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2008 Blue Ribbon Preview: Colorado State

More Blue Ribbon Previews.

COACH AND PROGRAM

For Colorado State fans, the pain of watching campus legend Sonny Lubick nudged into retirement last winter was lessened by the Lubick-endorsed hiring of Steve Fairchild, 50, a former Rams quarterback and assistant coach.

Fairchild knows it won’t be easy to follow Lubick, who compiled a 108-74 record over 15 seasons and led the Rams to nine bowl games and at least a share of six conference titles. “There are no shortcuts in this business,” Fairchild said. “It’s hard work, determination, put your plan in place and don’t flinch, and that’s what we’ll do here.”

Colorado State experienced only four losing seasons under Lubick, but that includes three of the last four. Home attendance slipped to its lowest levels since 1992 last season and the squad had no first-team all-conference picks for a second consecutive season. The Rams started out 1-9 in 2007, losing four games by six or fewer points before rallying to finish with back-to-back victories.

Eight starters are back for an offense that ranked third in the league in rushing and fourth in total offense, but the returnees don’t include the quarterback or the top three receivers. Both cornerbacks and three defensive linemen have to be replaced from a unit that ranked eighth in the conference against the run and eighth in total defense.

Fairchild, the 19th head coach in the program’s 115-year history, paced NFL sidelines for the last seven seasons. He was the offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills under Dick Jauron in 2006-07 and held the same position with the St. Louis Rams under Mike Martz from 2003-05. His first NFL job was as running backs coach for the Bills from 2001-02.

Before, Fairchild served on Lubick’s staff during a period of unprecedented success. As the quarterbacks coach (1993-96) and offensive coordinator (1997-2000), he helped the Rams win five conference championships and earn five bowl invitations. They set school records for points (442) and touchdowns (59) in his first season as coordinator.

Fairchild first came to campus in 1978 as a junior college All-American. As the starter in 1980, he earned second-team all-conference honors (behind BYU’s Jim McMahon) and was chosen Sports Illustrated Player of the Week after throwing for 406 yards and three touchdowns against Wyoming.

Fairchild’s vision for Colorado State’s offense combines a power running game typical of the Lubick era with a more daring aerial attack gleaned partly from his time with Martz.

“We’re going to play an exciting brand of football,” he said. “Offensively, it was always our moniker here before that we were going to line up and try to beat you up running the football, and that part of the game exists, and it always will exist. You can’t hide from the physical part of this game, and I guarantee you we’ll be a physical team. But we hope to have an exciting brand of football as well that can stretch the field offensively.”

After Fairchild was hired, he says, it took him about 30 seconds to put the defense back in the hands of Larry Kerr. Kerr was the defensive coordinator at Colorado State from 1993-2002 and spent the last five seasons at UCLA (2003-05) and Duke (2006-07). The Rams had 12 players taken in the NFL draft during his tenure. “He’s what you want when you start to build a staff,” Fairchild said. “In all honesty, it was the most important thing I had to get done when I took this job.”

Fairchild said Kerr will follow a basic blueprint for success.

“I don’t think there’s any secrets on defense,” Fairchild said. “It’s just tackling, it’s running to the ball, it’s effort, it’s belief, it’s the type of thing Larry has always instilled in players. There’s no fanciness to defense. You’ve got to want to get to the ball, and you’ve got to want to get the ball carrier on the ground, and we’ll play that type of defense here.”

QUARTERBACKS

Five players are vying to replace Caleb Hanie, who led the Mountain West in passing efficiency in 2007. Senior Billy Farris (6-3, 220), Hanie’s backup the last two seasons, finished the spring atop the depth chart. Fairchild said Farris has the right combination of temperament, leadership and experience; he has played in seven games and completed 20-of-39 passes for 239 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Farris was sidelined for the final month of 2007 with an elbow injury, but he practiced throughout the spring with no complications.

