Looking up because it fell all the way to the bottom of the conference in 2009-- a surprising drop for a team that finished with the MWC's second-best passing attack in '08, a rare all-returning offensive line, and an even rarer upset of rival Colorado to open 2009. The Rams were riding high after three games; and then came the middle, meaty part of their schedule: BYU, Idaho, Utah, and TCU, three of them roadtrips. In under a month 3-0 became 3-4, and the bleeding never stopped. Unlike last year, CSU's quarterback play never gelled, and also unlike last year, no running Ram proved able to carry the team from the backfield.
Leonard Mason (pictured)-- the best emerging runningback on the team-- was injured against TCU. John Mosure's decent rushing performance against SDSU in the last third of the schedule was totally overshadowed by the Aztecs' brilliant passing game. Mason's return against AFA the next week wasn't enough to match the Falcons' option attack. CSU's odd loss at UNLV, in which the Rams beat the Rebels in every statistical category except points, closed postseason possibilities for CSU, and by the time lowly New Mexico topped Colorado State by two points for CSU's eighth loss of the season, the prize was a share of last place. Wyoming finished off the Rams' season with a humiliating come-from-behind win, launching CSU's hated rivals to their first bowl in half a decade. Had Steve Fairchild's magic fled with the talent-rich seniors that graduated after his first season in Fort Collins?
Probably not, although Fairchild's success (or failure) as a player developer is going to be on open display in 2010. His staff must grow up an offensive line this offseason, replacing seniors LT Cole Pemberton, LG (and all-MWC) Shelley Smith, C Tim Walter, and RGs Adrian Martinez and Scott Benedict. Their replacements, perhaps some combination of (L-R) Ryan Griffith, Jake Gdowski, Tyler McDermott, Mark Starr, and a younger guard, will have nearly no starts between them, and a new quarterback to hold a pocket for. How Fairchild's staff develops the six 2010 redshirt freshmen and sophomore linemen likely will effect their tenure in Fort Collins more than any other effort they make.
And just who might that new QB be? Backups Jon Eastman, Klay Kubiak, and redshirted Nico Ranieri will compete with early-enrolling blue chip Pete Thomas, who headlines the Rams' 2010 class. Because Eastman had ample time to impress, and didn't, Thomas (and to a lesser extent, Ranieri and true freshman Tyler Shreve) will arrive facing very high expectations.
Sadly, that yet-unknown starting QB won't get to throw to Dion Morton and Rashaun Greer, who depart taking 41% of the team's catches, and 48% of its receiving yards with them. Returning speester Tyson Ligget and FB Zac Pauga will play a large part of that effort (accounting for 23% of the team's catches and 19% of its receiving yards in '09). CSU must develop some go-to threats in the air, especially when breaking in so many new linemen and a QB.
On defense, the picture is almost 180 degrees opposite. The rushing defense continued its upward trajectory, led up front by second-year Ty Whittier, James Morehead, Guy Miller, and Cory Macon. They spearheaded a 26-place jump nationally in rushing defense (a 33 ypg improvement), and return in 2010. Sophomore Mychal Sisson led a young LB corps that gets Ricky Brewer back in 2010. Sisson led the team in tackles, TFLs, and sacks. Sophomore safety Elijah-Blu Smith and senior CB Nick Oppenneer led the secondary, which must improve in 2010 if CSU will go bowling again. The returner-heavy defense must carry the 2010 Rams while its offense finds its feet.
Fairchild and his staff will bring in a large class of recruits, heavy on linemen and DBs. Look for QBs Bobby Borcky and Tyler Shreve at other positions in a year or two.