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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 106: Colorado State

Tomorrow is more important than today at the vast majority of programs in the F.B.S. Those that value the present over the future are those that expect domination as a birthright, and it’s not a long list: Alabama, L.S.U., Ohio State, U.S.C. and their kin, those programs who first moved to the forefront of the sport generations ago and have, with a few speed bumps, remained atop the heap in the decades since. Colorado State isn’t one of those schools, and certainly isn’t one of those schools in 2012, when former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain steps into Steve Fairchild’s mess. Those that stay firmly in the present would have suspended but not dismissed Mike Orakpo, Nordly Capi and Colton Paulhus, the three student-athletes arrested earlier this spring after a “savage beating” of four university freshmen. That McElwain dismissed the three, two of whom were all-conference defenders, sends a heartening signal: despite his pedigree, McElwain knows that in Fort Collins, tomorrow is more important than today. Keeping Orakpo, Capi and Paulhus on the roster might have led the Rams to another win or two in 2012, but at what cost?

Mountain West

Fort Collins, Colo.


Returning starters
14 (8 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 93

2011 record
(3-9, 1-6)

Last year’s

No. 106

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    Colorado (in Denver)
  • Sept. 8
    North Dakota St.
  • Sept. 15
    at San Jose St.
  • Sept. 22
    Utah St.
  • Sept. 29
    at Air Force
  • Oct. 6
    Fresno St.
  • Oct. 13
    at San Diego St.
  • Oct. 27
  • Nov. 3
    at Wyoming
  • Nov. 10
  • Nov. 17
    at Boise St.
  • Nov. 24
    New Mexico

Last year’s prediction

Does Fairchild have a plan? Has he been building to this season, willingly accepting a pair of 3-9 stumbles to get to this point? Or does he not have a grasp on the situation? I’m not willing to believe the latter, though nor am I willing to give Fairchild the benefit of the doubt. The schedule is not altogether difficult, so if the Rams have their act together this team has the talent to get to 6-6. Still, you’d really need a positive outlook to project a bowl berth in 2011. Better? Yes. Three wins better? I’d guess no, but maybe Fairchild does have a plan.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Fairchild’s plan, if he had one, was to put the finishing touches on the program’s worst three-year period in 40 years. Though I’m confident that this wasn’t Fairchild’s plan, it’s impossible to find any fault in the university’s decision to move in a different direction. That Fairchild suffered such a dreadful crash over the last three seasons raises two interesting but ultimately unproductive questions. For starters, did Colorado State do its due diligence in hiring Fairchild, or did the administration simply fall in love with his ties to the university and his work in the N.F.L.? Secondly, would Sonny Lubick — Fairchild’s predecessor and a university legend — have won more than 16 games over the last four years?

High point Only New Mexico’s own ineptitude saved C.S.U. from a dreadful loss to open the season — the Rams were outgained, held possession of the football for less than 27 minutes and were awful on third and fourth down. But a win is a win, even over the Lobos. The Rams’ best win, by leaps and bounds, was a 35-34 overtime victory over Utah State on the final Saturday of September. Why Gary Andersen went for a two-point conversion in the second overtime remains a mystery.

Low point Colorado State would lose eight straight games to end the season, though four came by a touchdown or less. One loss, by 38-35 to U.N.L.V., was the program’s low point under Fairchild. The Rams would cap the year by losing a third straight game to Wyoming, though this defeat was also by only a field goal — an improvement after being shut out, 44-0, in 2010.

Tidbit Sixty-eight teams went bowling in 2008. Colorado State, 7-6 in Steve Fairchild’s first year, was one of those teams. Of those 68, 61 have returned to bowl play in at least one of the last three years. There were 11 teams that reached bowl action in 2008 but stayed home from postseason play in both 2009 and 2010; after last fall, that numbers drops down to seven — Wake Forest, Louisiana Tech, Vanderbilt and Western Michigan reached bowl play. The seven still left searching for answers: Colorado State, Kansas, Memphis, Rice, Buffalo, Ball State and Florida Atlantic. The Rams join Memphis as the only two of those seven teams to have lost at least nine games in each of the last three seasons.