Insi Mountain West

Farris did not do enough this spring to win the job outright against junior Grant Stucker (6-2, 201) and red-shirt freshmen T.J. Borcky (6-4, 201) and Klay Kubiak (6-0, 200). Incoming freshman Alex Kelly (6-2, 205) of Rocky Mountain High in Fort Collins will also get a look. Sophomore Nick Neuenfeldt (6-4, 227) moved to safety this spring because of the Rams’ depth at quarterback. Stucker led Ponderosa High to a Colorado State title in 2003 but has not seen any action for the Rams. Borcky passed for 2,400 yards and rushed for 1,400 yards in his last two seasons at Orlando’s Lake Highland Prep. Kubiak is the son of Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, who served as John Elway’s backup on the Denver Broncos for nine seasons. Kelly made the Rocky Mountain News all-state team and passed for 3,555 career yards with 40 touchdowns and only seven interceptions in 325 attempts.

None of them looked sharp in the spring game. They were a combined 15-of-32 for 146 yards with four interceptions and no touchdowns.

The candidates all have similar attributes, with good arm strength and decent mobility. Borcky and Kelly are both left-handed like their head coach, the Rams’ starting quarterback in 1980. Another ex-CSU passer, Daren Wilkinson, was the starter for the WAC co-champions in 1995 and is now the quarterbacks coach.

In addition to the expert instruction from Fairchild and Wilkinson, the Rams also turned to John Madden for help during the offseason. The coaches programmed CSU’s passing plays into Madden NFL ’08, the popular video game from EA Sports, and let their players take turns at the controls of a Sony PlayStation 2. Fairchild said he got the idea from his former college teammate Gary Crowton, now the offensive coordinator at LSU.

“It’s good because you get to rep the plays a bunch of times in your head,” Farris told the Fort Collins Coloradoan. “You call a play, run the play and kind of go through the reads in your head, and it helps you get some mental reads.”

RUNNING BACKS

The tools are in place to resurrect the power-running game that has bulldozed Mountain West defenses in the past. The combination of seniors Kyle Bell (6-2, 231) and Gartrell Johnson (6-0, 227) has enough might and muscle to tenderize any opponent that stands in their path.

Bell enters fall camp as the starter. He ran for 1,288 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2005 but missed the 2006 season after tearing the ACL in his right knee four days before the opener. He came back in 2007 and rushed for 691 yards, but lost his starting job to Johnson after five games.

Bell actually performed better off the bench, averaging 4.6 yards per carry compared to 3.4 as the starter. He carried three times for a game-high 31 yards in the spring game.

Johnson earned honorable mention all-conference honors and led the team in rushing last season with 957 yards. He averaged 126.1 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry as the starter and scored eight touchdowns over the last seven games. Johnson’s five 100-yard efforts included 172 yards at New Mexico, 162 at UNLV and 143 against Air Force.

Senior Michael Myers (6-1, 207), junior Alex Square (5-9, 177) and sophomore John Mosure (5-10, 198) make this one of the league’s deepest stable of runners. Myers had 28 carries for 148 yards (5.3-yard average) and three touchdowns last season. Square had a nose for the end zone this spring, with three scores in the last two scrimmages. Mosure was the runner-up for Mr. Football in Florida in 2005, when he led the Miami area with 1,534 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns.

Look for the Rams to use Myers and Mosure as change-of-pace backs. Sophomore fullback Zac Pauga (6-0, 243) returns after catching 11 passes for 102 yards and appearing in all 12 games last season with six starts.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

New offensive coordinator and receivers coach Greg Peterson may have been spoiled in previous stints with Washington State (2006-07), Kansas State (1994-2005) and Idaho (1992-93), where he tutored nine All-Americans and eight Biletnikoff Award candidates. He is starting almost from scratch in Fort Collins, where junior Dion Morton (5-10, 162) is the only wideout on the roster who has caught a pass for the Rams.

Colorado State lost Morton’s older brother Damon, who averaged 132.0 all-purpose yards per game and 19.4 yards per reception in 2007. They also lost Johnny Walker, No. 5 on the school’s all-time receiving yards chart (2,213), and Luke Roberts, one of the league’s most consistent blocking receivers. Redshirt freshman Phillip Morelli, originally signed as a running back, has also left the program.

