April 01, 2009
A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. Colorado State always leaned heavily to the run under Sonny Lubick, usually with some big, punishing back worthy of 200 carries a year, but came very close to a 50:50 run:pass balance in the first year under Steve Fairchild -- and that was with Gartrell Johnson, the best runner in the Mountain West, who commanded 21 carries per game and the only headlines the Rams generated all year, for his 285-yard romp over Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl. Johnson went over 100 yards in five of the last six games and had at least 80 yards in four more.
The direction this time around will depend on the development of a new quarterback, but as far the skill positions go, the proven talent is clearly in the passing game: Johnson and top backup Kyle Bell are gone, and receivers Rashaun Greer and Dion Morton combined for 114 catches, almost 2,000 yards, 13 touchdowns and the two best yards-per-catch averages in the Mountain West. All available evidence suggests the offense will go through them as much as the new quarterback allows.
What's the Same. Just by getting back to the postseason after a three-year absence under Lubick, CSU took a strong step back towards respectability. But compared to Utah, BYU and TCU, the Rams remain far from returning to the top of the conference they owned at the start of the decade, and it's no mystery why they've fallen out of the race:
CSU has lost 11 straight to the Utes, Cougars and Frogs, by an average of a little over 18 points; actually, in that light, two of the most encouraging efforts last year were the mere six-point and three-point home losses to TCU and BYU, respectively, though the Rams were still routed at Utah. Even when it was bringing home conference titles, CSU was never a recruiting hotbed, but the '09 crop, especially, shows the gap between the league's "Big Three" and the pack is only getting wider.
The poor get poorer. The Rams get one solid young linebacker back in Mychal Sisson, a surprisingly active tackle machine last year as a freshman off a greyshirt season in '07. But they lost another, Ricky Brewer, to an inscrutable season-long suspension for undisclosed and mysterious rules violations. Brewer's absence leaves only Sisson and defensive tackle Ty Whittier back among a front seven that was already terrible against the run (102nd nationally in rush defense) and especially in the pass rush (dead last nationally with a scant nine sacks for the year, only two of them -- one-and-a-half, actually -- by returning players). By the law of averages alone, that number should go up, but probably not enough to make it adequate.
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. First crack at the vacant quarterback spot this spring goes to 23-year-old junior college transfer Jon Eastman, who has the benefit of early enrollment, of slightly higher expectations than his competition, Grant Stucker and Eric Kelly, and of being new. Stucker, by contrast, is a fifth-year senior who's only game experience is five throws at the end of last year's lopsided loss at Utah; he's struggled for four years even to secure the backup role and has been shuffled between quarterback receiver. If he was going to get on the field under center, it probably would have happened by now, though it could be to his advantage that Eastman seems like a plodder.
The wildcard in the fall is alliteratively named junior-to-be Klay Kubiak, son of Houston Texans' coach Gary Kubiak, who was Bill Farris' top backup last year but won't be a part of the spring derby thanks to a shoulder injury. Kubiak will only have a couple weeks in August to make a case, but if Eastman fails to lock down the job over the next month, it could still be within Klay's grasp by the opener with Colorado.
Best-Case. The in-state rivalry is always a barometer for the rest of the season; if CSU beats Colorado, it has a good chance to be sitting at 4-1 going into the back-to-back dates with Utah and TCU in October. The Rams haven't lost fewer than three MWC games since 2002, and there are no apparent streak-breaking elements to this team; my guess is most predictions will probably expect CSU to fade below .500 with so many losses on defense and at quarterback. But there are six imminently winnable games in Weber State, Idaho, San Diego State, UNLV, New Mexico and Wyoming -- if CSU takes care of those games and manages to take another pair from the rougher end of the slate, it can make a serious statement with its first eight-win effort in seven years. If that happens, it will probably be because Eastman or Kubiak grew quickly into the focal point of the offense, like Farris last year, only preferably with fewer interceptions.
Worst-Case. The defense -- especially the run defense -- is a huge concern and threatens to undermine whatever optimism exists on the other side. I think it's fair to chalk up Weber State, Idaho, San Diego State and UNLV as probable wins for the time being, but if the new defenders or the quarterback struggles against the likes of Nevada, Air Force, New Mexico and Wyoming, a 4-8 nightmare could be very much in order.
Non-Binding Forecast. Fairchild carved a winning team and a bowl winner from a new quarterback and very little raw material last year, which is worth some benefit of the doubt. The losses from an already-bad defense are too much to expect any larger step forward, though; ditto, to a slightly lesser extent, the quarterback/running back quandaries. Given that the status quo had deteriorated so quickly at the tail end of the Lubick era, another .500 effort would be a sign of progress in the big picture-- very slowly building, relative progress, but, you know, you take what you can get.