Steve Fairchild has one more year to coax bowl-eligibility out of Pete Thomas and his Rams, before the his seat really starts to scorch.
Colorado State is the most intriguing team in the Mountain West, and, with Louisiana Monroe, is one half of the most intriguing pair of teams on TCU’s schedule. No team has more apparent– but unrealized– upside than the Rams. After consecutive 3-9 seasons, Colorado State hopes its dalliance with a freshman-heavy team in 2010 will pay off with wins in 2011. “I think we have a chance to be a pretty good football team,” Fairchild said. “We’re not there by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s nice offensively having a quarterback and a line that are back, and it’s nice defensively having some guys that have played. There’s some good stuff going on.”
One good thing going on is shuffling of coaching responsibilities in Fort Collins. At least, so hope the Rams. Larry Lewis switched from safeties to running backs; former running back coach Anthoney Hill now works with the tight ends. Former tight end coach Todd Stroud now coaches the defensive linemen. Bernard Clark came in from Colorado to coach linebackers, freeing Larry Kerr now to work exclusively as defensive coordinator. Tim Duffie was promoted from cornerbacks coach to defensive secondary coach. Clark said he’s still “feeling my way” around the program. Clark coached linebackers last year under Dave Wannstedt at Pitt, and is still getting used to the atypically fast tempo of Fairchild’s practices. The faster pace forces players to “think on their feet,” a positive in his eyes.
A second good thing: the new format of offseason conditioning. Seven tandems of seniors drafted teams this offseason, each team competed against other teams for points based on performance at early morning mat drills, academics, treatment for injuries, weightlifting and commitment to the Rams’ community service initiative.
Third, CSU is remembering that football is fun. The Rams’ players’ council told Fairchild during the offseason that they need to keep the game fun. “I think sometimes guys just kind of lose sight of the big picture of it all,” Yemm said early in the spring. “You’ve got to remember you’re just playing a game.” Enter music playing over loudspeakers during warmups (loud enough to draw complaints and a request from campus police to turn it down). “It feels totally different around here,” said C.J. James, a junior and veteran of Fairchild’s no-nonsense manner. “The coach is giving us a little more liberty as far as letting us have some music out there to get us crunking. It just feels like something special’s about to happen.”
“There was way more passion,” Mychal Sisson said Saturday after the annual spring game at Hughes Stadium. “You could tell that people had a lot more fun out here … Our whole mindset just changed. We were totally focused on having fun and getting the job done.”
How does the coach feel about all of this fun? “It’s not Disneyworld,” Fairchild said. Maybe fun is in the eye of the beholder.
That leaves one sticky problem for Fairchild’s staff to address: depth. “We’ve got to get to where we feel comfortable putting the third or fourth running back in there, eight defensive linemen in there. Good football teams have depth like that. We’re trying to develop that here.” And for the first time in Fairchild’s tenure, it looks as though Colorado State might have it. “We have plenty of talent,” Fairchild says—a departure from his assessments a year or two ago. “We’re in the right frame of mind that we’re going hard on both sides of the ball. We’ve just got to tighten it up a little bit.” If that talent equates to depth, and the depth equates to wins, all will be well in Fort Collins because, as Ezra Thompson observed, “No one wants to go 3-9 again.”
The good news continues onto the field, where, after enduring inexperience in all the wrong places, the Rams now are an experienced team. Nowhere is that more valuable than up front. Four of its five starters on the o-line return, including the honorable mention all-MWC center, Weston Richburg. After started the first two games in 2010 at guard, the freshman Richburg moved over to center and stayed there as the starter for the remaining nine games. “He surpassed all of our expectations,” said tackle Paul Madsen. Richburg didn’t have a single bad snap last season. Richburg has added 10 pounds since the season, and now plays at just over 300. More importantly, has can pay more attention to recognizing defenses, and telling others what must be done. He can set a faster practice tempo because he doesn’t have to slow down between plays to think about what he’s doing. “I think we can be a very good O-line this year,” Richburg said. The center left the spring game after twisting his right knee and ankle while blocking, but said afterward that he’d be fine in a few days.
