missed a couple he should have made. He also hit 31 touchbacks. Freshman punter Hayden Hunt had his good and bad days, but he has potential and averaged nearly 42 yards gross per punt, booming 13 over 50 yards. Thomas Coffman was a steady kick returner, averaging 23.4 a pop, while Hansley and Simmons split the punt return chores, averaging 11.9 yards per return between them. Hansley also took 1 back for a score. Other than a TD return by New Mexico, the kick coverage was great, but the punt coverage was less so. Having a rookie punter certainly didn’t help. The unit also blocked 4 kicks.
The only losses from last season are Coffman and kick-blocker Barrett, so the unit will be solid again. Hunt should be improved in his sophomore year, which should benefit the coverage unit. A kick returner needs to be found, but there will be plenty of capable options by the time fall camp rolls around.
The last two times the Rams made it to a bowl game, they spent the next couple of seasons propping up the conference, or at least coming close. Can they change that routine this time around? Apart from starting experience on both front lines, CSU has the pieces in place to make a run at another bowl, and maybe even a shot at a conference title. The schedule is reasonably tough early on, mostly in OOC, but no one is unbeatable. If the Rams can play well early and win a couple of games, they should be favored over the last 5, putting them in a position for 7 or 8 wins. If the lines can gel early and a running back steps up, they could do a whole lot better.