Dion Morton caught 20 passes for 183 yards and a touchdown last season, but no one is guaranteed a starting spot after an uninspired spring filled with dropped balls, bad routes and poor technique.

“We just did not play like we needed to play at receiver the entire spring,” Fairchild said. “Those jobs will all be open. Nothing’s in granite.”

The Rams are looking for playmakers in a pool that includes junior Rashaun Greer (6-1, 198), sophomore Brett Willis (6-3, 210), redshirt freshman Matt Yemm (5-11, 178) and freshman Blake Swain (6-1, 183). Greer played in six games last season and caught two passes for 75 yards in the first spring scrimmage. Yemm is a converted quarterback.

“I started to learn this at the tail end of my career here and then you find out real quick, it gets reaffirmed in the NFL: There’s nothing like playmakers, the guys that can do stuff with the ball in their hands,” Fairchild said. “If we have a playmaker, we’ll find a way to get him on the field and get him the ball.”

Junior transfer Ryan Gardner (6-1, 180) of Diablo Valley (Calif.) College joins the fray in August. He caught 29 passes for 680 yards (23.4-yard average) and nine touchdowns last season and has tremendous athleticism. He went to Diablo Valley as a basketball player and has a 42-inch vertical leap.

Senior tight end Kory Sperry (6-6, 254) was the Rams’ top NFL prospect before tearing the ACL in his left knee in the second game last season against Cal. In the opener against Colorado, he made eight catches for 103 yards and three touchdowns. His career numbers include 103 receptions for 1,271 yards and 14 scores.

Sperry received a medical redshirt and leads a deep unit featuring senior Chris Kawulok (6-3, 250) and sophomores Eric Peitz (6-5, 250) and Adam Seymore (6-4, 250).

OFFENSIVE LINE

New position coach Pat Meyer expects his group to be FAST, his acronym for what he considers to be the most important traits of an offensive lineman: fundamentals, attitude, smart and tough. Based on a solid performance this spring, he won’t be disappointed with a group that includes six players with significant starting experience.

All five players that worked with the first team in the spring are juniors: tackles Cole Pemberton (6-7, 327) and Mark Starr (6-5, 285), center Tim Walter (6-6, 289) and guards Adrian Martinez (6-4, 302) and Shelley Smith (6-4, 298).

Martinez has moved from right tackle to guard to replace Nick Allotta, allowing Starr to move from tight end to tackle. All five started at least seven games in 2007. An extra year of development and cohesion should improve their pass protection; in ’07, the Rams ranked ninth in the league and 105th nationally in sacks allowed.

Junior guard Scott Benedict (6-4, 298) started three games last season and is back from a toe injury. Others in the mix are sophomore center Brian Lepak (6-5, 306), senior tackle Dane Stratton (6-5, 307) and redshirt freshman Jake Gdowski (6-3, 278), who moved over from defensive tackle this spring.

Sophomore Connor Smith (6-3, 288), who sat out last season after transferring from Northwestern, is another intriguing prospect.

KICKERS

Senior Jason Smith (6-2, 201) enters the year ranked No. 3 in school history in field goal percentage, having converted 33-of-45 attempts (.733), trailing only Derek Franz (.756) and Jeff Babcock (.750). He drilled 16-of-20 field goals and 33-of-33 PATs last season but was not 100 percent this spring after suffering a stress fracture in his plant foot while working out with the track team (he competes in the triple jump).

Smith missed from 35 and 37 yards in the spring game, but Fairchild isn’t worried.

“Obviously, Jason has been injured,” he said. “We’re very confident that Jason is going to be a good field goal kicker. Some of the other guys have got a long way to go, but you only need one.”