Tidbit (it’s been worse edition) As bad as Colorado State has been since 2009 — 9-27 overall, 3-20 in Mountain West play — this period stands as only the third-worst three-year stretch in the program’s modern era. The Rams went 4-19-2 under Harry Hughes from 1937-39, getting outscored by 132-413 and, in 1937, scoring only six points altogether — all six points coming against Colorado College on Nov. 20. It might have been worse from 1960-62: C.S.U. went 2-28 under the combination of Don Mullison and Mike Lude, failing to score more than 89 points in any one season.

Former players in the N.F.L.

8 OG Mike Brisiel (Oakland), TE Joel Dreessen (Denver), QB Caleb Hanie (Denver), OT Paul Madsen (Buffalo), LB Jesse Nading (Houston), OT Erik Pears (Buffalo), OG Shelley Smith (Houston), TE Kory Sperry (San Diego).

Arbitrary top five list

Best wins of the Steve Fairchild era (2008-11)
1. Sept. 6, 2009: Rams 23, Colorado 17.
2. Dec. 20, 2008: Rams 40, Fresno State 35.
3. Nov. 22, 2008: Rams 31, Wyoming 20.
4. Sept. 19, 2009: Rams 35, Nevada 20.
5. Sept. 24, 2011: Rams 35, Utah State 34.


Jim McElwain (Eastern Washington ’84), entering his first season. McElwain spent the last four seasons as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama, helping lead the Crimson Tide to three double-digit win seasons, two SEC West titles, one SEC crown and two national championships — only in the B.C.S. era could that last sentence make sense. McElwain’s work with the Crimson Tide went overshadowed behind Saban’s defense, but he left a lasting legacy in Tuscaloosa. One of his running backs, Mark Ingram, won the Heisman Trophy; a second, Trent Richardson, was a Heisman finalist. Under McElwain’s direction, Greg McElroy developed into one of the most prolific passers in school history. Alabama’s play at quarterback didn’t suffer any decline last fall, as the Tide moved from McElroy to first-year starter A.J. McCarron with little drop in production. Under McElwain, Alabama ran the most punishing and focused pro-style offense in college football. While you wouldn’t know it, thanks to how Alabama moved the ball, McElwain did not have any B.C.S. conference coordinator experience prior to arriving in Tuscaloosa. Saban hired him right from Fresno State, where McElwain spent the 2007 season — helping the Bulldogs win nine games — after a season as the quarterbacks coach with the Oakland Raiders. Before being hired at Fresno, McElwain had not been a coordinator since ending a five-year stint at Montana State in 1999. He then moved to Louisville, where he coached the wide receivers and served as the special teams coordinator from 2000-2; he then followed John L. Smith to Michigan State, holding the same positions through 2005. McElwain’s stint at Alabama made him a strong candidate for Colorado State, but so did his years as an assistant in the area — Eastern Washington, Montana State and Fresno State. He’s a strong, offense-first, college-based coach. His team won’t reverse this slide from the start, but C.S.U. should be very excited about the program’s future with McElwain at the helm.

Tidbit (coaching edition) McElwain’s offensive coordinator, Dave Baldwin, spent the last three seasons in the same capacity at Utah State. That’s a two-pronged blow for the Aggies, who not only lost their coordinator but lost him to a soon-to-be conference rival. The Rams’ new offensive line coach, Derek Frazier, comes over from Fresno State — he and McElwain worked together in 2007. Quarterbacks coach Billy Napier, a quality control assistant at Alabama last fall, was once the coordinator at Clemson, though Tigers’ fans weren’t overly broken up over his departure. C.S.U. will have co-defensive coordinators in Marty English, formerly of Wyoming, and Al Simmons, a coaching lifer who has worked at UTEP, California, Arizona State and San Jose State, among other F.B.S. stops, as well as two years with the San Francisco 49ers. English and Simmons will implement a 3-4 system, though C.S.U. will continue to dabble with the 4-3 in certain situations.