Next to Richburg is Jake Gdowski, a veteran at weakside guard. The strongside guard will be the only new starter on the line; senior Josh Tashiro, sophomore Jordan Gragert, and redshirt freshman Alex Tucci are competing for the spot. Paul Madsen, another all-conference lineman, and Joe Caprioglio, who started at guard last season.
Also newly wearing the “experienced” label this spring is sophomore quarterback Pete Thomas. This time last year, the signal caller was being fitted for his high school prom tux in between spring practices. This year? “He’s more confident in the offense, he’s more consistent… I think he’s progressing nicely,” Fairchild said. “We’ve got a quarterback that now we can really get into some of the situations… where we were just hanging on for dear life last year… He’s making better decisions and making them quicker.”
Quicker decisions will help the sophomore stay upright more—he was sacked 44 times in 2010. “I just know the plays, and I don’t have to think when I’m playing,” Thomas said “and I just feel a lot more comfortable in that pocket,” he said. One of his wide receivers chimes in, “He’s definitely matured, that’s for sure. He’s catching on to the plays and the coverages of the defenses a lot quicker than what he did last year, and that helps us because we don’t have to wait for the ball as much as we did in the past.” Fairchild—a glass-half-empty kind of guy when assessing his team and players–reminds us, however, that “He’s certainly not a fourth-year guy, but … we’re able to do more with him.” Not a fourth year guy, coach? Not yet.
Behind Thomas is a genuine contest for the number two spot. Walk-on junior M.J. McPeek held off true freshman Garrett Grayson’s challenge. “I was really impressed with him,” said Yemm. “He actually surprised me with how good he is. He looked comfortable and smart and made the right throws.” Coach Steve Fairchild said afterward he plans to let Grayson, who still could redshirt this fall, and McPeek continue competing for the backup job throughout the summer and into fall camp.
Grayson was a highly ranked all-purpose quarterback who opted to grayshirt in 2010 because Thomas enrolled that year. McPeek, 20 pounds heavier this spring, has taken the most practice snaps of the remaining QBs on the Rams’ roster. “I’m confident that both of them could be pretty good in a game.” said Thomas. Grayson reports “I feel like my brain is slowing down; it’s not hurting anymore. I feel like I’m finally starting to understand the concepts and everything and where everyone’s supposed to be in what this play is, the difference in this, what the coverage is and everything… I’m way more comfortable.”
Deepening the experience theme with the Rams are the runningbacks, chiefly senior Raymond Carter and sophomore Chris Nwoke. Nwoke’s 357 rushing yards last year were the most by a CSU freshman since 1999. But the news this spring has chiefly concerned walk-on Derek Good, a kickoff returner last season. Good led all rushers with 11 runs and 89 yards in one scrimmage. “It’s an amazing feeling. . . . I walked on for three years, pushing myself as hard as I can,” Good said. “My opportunity came, and I did the best I could with it.” Early enrolled freshman Dorian Brown is competing for snaps at runningback as well.
The Rams plan to emphasize the fullback position this year. They don’t have experienced players to do it with, however. Former lineman Scott Carter, redshirt freshman Kivon Cartwright, and sophomore Joe Brown are the main competitors for the job. Cartwright also is taking snaps at tight end. Carter, entering his senior season, dropped a little weight and will line up as a 279-pound lead blocker. “I’m not a guy that’s going to try to juke somebody, so I’ve got to try to run through you to get those extra 3 yards if they take me down with them,” he said. “I think I’ve got about 20 or 30 pounds on a lot of the linebackers.” He’s 6-foot-3, 279 pounds. Says his position coach: “I think it really adds something to what we do, because Scott can run pretty well for a guy that big, and he’s physical, and he catches the ball well,” Lewis said. “He does the things you want out of that position.” Fairchild agrees, “I see a huge upside. I’m not sure I’m willing to speculate or project at this point, but it could end up being a very, very positive move for him and our football team.”
