Football players aren’t known for their emotional side. But for 15 seniors on the Colorado State roster, Dec. 21 is sure to be an emotional day.
They will play for the last time as Rams in the first bowl game of their careers. After Saturday, they will never again receive orders and accolades from head coach Jim McElwain, trade insults with one another at spring practice or sing the CSU fight song on-field after a victory.
No matter how tall or tough, tears will be shed. If not from the graduating seniors, then from the teammates-turned-brothers they will leave behind. The offense is hit the hardest. They say goodbye to offensive linemen Jordan Gragert, Brandon Haynes, Jared Biard and Weston Richburg as well as tight ends Jake Levin, Joe Brown, Joe McKay and Crockett Gillmore, long-snapper Tanner Hedstrom and running back Chris Nwoke.
One the other side of the ball, the defense will miss linemen Curtis Wilson, Calvin Tonga, Eli Edwards, cornerback Shaq Bell and linebacker Shaquil Barrett.
“Shaq [Bell] has been so valuable. He’s played a full game at safety, full game at nickel, full game at corner. We don’t really have that guy right now,” co-defensive coordinator Al Simmons said of replacing Bell. “But I think we will with recruiting.”
Each player has made a contribution to the team, but of the 15 graduates, 12 have started in a significant number of games, especially this season.
Richburg has started a CSU-record 49 games in his career. When he jogs out onto University Field for the New Mexico Bowl, he will round off his CSU tenure with 50 career starts.
The rest of the offensive line will also be sorely missed. They leave junior Ty Sambrailo as the sole returner on a line that produced a 1,500 yard passer and a 3,000 yard rusher – the only offense in the nation to put up those numbers.
Barrett was voted Mountain West defensive player of the year, for his 20.5 tackles for loss (No. 4 in the FBS), 12 sacks (No. 3 in the FBS), three forced fumbles and three blocked kicks. Young players on both sides of the ball will have gargantuan shoes to fill next season — an issue McElwain addressed head-on weeks before the season would end.
Part of his coaching style is to incorporate every member of the team; fourth string or first string — everyone gets plenty of practice reps. Gillmore says this will help next year’s team tremendously, and is a major difference of Mac’s mentality as compared to former coach Steve Fairchild’s.
“We had a significant amount of injuries Fairchild’s last year and guys were getting thrown in the game who hadn’t had a rep – you’re trying to tell them what to do in the huddle,” Gillmore says. “Now, they’ve gotten every rep you have. Everybody’s involved, everybody’s incorporated, they know what they’re doing.”
However, none of those graduating could have dreamt of a better way to leave their college careers behind. Gillmore, who refused to cut his hair until the Rams won a bowl, set out with one goal for this season: win a bowl game.
The next item on the agenda entails getting the younger guys into leadership positions to keep the football program on the up and up. With 15 lost leaders, McElwain will be looking for that next group to step up.
“When we start Ram U, we find out who’s committed and who is maybe checking their hold card. That’s really where it’s developed,” McElwain said. “As far as who as that’s going to be, that’s a script that has yet to be written.”Football Beat Reporter Cali Rastrelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @c_rasta5.