Players to watch

With such a heavy focus being paid to the three defensive players recently dismissed from the program, it’s easy to forget that the offensive side of the ball suffered its own painful loss shortly after last season. Would-be junior Pete Thomas, the crown jewel of Fairchild’s recruiting efforts in Fort Collins, opted to transfer roughly a month after McElwain’s hiring, eventually landing at N.C. State. While Thomas never turned into the quarterback C.S.U. envisioned — the Rams pictured a program-changing talent, not a quarterback who would toss more interceptions than touchdowns over two seasons in the starting lineup — you can’t help but wonder how Thomas, an unquestioned talent, could have fared under McElwain’s direction.

The loss hurts, but the Rams can take some solace in the fact that Thomas missed the final three games of last season due to injury. That Thomas was sidelined gave valuable snaps to sophomore Garrett Grayson, the unquestioned starter as the Rams head into the summer. Clearly, Grayson wasn’t ready for the opportunity as a true freshman: he completed 43 of his 77 attempts over four games last fall, tossing six interceptions against a pair of touchdowns. Grayson also didn’t enter the offseason on a high note, thanks to his three-interception performance in the 22-19 loss to Wyoming.

But he has talent, and now, in McElwain, he has a terrific offensive technician used to working with raw, untapped talent — see McElroy and McCarron. It’s too early to say that Grayson has all-conference potential, if only because his small sample size precludes taking such a giant leap of faith. But hidden in his limited duty are moments that signal the potential for a solid career, like his solid first start against T.C.U., when he threw for 248 yards and a score on 24 attempts. For C.S.U., Grayson is the present and the future: expect a step back for every two steps forward, but McElwain will get the most out of his first starting quarterback.

And more often than not, the offense will run through junior back Chris Nwoke — taking pressure off of the rookie quarterback. All Nwoke does is produce: he rushed for 357 yards in a part-time role as a freshman before gaining 1,130 yards and 9 scores as the starter last fall. If not for some lingering issues with injuries, Nwoke would have finished second in the M.W.C. in rushing; he had less than 10 carries in four games, including the season finale against Wyoming.

Twice, against San Diego State and Air Force, Nwoke gained at least 232 yards. He gained 156 yards against U.N.L.V., and at least 74 yards against Boise State, UTEP and Utah State. The production is clearly there, though Nwoke could stand to be a bit more consistent. The Rams could use a backup to Nwoke, seeing that former U.C.L.A. transfer Raymond Carter has exhausted his eligibility. There’s no experienced back in reserve, though one contender may be familiar to fans in Big 12 country: Mister Jones, formerly of Texas A&M, is eligible in 2012 after spending last season on the JUCO ranks.

Thomas Coffman may not look like much — 5’10, maybe 165 pounds — but he has the ability to make plays, as he illustrated over a two-game stretch against San Jose State and Boise State, when he made 3 receptions for 138 yards. But then he disappeared, making only two grabs over the year’s final six games. The Rams could use some explosiveness in the passing game, so Coffman could become a player to watch. What the Rams do have is an all-conference tight end in junior Crockett Gilmore (team-best 45 receptions for 468 yards and 4 touchdowns) and an experienced senior receiver in Lou Greenwood (26 for 396). There’s not much after that, so the six true and redshirt freshmen receivers on the roster will have ample opportunities to move into starting or key reserve roles.

Nordly Capi was a second-team all-Mountain West pick last fall. Mike Orakpo, Colorado State’s third-leading tackler, was in line for postseason honors in 2012. Losing Capi robs the Rams of their best pure pass rusher; he lead the M.W.C. in sacks in 2011. Orakpo was only beginning to scratch the surface of his potential as a disrupter at weak side linebacker. And McElwain didn’t think twice of dismissing both from the team last month, along with reserve end Colton Paulhus, which says much about his long-term vision for the program — or the degree of accountability he’ll expect from the C.S.U. roster, at least. Even if losing players like Capi and Orakpo put a dent in Colorado State’s plans for a one-year turnaround, you can’t help but respect how McElwain handled the entire situation.