CSU lacks experience at tight end, as well. Ben Tedford, Kivon Cartwright, and converted defensive end Crockett Gilmore worked at the position this spring. “At first, I don’t think they thought I could catch the ball at all, and I had to prove them wrong a little bit and show them that if they throw it up there, I can get to it,” Tedford said. He doesn’t have the upside Cartwright does, however. Fairchild said, “He’s probably not, at this stage of his career, as physical as you’d like, but he’s probably as gifted a receiver as you’re going to find in college football really, and he grows into the physical part, he’s got a chance to be a big kid. He could be something special.”
At receiver, the Rams are still searching for a potent target for Pete Thomas. One of his leading receivers from last year returns, Lou Greenwood. Last year Greenwood moonlighted as a runningback, but is 100% a receiver from now on. “I’m a full-fledged receiver now,” Greenwood said after a recent practice. “He looks very comfortable out there,” Fairchild said.
“He’s really made strides,” receivers coach Dan Hammerschmidt said about Greenwood’s technique against the cornerback both in route running, and blocking. “I think he’s got good running back abilities, but I think he’s a natural wide receiver… When you’ve got a kid that can do that, and he’s got ability, man, you can get him open, because you can always put him at the point of attack,” Hammerschmidt said.
Marquise Law competes with converted QB T.J. Borcky, Bobby Borcky and converted safety Jarrad McKay on the other side. Inside, converted QB Matt Yemm, Byron Steele and Tony Drake are in the mix. In one scrimmage Byron Steele caught five passes for 54 yards, and Lou Greenwood had four catches for 27 yards. Crockett Gillmore, just two days into his move from defensive end to tight end had two catches.
Borcky is largely recovered from an injured ankle. He says it feels “10 times better now” than it did last fall. “It’s hard to play with all that stuff, but he fights through pain and injury as well as anybody,” Hammerschmidt said. “He’s tougher than heck; he’ll go catch the tough balls; he’ll make the hard blocks.” Fairchild notes, “He’s kind of a big target in there, and we’re hoping he’ll have his best year yet.”
Moving to defense, the Rams are hoping to jumpstart their defense by changing their philosophy of attack on the line. Todd Stroud, new to the line, doesn’t want his players aiming for horizontal pressure to string their blockers out. Rather, he wants his line to apply vertical pressure, drive them back, and into the backfield on every play. “We want to … create a new line of scrimmage and create havoc in the … backfield,” said Stroud. His players like the change. “It’s just a lot easier on us,” Latu said. “We’re more relentless.” Fairchild likes the results so far. “We’ve got some guys that need to come on a little bit, but I think we’ve got a chance to be pretty good there,” Fairchild said.
Inside, it appears Nuku Latu and John Froland have the upper hand to start. Steve Fairchild said, “Latu looks as good as he’s looked since I’ve been here.” Latu lost ten pounds this offseason, while Froland, a redshirt freshman, gained ten. “[Froland’s] a playmaker inside,” Fairchild said. “He’s really having a tremendous spring.” Todd Stroud said sophomore Te’Jay Brown, also has performed well during spring drills. Zach Tiedgen, an end before a season-ending injury in last summer, now plays inside.
At the ends, both starters return—C.J. James and Broderick Sargent—as does Davis Burl, who started seven games last year. Junior Zach Tiedgen, sophomore Curtis Wilson, a sophomore and Charles Green, redshirt freshman are battling for spots in the five-man rotation at the defensive tackle spots. Froland said. “When we rotate out, it gives us fresh legs all the time.” Nordly Capi rounds out the two deep.
Behind the line, the returning starters are Mychal Sisson and Michael Kawulok. Kawulok suffered a knee injury early in spring drills, and never returned. Fairchild says, “there’s an outside chance he could play next fall.“ Junior James Skelton took the first team snaps in Kawulok’s absence. The new starter to the defense is sophomore Mike Orakpo, who played all 12 games last year as a backup. Mike’s famous older brother was a defensive end at Texas. Redshirt freshmen Max Morgan and Eric Niederberger battle for backup snaps behind Sisson. Austin Gillmore, Crockett’s older brother, backs up Orakpo. Coach Clark said of his Orakpo, “I’m going to be honest with you, I had no idea who his brother was when I got here. I don’t really know what his brother can do, to be totally honest with you. I’m basing everything I’m seeing on (Mike), and he’s doing an outstanding job.” That CSU’s Orakpo has impressed is no surprise. “Last fall, whether it was practice or games, whenever we put him in there, he was a playmaker; he makes things happen,” Fairchild remembered.