Those other guys include Tulsa transfer Chad VanderMolen (5-11, 147) and freshmen Dan Moffitt (5-9, 140) and Jeremy Hayes (5-10, 148)

DEFENSIVE LINE

The only returning starter up front is senior defensive end Tommie Hill (6-6, 242); second-team all-conference end Jesse Nading and veteran tackles Erik Sandie and Blake Smith were all lost to graduation. Hill led the team in sacks with 5.5 last year, the most for a Ram since Bryan Save had seven in 2003. He also had 47 tackles, six tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. A shoulder injury prematurely ended an excellent spring session, but he should be ready in August.

At the other end, senior Wade Landers (6-6, 254) is expected to recover from a knee sprain that cut short his spring. He has made seven career starts and had a career-high 27 tackles last season. Landers doesn’t have Hill’s athletic ability, but he has good aggression and doesn’t miss assignments.

Hill and Landers should only get better under Kerr, who previously coached Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, Brady Smith and Sean Moran during his previous tenure here. “It’s a big challenge to find big guys like that who can be that athletic,” Kerr told the Coloradoan. “But we’ve had that type of guy, and I think we have one for sure in Tommie and Wade is moving in that direction.”

Backups at defensive end include sophomores Ty Whittier (6-4, 267) and Cory Macon (6-6, 244) and junior transfer Sam Stewart (6-3, 260) of Santa Ana (Calif.) College, who was the league defensive lineman of the year in 2007 with 45 stops, 10 tackles for loss, four sacks and three pass breakups.

Senior tackles Matt Rupp (6-3, 284) and junior nose guard James Morehead (6-6, 290) are the favorites to replace Smith and Sandie. Rupp played in all 12 games last year and had a 48-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown against Air Force.

They face competition from sophomore Guy Miller (6-3, 295), red-shirt freshman Scott Carter (6-3, 275) and transfer Sevaro Johnson (6-3, 300) from Laney (Calif.) College. Johnson was first-team all-conference with 17 stops, five tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception for a 10-1 team last season.

LINEBACKERS

All three starters are back, anchored by senior Jeff Horinek (6-3, 234) in the middle. His team-high 94 tackles in 2007 were the most by a Ram in four years, and the honorable mention all-conference selection owns a 26-game starting streak. He is flanked by junior Jake Pottorff (6-4, 249) and sophomore Ricky Brewer (6-2, 210), who was third on the team with 64 tackles despite missing two games. Pottorff had 61 tackles but did not take part in contact drills this spring because of a shoulder injury.

The Rams are confident they can provide better run support than last season, when they ranked eighth in the league and 107th nationally allowing 207.3 rushing yards per game.

“It’s a great group of guys, all three of us,” Brewer told the Coloradoan. “Pretty much everybody that’s in the lineup has played. We’ve all had experience, so I think it’s going to be pretty tough for teams to run against us.”

The reserves include redshirt freshmen Luke Diehl (6-1, 216) and Mychal Sisson (5-11, 217) and seniors John Clark (6-3, 224) and Curtis Cornelson (6-1, 229). Clark played in 10 games last season and tallied 19 tackles and a sack. Cornelson had 22 tackles in 12 games and worked with the first unit this spring while Pottorff was sidelined.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The secondary appears strong in the middle with three veteran safeties returning, but the Rams will be vulnerable on the corners after the graduation of starters Darryl Williams and Joey Rucks. “We’ve got some young corners that are talented, but certainly not where they need to be,” Fairchild said. “But there’s ability there.”

Sophomore DeAngelo Wilkinson (5-10, 176) is the only cornerback with any playing time at the position, and he produced one assisted tackle in five games. He was limited in spring practice because of a shoulder injury. The only other returning lettermen is junior Nick Oppenneer (5-10, 175), a walk on and former Columbine High quarterback who played in six games on special teams. He capped a nice offseason with three tackles and a pick in the spring game. Red-shirt freshmen Brandon Owens (6-0, 168) and Ivory Herd (5-11, 184) had nice springs, while classmate Elijah-Blu Smith (5-11, 187) broke a bone in his foot on the second day of practice. Opposing receivers might like their chances against the raw CSU corners, but they better not forget about junior free safety Klint Kubiak (6-0, 197) and senior strong safety Mike Pagnotta (6-0, 204).

