Blue Ribbon Preview Colorado State

COACH AND PROGRAM

Sonny Lubick is Colorado State football. In Fort Collins they use words like great and legend to describe the 15-year head coach, and justifiably so. Before his arrival, success and Rams football were words rarely included in the same sentence.CSU won 47 games in the 11 seasons before Lubick took over in 1993. After going 5-6 in his first season, Lubick led the Rams on the greatest run in program history. From 1994 to 2003, CSU won six conference titles, went to nine bowl games and Lubick established himself as an institution.

His on-field success doesn’t even begin to include what he has meant to the university in terms of fund raising and raising the university’s profile.

But the last few years haven’t been as kind to Lubick — one of just nine coaches to have won at least 100 games at their current institution — and the Rams. In 2004 CSU went 4-7, and the 2005 squad went to a bowl game but was trounced by Navy and finished 6-6. But no one saw last year’s collapse coming.

The Rams, despite the preseason loss of star running back Kyle Bell to a torn ACL, jumped out to a 4-1 start in 2006. CSU seemed like a lock to be on its way to a winning season and another bowl bid.

Then the unthinkable happened, a Lubick-coached team collapsed. The Rams lost their final seven games, all against Mountain West Conference opponents, and finished tied with UNLV for last place.

CSU led Air Force, 21-3 at the half in the sixth game and was outscored 21-0 in the second half. The next Saturday, Wyoming outscored the Rams 21-0 in the second half of a 24-0 victory. The following week New Mexico outscored CSU 10-0 in the fourth quarter and beat the Rams 20-19 on a field goal as time expired.

Three weeks, three crushing defeats and the Rams never recovered. CSU lost its last four games by an average of 18 points and didn’t lose one of them by less than 11.

Historically the Rams have been a hard-nosed team under Lubick and that starts with the running game. When Bell got hurt, CSU lost that identity and, despite the early success, never recovered. CSU averaged a woeful 2.5 yards per carry and finished 113th in the nation in rushing offense (918 yards). In an effort to foster toughness, Lubick put his players through a hard-hitting spring practice in hopes of instilling an attitude that will lead to success in the fall.

After three consecutive non-winning seasons, it’s easy to wonder if time has started to catch up with Lubick, but that might be a dangerous assumption. His success helped elevate the level of play throughout the MWC, because Lubick and Colorado State were the hurdle the rest of the league was trying to clear.

Utah, TCU and now BYU have caught and exceeded the Rams in recent years, but last year’s seven-game skid was likely an aberration. CSU returns nine starters on each side of the ball, including Bell, who should restore life to the running game.

The road back to respectability won’t be easy for the Rams, who lost 71 player games to injury in 2006, in part because of a challenging non-conference schedule. In addition to their annual meeting with Colorado, the Rams will play host to Cal, a preseason top-20 team, and play at Houston, a bowl team a season ago. In all, CSU will play six 2006 bowl teams.

The Rams have to play at BYU and TCU, but that means the home conference schedule — Air Force, San Diego State, Utah and Wyoming — should be manageable, relatively speaking.

Every team faces challenges, but Lubick will have an experienced and maybe more importantly, a hungry team, entering his 15th year at Colorado State.

QUARTERBACKS

The Rams have returned a senior starting quarterback six times in the Lubick era and five times the result has been a trip to a bowl game. The only time the Rams didn’t qualify for a bowl with a senior quarterback, Ryan Eslinger led them to a 7-4 record in 1998. Senior Caleb Hanie (6-2, 236) will have to raise his level of play if he hopes to continue that tradi-tion of success.

Inside the Mountain West

Hanie threw for 2,427 yards, 11 touchdowns and completed 61.1 percent of his passes in his first season as a starter, but he tossed 12 interceptions, nine of them coming in the seven-game losing streak. The lack of a running game was certainly a mitigating factor, but Hanie was unable to carry the Rams through tough times last season.CSU scored only 30 points in the fourth quarter all season and had 55 drives that ended in three-and-outs (including possessions that ended in turnovers). Hanie isn’t responsible for all of those numbers, and it’s unfair to suggest otherwise, but he is the leader of an offense that ranked eighth in the league in scoring (16.8 ppg).

Hanie’s completion percentage suggests the potential is there for him to be an effective quarterback, but he must reduce the turnovers. Hanie will also have to prove he can lead the Rams to victory under difficult circumstances, something that didn’t happen last season.

“He is a solid, competitive [player],” Lubick said “He’s a student of football. He really studies and tries to get better every day. You get behind in games and suddenly you are throwing on 3rd-and-8 and 3rd-and-10, and it’s not always going to be good when you do that. He can manage things [well enough for us to win].”

