The Rams entered spring football camp with plenty of question marks on the defensive side.
With the loss of eight starters, a change in coordinator and a new defensive scheme, it was apparent that the Rams were going to have a busy spring on their hands.
The new-look defense hit the field in full pads for the first time Thursday, hoping to answer most of those questions before the end of camp.
Familiarity amongst the players is a big part of how the defense will respond to the changes. Last season, CSU played a 4-3 defense under defensive coordinator Tyson Summers, who left after one season to take the head coaching job at Georgia Southern.
Prior to Mike Bobo and Summers’s arrivals, the Rams operated a 3-4 defense just two seasons ago under coach Jim McElwain. The co-defensive coordinator that season also happened to be Marty English, the Rams’ new defensive coordinator this season.
That familiarity appears to be paying dividends as the defense responds to a new scheme under the new coordinator, who worked as the linebackers’ coach last year under Bobo.
“It’s a refresher for everyone,” safety Jake Schlager said. “We learned it two seasons ago, and we pretty much just took a season off and learned a new defense and new concepts, but we are right back it.”
Schlager stressed that the team already has experience in this system, emphasizing that this is not some foreign concept that the coaches are trying to instill this spring.
With plenty of upperclassmen like Schlager already having played in the system under English, the veterans are dishing out plenty of advice on the field and in the meeting room.
“The guys that have familiarity can help correct the mistakes on the field and help them to line up,” coach Bobo said. “You don’t have those mistakes going on like it if it was all new with everybody.”
Bobo also added that the relatively small class of freshmen added last season leaves fewer guys who need training in a completely new system.
While the defense did give up some of the big plays in Thursday’s practice, reminiscent of what haunted the team last year, the defense came out fast and aggressive.
Cutting down on big plays is an emphasis of the staff this spring, as is forcing turnovers, and when the defense did give up big plays, they countered by being in position to force the turnovers that were so scarce last season.
Though the new system is certainly not as complex as it will be come fall, the decisiveness and speed stood out early on as a smooth transition up to this point seems evident.
“Everyone is picking it up pretty quick — everyone is flying around,” Schlager said. “Everyone is talking. That’s the key — it’s the pre-snap talk.”
Schlager was not the only one to stress the impact communication has had on the players picking up the new system. Bobo, English and the players have all mentioned the importance of using each other on and off the field to further their understanding.
“It feels like this is more of a collaboration as a team,” linebacker Josh Watson said. “Just guys playing together and looking after each other and relying on each other. Everybody seems like they are getting it done.”
As individuals, it will not be easy to replace the caliber of players the team lost off the defense last season. But for now, there is no pressure on the guys taking the field to fill those shoes. All of the focus is on learning the ins and outs of coach English’s defense.
The transition back to the 3-4 defense that the Rams ran under McElwain might also have some unforeseen benefits for the players who make up the roster right now.
“We still have a lot of guys that coach Mac recruited when we ran the 3-4,” Watson said. “I think this is good for us because we put those guys back at the positions that they came to play at. I think this is a great outcome at the end of the day.”
Collegian Sports Reporter Eric Wolf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.