By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: A perfect 3-0 right out of the gate were the Colorado State Rams, but by no means was that an accurate indication as to what the program could expect the rest of the way in 2009.
The Rams kicked off the campaign with a 23-17 win over in-state rival
Colorado, but understand that the Buffaloes finished the season with a total
of just three wins of their own. Week Two resulted in a 24-23 victory against
a stubborn Weber State group at home, and then seven days later CSU caught
Nevada sleeping in a 35-20 decision. Seeing as how Nevada soon afterward
ripped off eight straight wins, the victory for the Rams over the Wolf Pack
had to be a highlight of the season, especially since Colorado State went in
the tank following that triumph.
There were a number of close calls against mediocre opposition the rest of the
way for the Rams, losing by a combined five points versus Idaho, New Mexico
and Wyoming, but for the most part Steve Fairchild's bunch didn't stand a
chance as it finished 3-9 and was last in the Mountain West Conference
standings at 0-8. With nine straight setbacks to close out the year, Colorado
State heads into this new seasons tied for third in the nation with the
longest losing streak, trailing only Western Kentucky (20) and Eastern
OFFENSE: While there are many areas the Rams need to address heading into
2010, none is more important than the centerpiece on offense. "All indications
are we'll start a freshman quarterback, I think, for the first time in
Colorado State history. It'll either be Pete Thomas who is a true freshman and
a highly recruited kid out of San Diego who enrolled early and went through
Spring football, or Nico Ranieri who was a red-shirt freshman."
Whomever it is taking the reins of the offense, there will certainly be plenty
of growing pains. Last year, the passing attack for the Rams ranked seventh in
the league and 76th nationally with an average of 206.9 ypg, but considering
the team was constantly fighting from behind, perhaps that number is
indicative of a program that was just trying to remain respectable.
"They both have really amazed me with their level of maturity and ability
they've shown this summer," says fullback Zac Pauga about working with both of
the young QBs trying to take over the offense. "I'm comfortable playing behind
either one of them."
Pauga, one of only a handful of seniors currently on the top line of the depth
chart, has the right attitude and is trying to be optimistic, but with so
many pieces needing to be filled on the offensive line he too might be feeling
the pinch once the Rams line up against the Colorado Buffaloes in the season
opener in Denver.
At running back, CSU is giving Raymond Carter and Chris Nwoke every
opportunity to prove themselves, but neither one of them had any impact on the
unit a season ago. Carter will also be the top guy on kick returns until
something changes as well.
With 25 receptions a year ago, Pauga is the top returning receiver for the
Rams, which means someone else will have to step up out on the wings, whether
that's Tyson Liggett or Lou Greenwood who combined for 30 catches and four TDs
DEFENSE: On top of having a mediocre offense last season, the Rams also had to
deal with a defense that was taken advantage of more often than not. The pass
defense was especially exposed as it ranked eighth in the conference and 87th
in the country with 235.7 ypg. If that were not enough, the end outcome of all
of those successful passing attacks against the Rams meant the unit was 100th
in the country in pass efficiency defense with a rating of 140.76.
Coach Fairchild asserts that his secondary is stronger this time around,
thanks in large part to free safety Elijah-Blu Smith who he claims is his best
athlete on that side of the ball. Smith was the second-leading tackler for the
group a year ago with 74 stops, his three interceptions ranking him second on
the unit as well. However, Smith will have to make up for the loss of Nick
Oppenneer who was tops in coverage with four picks and also had a team-best
Mychal Sisson had more solo tackles (51) than all but four of his teammates
had total stops last season, so his return will be key to getting this group
on the right track. Sisson, who was first in the league and tied for 24th in
the country in tackles for loss with a lofty 15.5 over the course of 12 games,
also led the team with six sacks, while Chris Gipson was responsible for three
sacks and four TFLs.
The inclusion of Guy Miller in the 2010 group of the defensive line is also
crucial, given that he placed second in TFLs with six and a half.
Alex Williams and Ricky Brewer, both of whom are seniors, will provide
leadership in the middle of the field and will hopefully make up for any of
the missed plays by Miller and the rest of his line mates.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Whether it was because of the punter or the coverage team last
season, the Rams ranked not only last in the Mountain West, but also 116th in
the nation with an average of just 31.6 yards per boot. Pete Kontodiakos, who
had a long of 76 yards and just one of his 52 efforts blocked, will be back to
handle those duties once more, while Ben DeLine will be lining up field goals.
DeLine had some issues between 30-39 yards where he made just two of five
chances, yet he knocked through all four of his opportunities from 40-49
yards, so figure that out.
OUTLOOK: "Is it a bad taste in our mouth? Yes," coach Fairchild admits of his
team's disappointing run at the end of last season. "You look back to last
season and obviously I'm not sure we're as bad as that record indicated, but
its a good lesson for all of us. Football comes down to one or two plays here
at the end of a game, the year before we closed it out right on a few of them
and found a way to get ourselves into a bowl game and last year we weren't
able to do that."
The Rams don't have an easy time of it right out of the gate, playing Colorado
on the road in a huge rivalry meeting and then heading to both Nevada and
Miami-Ohio. The squad does catch TCU and BYU at home, yet that only gives the
hometown fans a look at how good quality teams from the MWC perform. Low
expectations should be the thought process for CSU and its fans, targeting a
couple years down the road for improvement.