If Hanie struggles, junior Bill Farris (6-3, 212), who had a strong spring, could push for playing time. Farris completed 11-of-19 passes for 148 yards in five games last season, and he gained 68 yards on 13 carries, making him the team’s fourth leading rusher.

Sophomore Grant Stucker (6-2, 201) is third on the depth chart.

RUNNING BACKS

The running back position epitomized the team’s 2006 struggles. The Rams’ ground game, typically a strength, was desultory. CSU was held to 42 yards rushing or less in five games last season, but Lubick remained committed to the ground attack, running the ball 372 times, an average of 31 times per game. Despite his persistence, CSU didn’t have a back gain 100 yards in a game for the first time in Lubick’s tenure.The running game suffered a crippling blow when junior Kyle Bell (6-2, 232) suffered a torn ACL just days before the season opener against Weber State. Bell rushed for 1,288 yards as a sophomore, including a career-high 197 yards in a win against Air Force. He rushed for more than 100 yards six times in the final 10 games of the 2005 season and seemed poised to carry the CSU running game and, by extension, its offense until he went down with the injury.

Bell’s recovery from surgery was going well heading into the summer, but he was held out of contact drills in the spring. Barring another injury or an unforeseen setback, Bell will be the opening game starter, and the Rams desperately need him to recapture his 2005 form, though he won’t be a cure-all.

“Everybody thinks because Kyle is coming back things are going to get better,” Lubick said. “[We have] a chance for that, but the offensive line has to do a better job, and we all have to do better. But he will help.”

Junior Michael Myers (6-1, 208) and redshirt freshman John Mosure (5-10, 190) will battle for the No. 2 spot in the depth chart. Myers, who made the switch from defensive back in the spring of 2006 and played sporadically last season, but he was the team’s most productive back.

Myers carried the ball 38 times for 179 yards, an average of 4.7 yards per carry, nearly double the team’s average. An academic all-conference selection as a freshman, Myers was a track standout in high school and the fastest of CSU’s top three running backs.

Mosure, a Miami, Fla., product, was a runner-up for the Mr. Florida Football award in 2005 and had a strong spring. Whoever wins the battle for the second spot, Mosure could see more reps than usual early in the season as Bell gets reacclimated to the game.

Last year’s leading rusher, junior Gartrell Johnson (6-0, 230), will probably find himself doing a lot more blocking. Johnson, who carried the ball 109 times for 305 yards and six touchdowns, could play fullback in formations where the H-back is removed.

Sophomore Alex Square (5-9, 170) will also compete for carries. He played in seven games last season, finishing with four yards on two carries.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

There are a lot of questions surrounding the CSU offense, but they don’t involve the team’s wide receivers. The Rams return five of their top six receivers, including senior Damon Morton (5-11, 176).After catching just 10 passes his first two seasons, Morton emerged as CSU’s big play threat in 2006, catching 48 passes for 722 yards and four touchdowns. The speedy Morton had a catch of at least 40 yards five times in the last nine games, including an 83-yard reception against Air Force, the second-longest non-scoring pass play in CSU history.

While Morton provides the quick strike capability, senior Johnny Walker (6-0, 190) is Hanie’s most reliable target. Walker led the Rams with 58 catches for 586 yards last season, ranking fourth in the league in catches per game (4.83). His longest reception was just 32 yards, but he is one of the team’s most consistent performers.

Walker is 10th in CSU history in career receiving yards (1,688) and sixth in receptions (136). With an average season, he will climb into the top five in both categories. Though he doesn’t typically pile up gaudy single-game statistics, Walker did establish career highs with 10 catches for 158 yards in last year’s win against Colorado.

The Rams also return seniors Luke Roberts (6-2, 206) and George Hill (5-11, 184) and sophomores Rashaun Greer (6-1, 202) and Dion Morton (5-10, 162), Damon’s brother. Roberts, the likely starter at flanker, caught 23 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns.

Hill is one of the team’s fastest players, but that speed hasn’t translated into production. He entered last season with great expectations but caught 12 passes for 47 yards. After three years of waiting, anything the Rams get out of Hill will be a bonus.

CSU’s biggest target, senior Kory Sperry (6-6, 260), is also one of its most productive. Sperry, the starting H-back, was the 19th-ranked tight end in the nation entering the 2006 season, according to The Sporting News, and he didn’t disappoint, catching 36 passes for 380 yards and a team-high five touchdowns. The only knock on Sperry, who caught 42 passes for 547 yards as a sophomore, is his blocking. If he becomes a better blocker, Sperry might be playing on Sundays in 2008.

Sophomore Kevin McPeek (6-6, 245) is the top reserve at H-back.

Junior Chris Kawulok (6-3, 244) is the starting tight end, but he is essentially a sixth lineman. Kawulok doesn’t have a reception in 22 career games. Sperry will see plenty of time at tight end as well. Freshman Adam Seymore (6-4, 245) is probably a year away from seeing significant playing time.