But the impact these losses will have on the Rams’ defense is incalculable. Capi in particular is close to irreplaceable: his departure puts tremendous pressure on senior end C.J. James (36 tackles, 5.0 sacks), who must ramp up his own production without Capi occupying the lion’s share of attention from opposing blocking schemes. The defense can partly offset Capi’s dismissal thanks to the move to the 3-4 under English and Simmons — outside linebackers can help with the pass rush — but clearly, his departure leaves a gaping hole at end.

In terms of replacing Capi in the starting lineup, the Rams have the option of moving sophomore John Froland (34 tackles, 3.5 for loss) outside from tackle. Froland has added about 20 pounds since last season, bringing him closer to prototypical 3-4 end size, and can move back  inside when the Rams go with four down linemen, increasing his value.

Froland, sophomore Te’Jay Brown (14 tackles), junior Curtis Wilson (14 tackles, 2.0 sacks) and senior Zach Tiedgen are the Rams’ most experienced returning tackles. While Brown started three games at nose tackle last fall — replacing the since-graduated Nuku Latu — the Rams brought in JUCO transfer Calvin Tonga for the express purpose of stepping right into Latu’s shoes. I’ve seen Tonga listed at both 295 pounds and 340 pounds, so let’s split the difference and say 320; either way, he’s due to anchor the inside of Colorado State’s defensive front.

You can’t help but wonder what sort of havoc Orakpo could have wreaked off the weak side in this new defense. As is, the Rams bring back two of last year’s starters in senior James Skelton (91 tackles) and junior Shaquil Barrett (team-best 99 tackles, 2.5 sacks), though each will hold different duties in this tweaked defensive system. Last fall, Barrett lined up inside and Skelton on the strong side; while the Rams are still working out a depth chart, I think both will line up inside in the 3-4 base set.

That would leave C.S.U. searching for two starting linebackers on the outside. I can’t imagine a scenario where the Rams won’t turn one starting job over to sophomore Max Morgan (28 tackles), a promising underclassmen who made one start, when the Rams came out with four linebackers, during his rookie season. Morgan’s one start did come with him lined up inside against Air Force, so he could start alongside Barrett in the middle with Skelton on the outside. Other linebacker options include senior Davis Burl, a part-time starter at end last fall, junior Charles Favors and a slew of freshmen and sophomores.

The secondary might have ranked second in the Mountain West in yards allowed per game last fall, but that was largely because teams ran at will on Rams — why take a chance and pass when you can just run and run? This is a secondary that needs to take a significant step forward; in addition, losing their best pass rusher will have a profoundly negative impact on the secondary’s bottom line. There are two things to like about the secondary heading into 2012, however: one, there aren’t many solid passing teams on the schedule; and two, the Rams bring back five defensive backs with starting experience.

Three are at cornerback: junior Shaq Bell (47 tackles) and seniors Momo Thomas (31 tackles, 2 interceptions) and Marcus Shaw. After losing Elijah Blu-Smith midway through last season, C.S.U. went with the starting cornerback pair of Thomas and Bell, with Shaw making a start in the season finale against Wyoming. While the Rams lost strong safety Ivory Herd, they return sophomore Austin Gray (59 tackles) at free safety.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Three signs that Colorado State’s offensive line will be a work in progress throughout McElwain’s first season: one, the Rams will need to learn a new blocking scheme, which is never easy; two, C.S.U. needed five walk-ons — recruited earlier in the winter — just to have enough bodies to round out an adequate rotation during spring ball; and three, the offensive front allowed 48 sacks during the team’s three live scrimmages. The offensive front should grow in this system throughout the season, but as the Rams’ most glaring weakness, this line can only improve. The offense won’t run at anywhere close to full capacity until the line rounds into form.

Two full-time starters and one valuable reserve — a nice backup along the interior — must be replaced. One of the three, left guard Jake Gdowski, was a multiple-year starter. A second, Tyler McDermott, was a spot starter at center. The third, right tackle Paul Madsen, was a second-team all-Mountain West pick as a senior. While McElwain and his staff are holding the entire depth chart very close to the vest, Baldwin has had only praise for junior Weston Richburg, another second-team all-conference pick who has the flexibility to start at center, where he did for all but two games last fall, or swing outside to left tackle.

