Photo courtesy of Colorado State Athletics
By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: For a program that dates back nearly 120 years, the Colorado State Rams have seen their share of ups and downs, and that's how the 2011 campaign played out for the squad.
Under the direction of head coach Steve Fairchild, the Rams got off to a favorable start with victories over both New Mexico and Northern Colorado, but those decisions were expected. CSU then clashed with the Colorado Buffaloes in their annual Rocky Mountain Showdown in Denver, and that battle didn't go nearly as well as the Rams absorbed a 28-14 loss. A bit unexpected, given the development of Utah State in recent years, CSU also found a way to defeat the Aggies on the road in double overtime, 35-34, to move out to a 3-1 start, but it was all just smoke and mirrors apparently.
The Rams failed to win a single game after that, dropping eight in a row to close out 2011. While three of those games were decided by just three points, the team bowing to UNLV, San Diego State and Wyoming by that margin, there were also a handful of lopsided efforts that were too tough to ignore, particularly the 63-13 setback versus Boise State in front of the home crowd in the middle of October.
With the prospect of kicking off the 2012 campaign tied for the fourth-longest skid in the Football Bowl Subdivision, Colorado State decided it was time for a change at head coach and sent Fairchild packing. A former quarterback at CSU himself, Fairchild finished his term with a record of just 16-33 over four years, although he did manage to guide the program to a 7-6 mark with a win over Fresno State in the 2008 New Mexico Bowl. The Rams brought in Jim McElwain, the former offensive coordinator with national champion Alabama, two weeks into December to become the 20th head coach of the program. While McElwain's specialty is offense, something the Rams lacked as they scored just 21.4 ppg last season, what he really needs to focus on is keeping his quarterback safe behind an offensive line that has been allowing opponents to get countless shots on their signal-caller for the last several seasons.
OFFENSE: The change in the coaching staff at Colorado State had at least one major impact on the roster as quarterback Pete Thomas elected to transfer to NC State instead of stick around and try to rebuild under the current regime.
Honestly, no one can blame Thomas for bolting because over the last two years he has taken a severe beating behind an offensive line that has spent more time picking him up off the turf than anything else. The departure of Thomas has paved the way for Garrett Grayson to become the new starting quarterback for the Rams.
"Going into this season, it's a different feeling," Grayson says of his projected starting status. "You feel good, you feel confident, but you just want to show people that you can be that guy too. You're always going to have your doubters and people saying why is this guy playing...But you have to go into every game thinking you are the guy. You have to be confident. You don't want to be cocky, but there is a difference, so I go into every game and I'm going to prepare just like I did for the last few games last year."
The signal-caller will have all four of the top receivers from last season suiting up yet again for the Rams. Crockett Gillmore proved to be one of the top tight ends in the nation last season as he led CSU with 45 receptions for 468 yards and 4 touchdowns. Lou Greenwood accounted for another 26 grabs for 396 yards and 2 scores, but they are the only returnees who registered at least 200 yards in 2011.
Grayson can certainly feel confident about the running back lining up behind him in Chris Nwoke, who ranked third in the league last season with 94.2 ypg on the ground. However, a closer look inside the numbers for Nwoke shows someone who typically ran for minimal yardage and managed to boost his stats thanks to outings against San Diego State and Air Force in which he gained a combined 501 yards on the ground.
DEFENSE: Above everything else, the Colorado State defense has the most work to do, particularly in stopping the run and the new coaching staff is well aware of what needs to be a top priority.
"Defensively, we've added a couple guys that I think appear to be guys that'll help us," says coach McElwain. "If I could make predictions I'd be in Vegas right now, making a whole bunch of money at the sports book. I think we've helped ourselves. Do we still need depth there? Yes, but I think we've helped ourselves."
Putting up more of a fight at the line of scrimmage is of utmost importance, but with only two returning starters along the defensive line (John Froland and C.J. James) the struggle may be ongoing. James certainly has shown flashes of what he can accomplish with eight of his 36 tackles from last year coming behind the line of scrimmage and placing second on the unit with 5 sacks, but he will need teammates to keep opposing teams from keying on him every weekend.
The strongest section of the defense is probably the middle of the field where James Skelton and Shaquil Barrett are ready to set up residence for the linebacking corps. Forced to do a little bit of everything last year, Barrett led the team in total tackles with 99, recorded 4.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks as well as breaking up 3 passes. Skelton was second on the unit with 89 total stops.
Losing Nordly Capi (11.5 TFLs, 10.0 sacks, 7 forced fumbles) will certainly be a huge test for the squad moving forward.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Not only do the Rams have to re-think the offense with the loss of Thomas, the squad is also going in a different direction on special teams as well with both Ben DeLine and Chad VanderMolen no longer available to handle the placekicking chores.
Instead, it will be sophomore Jared Roberts who will be handling the field goals and kickoffs for CSU this time around. Both of his predecessors were capable of hitting from beyond 40 yards on field goals, so Roberts has some standards to live up to.
Senior Pete Kontodiakos has been penciled in as the starting punter for the Rams once again after he let fly with 57 kicks last year, averaging close to 44 yards per attempt.
OUTLOOK: Coach McElwain and his troops are being thrown directly into the fire to begin the new era at Colorado State, as they kick off against in-state rival Colorado in Denver on Sept 1. A win there could give the team quite a bit of confidence moving forward, but at the same time the Rams have to defend against a let-down as well.
Further down the line the Rams will have some of their toughest tests of the campaign out on the road where they will visit San Diego State, Wyoming and Boise State in the second half of the campaign.
Assume that CSU will need some time to get acquainted with a new starting quarterback and schemes from a new coaching staff.