OFFENSIVE LINE

There will be several new faces along the CSU line, and that might not be a bad thing. The Rams averaged 2.5 yards per carry last season, something that can’t be attributed strictly to Bell’s absence, and allowed 41 sacks. This unit must improve.CSU will return three players that started at least half the time in 2006, led by senior center Nick Allotta (6-3, 305). Allotta has nearly as many career starts (19) as every other player in the two-deep combined (21). He split his time between left guard and center last season. He will need to provide a young and obviously inexperienced line with leadership. Sophomore Tim Walter (6-6, 277) is Allotta’s understudy.

Sophomore Adam Martinez (6-4, 300) returns at right guard after starting 10 games as a freshman. Martinez’s development was slowed by a dislocated kneecap that forced him to sit out spring practice, but he should be improved. Redshirt freshman Guy Miller (6-2, 286) is second in line at right guard.

Sophomore Scott Benedict (6-4, 294) is atop the depth chart at left guard. Benedict, who started six games in 2006, has the size to be an effective player. Sophomore Shelley Smith (6-4, 282) will attempt to push Benedict.

Things are a little more unsettled at the tackle spots, where Josh Day and Clint Oldenburg, both of whom had more than 30 career starts to their credit, graduated. Oldenburg was a fifth-round draft pick of the New England Patriots.

All of that experience is being replaced by a lot of question marks. Senior Marvin Arnold (6-4, 294) started the first four games of 2006 until suffering a season-ending leg injury. Arnold was then forced to sit out the spring with a badly sprained ankle, leaving massive sophomore Cole Pemberton (6-7, 318), who played in nine games last season, atop the depth chart. Pemberton has the talent to be a standout, but he will have to grow into that role quickly.

At right tackle, redshirt freshman Brian Lepac (6-5, 298) enjoyed an outstanding spring, and finds himself battling junior Dane Stratton (6-5, 298) for the starting job. Redshirt freshman Mark Starr (6-5, 273) also hopes to see playing time.

KICKERS

Junior Jason Smith (6-2, 201) will to try and bounce back from an uneven sophomore campaign. Smith, who made 9-of-10 kicks as a freshman, was just 8-of-15 in 2006. He was 3-of-5 from between 30 and 39 yards and missed five of six kicks from 40 yards or more.Smith made a career-long 49-yard kick against New Mexico but otherwise didn’t make a field goal longer than 36 yards all season. The Rams won’t have a lot of margin for error, so an efficient Smith would be a boon.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The uncertainty that surrounds the offensive line is nowhere to be found on the defensive side of the ball. The CSU defensive line, which returns four starters from last season, should be a strong group. Senior Blake Smith (6-2, 257) a three-year starter, is the line’s most experienced player, but he will see some time at defensive end as well. Smith, who finished with a team-high nine tackles for loss as defensive tackle, has had difficulty sustaining the weight necessary to play fulltime in the middle. Playing a few reps at end caters to his greatest strength — his ability to get after the quarterback. Junior Matt Rupp (6-3, 272), who led the team with four sacks last season, will probably step in for Smith on the plays he is at one of the end spots.The anchor of the team’s interior line could be nose guard Erik Sandie (6-2, 289), who enjoyed a good spring. Sandie had 20 tackles, including two for loss and two sacks last season. Behind him is James Moorehead (6-6, 310), the unit’s biggest player. Moorehead had seven tackles in a reserve role.

The top returning end is senior Jesse Nading (6-5, 263), whose 33 tackles in 2006 were down considerably from his sophomore production. Nading had 56 tackles, 11 for a loss, and four sacks in 2005, numbers the Rams would like to see him replicate as a senior.

Sophomore Tommie Hill (6-6, 225) is listed as Nading’s backup but could end up starting opposite him. Hill, who started the final two games of the season, had an impressive freshman campaign. He had 23 tackles, including five for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles and one recovery.

Junior Wade Landers (6-6, 252) started seven games last season and had 2.5 sacks but will have to work hard to hold off Hill the starting job. Senior Bob Vomhof (6-3, 247) is yet another returning defensive end that can provide production.

The key for CSU’s line, which should help the team improve on the respectable 27 sacks it had in 2006, will be improving a run defense that allowed 4.1 yards per carry.

LINEBACKERS

The Rams are set at middle linebacker with the return of junior Jeff Horinek (6-3, 238), entering his third season as a starter. Horinek was fourth on the team in tackles last year with 69, including a career high 10 against Air Force. Senior Nathan Pauly (6-1, 205) and sophomore Matt Hendrick (6-2, 225) are the top reserves. Pauly missed the 2006 season with a wrist injury but has four career starts and 37 tackles to his credit.The questions for CSU’s linebacking corps are on the outside. With Luke Adkins and Jon Radford out of eligibility, both spots are open. Sophomore Jake Pottorff (6-4, 244) is atop the weak-side depth chart. Pottorff, who has all-conference talent, started two games and played in nine, finishing with 28 tackles before his season was shortened by a shoulder injury.