While the two-deep won’t be settled until August, my best guess for a starting lineup has Richburg at center, flanked by junior Jordan Gragert on the right and junior Brandon Haynes on the left, with senior Joe Caprioglio at blind side tackle and sophomore Mason Hathaway on the strong side. The only two starters in stone, however, are Richburg and Gragert — Caprioglio must prove he’s healthy after last season’s knee injury, or his spot will continue to be held by sophomore Ty Sambrailo. McElwain knows what he’s doing, but I doubt even he has a set-in-stone vision for a starting five. He will by September, but not now.

Game(s) to watch

It would be great for the Rams to start the McElwain era with a win over Colorado, but as bad as the Buffaloes were last fall, I don’t think there’s a great chance this team notches the upset. C.S.U. takes on six teams that won at least six games a season ago, as well as an up-and-coming program like San Jose State, so it’s imperative that the Rams notch wins over teams like North Dakota State, Fresno State, U.N.L.V. and New Mexico. Imperative if the Rams want to break out of the three-win rut, that is.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell You like everything about McElwain, beginning with his successful history as an assistant, the head coaches he’s worked under and the staff he’s compiled, not to mention the way he handled the unfortunate situation that crossed his plate in April. What separates McElwain from his predecessor, based on the last few months, is the blueprint he has for rebuilding C.S.U. into a Mountain West contender. You have little doubt that McElwain, along with his staff of assistants, know what they want to do — a pro-style offense with an attacking, aggressive 3-4 defense — and how they want to go about doing it. Accountability, obviously, will be demanded. The M.W.C. will have a power vacuum after this season, and there’s no reason why the Rams, after one or two seasons of development, can’t be one of two or three teams capable of filling the void. That’s a rosy long-term view of the program. The short-term vision appears bleak, but this should be expected: Fairchild didn’t leave a full cupboard, for starters, and the Rams did lose those two stars on defense. In addition, the Rams are going to hit a major learning curve once the whistle blows in September. The offensive line is a mess, and it’s hard to predict how Grayson will fare in his first season as the full-time starter. The defense will struggle throughout the year as the returning starters and new contributors acclimate themselves to the new system. This year won’t be pretty, in my opinion. But it’s easy to see that C.S.U. is in a far better place today than it was 12 months ago.

Dream season Despite the odds — the overwhelming odds, in fact — the Rams return to bowl play with an eight-win regular season. The wins include Colorado, Hawaii, Fresno State and Wyoming.

Nightmare season The spirit is willing for C.S.U. and company, but the flesh is weak. While the Rams play hard, the team doesn’t have the numbers to hit the ground running in McElwain’s new system. For the first time since 1988, the Rams lose 10 games.

In case you were wondering

Where do Colorado State fans congregate? For solid C.S.U. chatter, check out RamNation.com, though you’ll need to sign up to frequent the message board. For recruiting coverage, try Gold & Green News and RamsInsider.com. Additional coverage of all C.S.U. sports can be found on the Web site of The Coloradoan and Around the Horns.

Colorado State’s all-name nominee LB Golden Ekeanyanwu.

Word Count

Through 19 teams 62,477.

Up Next

Who is No. 105? Tomorrow’s programs currently owns a winning streak against only one of the nine B.C.S. conference opponents on its 2012 schedule.

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  1. David says:

    Kansas is next. The only 2012 BCS-conference opponent against whom they currently have a winning streak is TCU.

  2. Jackson says:

    CJ James has left the program so we are completely without a pass rushing DE. Tonga is a major qualification risk right now so we do not know what we will have on the DL. It will be a tough year for us but we have hope for the future.

    Paul: I know there have been rumblings that James is transferring to Akron, but as of yesterday, the university says that the three defenders dismissed from the team are the only recent losses. Based on that, decided to include him. Though there is a chance that James does leave over the summer.

  3. Ezra says:

    geez– when did TCU and Kansas last play? (checking…)1997.

    My, how things have changed in Fort Worth since then.

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