Two teams in the MWC are only one piece shy of fielding very competitive units. Colorado State needs a consistently adequate quarterback, and UNLV needs a consistently adequate runningback. Both teams hoped newcomers would step in and fill those roles during the offseason; neither are quite sure they've found their men. Bowl eligibility likely turns on whether or not each team completes its respective personnel puzzles. Because they are both trying to fill one last position, the Wimple considers these teams to be just one piece shy of a clear path to the 2009 post-season.
Pop quiz: who had the second-best passing attack in the conference last season? Surprise: it was Colorado State, averaging over 242 yards per game in the air. While all of that team's receivers return, the Rams are fishing more and more desperately for a quarterback to sling the pigskin at the returners. Senior Grant Stucker and JUCO transfer Jon Eastman have the competition to themselves, mainly, because Klay Kubiak's recovery from shoulder surgery is progressing slower than hoped. Coach Fairchild isn't mincing words about his competitors under center. "I think our quarterbacks are letting our offensive development down," said the coach early in fall drills.
The prognosis hasn't improved. "I didn't have [consistency] in the spring, and I haven't gotten it yet here. I want somebody to be able to go through the whole practice without beating us, without just some sort of major error. We don't have to have great throws or any big-time plays. Just consistently doing what they're supposed to do. We're not there yet." After a later scrimmage, Fairchild said, "it was the absolute worst practice in my 30 years of coaching that I've seen at quarterback."
QB coach Daren Wilkinson hinted that Coach F's ire might be more motivational than accurate, but Rams fans probably ought to pare their expectations of improving on last season's passing numbers slightly downward. This time last year Billy Farris was pulling away with the starting job. That hasn't happened this year.
Elsewhere, the picture rosens significantly. The Rams return all five starting offensive linemen, and may not experience any dropoff at linebacker, contrary to expectations this spring. Mychal Sisson, pictured, Michael Kawulok, and Alex Williams will be a strength for the defense. The secondary will improve from it's dismal '08 performance, especially if the Rams gets full seasons out of safties Elijah-Blu Smith and healthy Klint Kubiak, who join two returning CBs.
Perhaps equally important with the development of a consistent quarterback is the Rams' search for an adequately productive backfield to replace Gartrell Johnson. John Mosure and Leonard Mason have filled that role enough to escape Coach Fairchild's wrath-- which is a notable change since the spring.
This spring, the Wimple disagreed with Phil Steele's rosy preview of this season's Rams. If CSU can't find a reliable QB to feed those great receivers the ball, you'll find CSU at home this Christmas, having come up just shy of a bowl berth in '09.
The missing piece in Las Vegas is a tad smaller than the one missing in Fort Collins. UNLV not only has its quarterback, but has perhaps the MWC's best tandem under center, with returning starter Omar Clayton, a junior, and sophomore Mike Clausen, who has some starting experience, and who pushed Clayton for the starting role in the spring. The Rebels' receivers, O-line, and defense are all improved over '08. The reason UNLV isn't a "two pieces shy" team is because the upgrade to its secondary appears to have succeeded in spades. JUCO transfers safety Alex De Giacomo, pictured, and corners Mike Grant and Warren Ziegler all have risen to the first team, and impressed.
The missing piece is in the backfield. UNLV had high hopes that true freshman Bradley Randle would enroll and sweep the defense off its feet and into the post-season for the first time in... in forever. But that isn't exactly how it's happened, so far. Randle enrolled, and had a good fall. But Randle has played like a true freshman, and the Rebel defense has played like a squad with its hair on fire. Returner C. J. Cox injured his hamstring, and Channing Trotter scampered up the depth chart, perhaps winning himself a tentative starting role come September 5. Don't look for closure in the battle for the Rebel backfield anytime soon.
So the jury's still out; will a lack of a backfield keep UNLV out of the post season? Or is the Rebel run defense finally throwing its (considerable) weight around, stifling what will be a productive running game? The latter may well be the case. UNLV's d-line is improving: monstrous d-lineman Isaako Aaitui has moved inside to his more natural role as a run-stuffing tackle, and all-conference lineman Malo Tuamua has moved outside. Jason Beauchamp plays as much end as linebacker. The Rebels' linebacking corps doesn't miss Beauchamp much, partly because Starr Fuimaono is back and healthy.
In sum, the MWC is fielding a much more complete team in Las Vegas. Coach Sanford's assessment captures the idea: "A year ago, I think the offense was definitely ahead. . . I think there's a lot more competition between offense and defense this year. . . The defense has improved, and I don't think our offense has taken a step back." If the Rebels can find the back to take them a step forward, they'll make Las Vegas a difficult place to win in, for the first time in MWC history.