Pottorff’s greatest challenge will probably come from junior John Clark (6-3, 225), a mid-year transfer from Fresno City College. Clark was a two-time all-conference performer at Fresno and should see immediate field time.

Redshirt freshman Alex Williams (6-1, 232) also hopes to figure in the rotation.

On the strong side, sophomore Sedric Patterson (6-1, 231) and redshirt freshman Ricky Brewer (6-2, 216) will battle for the job. Pauly could compete for time on the outside as well.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

CSU was good against the pass a year ago, allowing 181.2 yards per game in the pass happy MWC, and should be even better this season. The Rams return all four players that were starting at the end of 2006.Junior Klint Kubiak (6-0, 201) was the team’s leading tackler from his free safety spot, making 90 tackles, including six for loss. Kubiak, the son of Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak, also had an interception and recovered a fumble. He sat out the spring after hip surgery, and his availability for the beginning of the 2007 season is uncertain. Lubick said it was possible Kubiak wouldn’t be healthy enough to play until early October, a return date that brings the possibility of a redshirt season, if he suffers a setback.

Junior Mike Pagnotta (6-0, 203) started seven games at strong safety and finished tied for third on the team in tackles with 71, despite missing three games with an injury. Pagnotta, the strong safety, also had eight tackles for loss and three sacks, both of which were second on the team, and a forced fumble. With a season of good health, the playmaking Pagnotta could challenge for all-conference honors.

Sophomore Jake Galusha (5-10, 200) will be Pagnotta’s backup. Senior Zac Bryson (6-1, 215) provides Kubiak with support.

Senior Darryl Williams (5-9, 180) is the top returning cornerback. Williams, entering his third year as a starter, had a team-high three interceptions and three passes broken up a year ago. He was also fifth on the team with 55 tackles. Williams, the right-side cornerback, gives the Rams a veteran cover man, almost a necessity in the receiver-strong MWC.

Red-shirt freshman DeAngelo Wilkinson (5-10, 181) will back up Williams.

Manning the left side of the field will be senior Joey Rucks (5-10, 190). In his first year as a starter, Rucks broke up a team high six passes and had 35 tackles. Rucks, in his third year at CSU after transferring from West Los Angeles Community College, showed improvement in his second year in the program. If he makes another similar jump, the Rams could have an outstanding set of cornerbacks.

Senior Jermaine Walters (5-11, 200) will provide depth in his second season after transferring from Mesabi Range (Minn.) Community College.

PUNTERS

The Rams have one of the best punters in the nation in senior Jimmie Kaylor (6-3, 197). The second team all-MWC selection averaged 43.7 yards last season, pinning opponents inside the 20 on 13 occasions. Kaylor was on the Ray Guy Award watch list a year ago.In a perfect world, CSU will see less of Kaylor this season. He punted 65 times, second most in the conference a season ago.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Damon Morton returned punts and kickoffs a season ago, doing a good job on both accounts. Morton averaged 9.7 yards per punt return and brought one back for a touchdown against Fresno State. Morton, fourth in the MWC in all-purpose yards (109.2), is dangerous any time he touches the ball. Walker will share punt return duties and he also averaged 9.7 per return last season, giving the Rams a pair of good return men.CSU’s coverage teams were adequate as well. The Rams were fourth in the league in kickoff coverage and they had a net punting average of 35.2.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

Lubick set the standard for many years, first in the WAC and now the MWC. He still has more Division I-A conference titles to his credit than every other coach in the MWC combined. After three straight non-winning seasons — including a second-place league finish en route to a 6-6 season in 2005 — the Rams don’t want to see a couple of disappointing seasons turn into a full fledged slide.

Grading the Rams

CSU has nine starters back on both sides of the ball and a coach that is one of the best of his generation, so the pieces are in place. If Bell is healthy and recaptures his 2005 form, Hanie can avoid mistakes and the offensive line can give both enough room to work, CSU could be this year’s surprise team.The defense won’t be on par with TCU’s, but it should be good enough to give CSU a chance to win. A deep, if undersized, defensive line will allow the Rams to generate pressure on quarterbacks and the secondary will be solid.

The reality is the Rams have a lot of questions on offense. But in a league where the projected top five teams all have inexperienced quarterbacks, there is an opportunity for a surprise run.

CSU, Air Force, San Diego State and UNLV were the league’s four worst teams in 2006. While no means a lock, the Rams are the best bet to make a surprising run at bowl eligibility, especially if they can survive a difficult September schedule.

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