Kubiak led the team with 90 tackles in 2006 and was off to a strong start in 2007 before he collapsed while warming up for a Sept. 22 game at Houston. He was hospitalized and doctors determined that an undetected ulcer had caused internal bleeding and low blood pressure. Kubiak missed the rest of the season and was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA. He made plays all over the field this spring, clearly relishing his return to action.

Pagnotta missed four games with a severe ankle injury and still finished sixth on the team with 58 tackles. He recorded 11 stops versus Utah and 11 more in less than three full quarters at TCU. A true warrior, he played most of the game at New Mexico despite twice being carried off the field. Backups at safety include senior Jake Galusha (5-10, 199), who started four games last season and collected five tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. The Rams also moved QB Neuenfeldt and sophomore running back Amadeus Waters (5-10, 213) to safety during the spring.

PUNTERS

The Rams are expected to sign a junior-college transfer this summer to replace honorable mention all-conference punter Jimmie Kaylor, who averaged 43.2 yards per attempt and was a highly effective weapon in the field-position game. He had 15 kicks of more than 50 yards and dropped 19 inside the 20-yard line.

The only true punter on the roster this spring was sophomore walk on Jacob Stern (6-3, 215), who averaged 42 yards on two punts in the spring game. There’s also the possibility Jason Smith could become the first CSU player to handle punting and place-kicking duties since Jeff Babcock in 2004.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Receiver Dion Morton led the Mountain West and ranked 23rd in the nation with a 26.8-yard kickoff return average last season. He could add punt returns to his duties after the loss of Johnny Walker and older brother Damon Morton to graduation. That’s an area where the Rams struggled last fall, finishing seventh in the league at 6.3 yards per punt return. Farris is an experienced holder on kicks and early enrollee Scott Albritton (6-4, 227), a sophomore from Santa Barbara (Calif.) City College, is the new deep snapper.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

Grading the Rams
Unit Grade
Offense C
Special teams B
Defense C-
Intangibles B-

A new sign on the practice field greeted players this spring: “Championships are won on a daily basis.”

“It’s just something that I believe in,” Fairchild said. “The team we wanted to be started in January. We started working hard in January. When you’re going to be a true champion, whenever that day is, it will be because you put in years of hard work on a daily basis.”

Sounds like Fairchild knows it won’t be a quick trip to the top of the Mountain West. No Colorado State coach has ever taken the team to a bowl game in his first season, and the Rams will probably fall short of that goal in 2008 with concerns at quarterback, receiver, cornerback and the defensive line. Although Fairchild was pleased with the progress this spring, he acknowledged he didn’t have nearly enough time to implement all of his changes.

“I think we got a lot of work done,” he said. “The weather cooperated. I’m impressed with our coaching staff. I think the kids had fun and we improved. And we stayed relatively healthy. There are not a lot of negatives I can say other than the rules only allow us 15 practices, and I wish we could have 115.”

Colorado State seems committed to giving Fairchild the resources he needs. In April, the school announced plans to spend $20 million constructing an indoor practice facility and an academic support center. Currently when bad weather forces the Rams indoors, they can’t practice kicks or punts inside Moby Arena or the school’s intramural gymnasium.

Fairchild has done a little construction work of his own, building teamwork and rebuilding fan and student support with the first-ever “Superstars” competition after spring practice. The players competed in relays, weightlifting, dunk contests and a tug of war.

The real games begin Aug. 31 vs. rival Colorado in Denver. The nonconference schedule also features a tough test at Cal on Sept. 27. In Mountain West action, the Rams get TCU and BYU at home and play Utah and Air Force on the road. Nothing will make the fans forget about the program’s best years under former coach Sonny Lubick anytime soon, but scratching out five or six wins against a schedule that includes eight 2007 bowl participants would be a smooth start to the Fairchild era.

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