In the secondary, Elijah-Blu Smith has moved from safety to cornerback, where he feels more comfortable. “I just like the freedom it allows me,” Smith said Saturday, following a 2-hour, 15-minute practice on the fields south of Moby Arena. “Especially the way we’re playing now, you’re reading the offense and then you’re reacting.” At boundary corner, Smith plays on the short side of the field. The field corner take the other side. “He’s one of those rare guys that’s big and physical that can play corner,” Duffie said. “He’s got corner speed, corner hips. He was just at safety because of the depth issue… we feel fortunate to move him back.”
Shaq Bell, a starter last year, and junior Marcus Shaw are competing to start at field corner.
At safety, Ivory Herd will start for a third year. Redshirt freshman Austin Gray and sophomore Ezra Thompson compete to start at free safety. Momo Thomas is the wild card in the secondary. He has started at corner, but with Smith’s move to that spot, is in the mix as a safety.
The first half of the Rams’ 2011 schedule is pretty soft; the opener is at New Mexico– the reigning doormat of the conference– followed by a 2A at home (Northern Colorado) and the annual grudge match in Denver against Colorado. At Utah State brings September to a close, and October opens with San Jose State at home. 5-0 going into the team’s first bye isn’t going to register surprise at The Wimple, but neither will 4-1; 3-2 would be disappointing.
Boise State comes to Fort Collins after Columbus Day; CSU has an off week to prepare for them, and if by then the team is showing most of the improvement it is capable of, this game has red hot upset potential. Whatever the outcome, CSU has two relatively easy road games following, at UTEP and at UNLV, and to close out October. If the Rams aren’t bowl eligible by the beginning of November, they may not get there. After the team’s second bye, SDSU comes to town, followed by a trip to Fort Worth to face TCU. Air Force and Wyoming finish the season, both at Fort Collins.
Given an improved running game and rush defense, CSU has the potential to pull an SDSU-like turnaround, and make a serious run at a double-digit win season, putting Steve Fairchild back on the national map, and Pete Thomas in the lead for the Mountain West’s best QB in its WAC 2.0 incarnation. Without that improvement, CSU probably still will best three wins for the first time since Gartrell Johnson powered the Rams; but six and a bowl seems unlikely without better play from the lines.
CSU’s 2010 Wimple review, as one of the MWC bottom-feeders; premature hailing the Ram’s 2010 ground game; CSU-TCU ’10 game preview and recap; ’10 CSU Wimple spring report; ’09 TCU game preview and recap; ’09 season preview and review.
Ezra Hood blogs about all things TCU football at The Purple Wimple.
Tags: 2011 Preseason, Alex Tucci, Anthony Hill, Austin Gray, Bernard Clark, Broderick Sargent, Byron Steele, Chris Nwoke, Colorado State Rams, Crockett Gilmore, Curtis Wilson, Davis Burl, Derek Good, Elijah-Blu Smith, Eric Niederberger, ezra hood, Ezra Thompson, Garrett Grayson, Ivory Herd, Jake Gdowski, James Skelton, Jarrad McKay, Joe Brown, Joe Caprioglio, John Froland, Jordan Gragert, Josh Tashiro, Kivon Cartwright, Larry Kerr, Larry Lewis, Lou Greenwood, M.J. McPeek, Marcus Shaw, Marquise Law, Matt Yemm, Max Morgan, Michael Kawulok, Mike Orakpo, Momo Thomas, Mychal Sisson, Nuku Latu, Paul Madsen, Pete Thomas, Raymond Carter, Scott Carter, Shaq Bell, Steve Fairchild, T.J. Borcky, Te'Jay Brown, Tim Duffie, Todd Stroud, Tony Drake, Weston Richburg, Zach Tiedgen