A weak link can be found on even the strongest of chains. A chink in the armor; a loophole. For last year’s bowl-winning football team, that weakness was in the secondary.
Opponents averaged 265.4 passing yards per game, and the CSU defensive backs got burned for long yardage plays of 68, 71, 75, 82 and 83 yards in five different games. To add a little perspective, quarterback Garrett Grayson threw a career-best and school-record of 3,327 yards across the season, and averaged 255.9 yards per game.
The Rams’ strong rushing defense and No. 29 total offense carried them to an 8-6 regular season record and an improbable win in the New Mexico Bowl despite the struggling secondary.
This year, the secondary doesn’t want to be weight on the rest of the team’s shoulders — they are gearing up to be an integral piece to next season’s success. With the loss of veteran leader Shaq Bell to graduation, and safety Jasen Oden’s position switch to running back, the backfield has some spots to fill.
Head coach Jim McElwain repeatedly expressed the difficulty in replacing the versatility of Bell, but moving Davon Riddick from running back to corner and alluded to safeties Nick Januska and Jake Schlager — both big contributors on special teams — gaining greater responsibility.
“It’s not just a role that we were given, it’s an opportunity for young guys who have stepped up their game,” Januska said of his potential to start. “We are emphasizing communication on every play and depending on how the new guys come in and push us — it’s kind of up in the air.”
McElwain blamed lack of communication for last year’s mistakes, remaining confident in the individual talent of each defensive back.
The returning members of a young secondary, safety Matthews, cornerbacks Bernard Blake, defensive back Tyree Simmons and safety Pierre-Louis and corner DeAndre Elliott will be juniors in the fall, except Simmons who is only a sophomore. They have plenty of time to grow together.
“We all played last year a lot, so the chemistry is there. Whoever is in, on whichever side, it won’t matter — we will communicate,” Matthews said. “As of right now, we look pretty good.”
“We aren’t as good as we are going to be, but it’ll be something to see,” Blake added.
The secondary will be pitted against one another for April 19th’s spring game; half on the green team and half on the gold. McElwain and defensive back coach Al Simmons will keep their eyes peeled to see which combinations work the best together.
Emphasizing competition in classic Mac fashion, nobody’s job is safe. Even though Matthews started all 14 games last fall, he knows McElwain won’t hesitate to replace him if a teammate out-competes him. The hunger to keep a starting position brings a twinkle to Mac’s already twinkly eyes.
“Davon Riddick had a really good day on Saturday, Justin Sweet has come a long ways from being a freshman, and Tyree had a bunch of reps at corner, so we are maybe going to play him a little bit on the inside,” McElwain said. “It’s the communication of those guys on the field, and seeing them compete. That and understanding that every now and then you’ll get beat — it’s about what you do on the next play.”Collegian Reporter Cali Rastrelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @c_rasta5.
Breakout: Worthy of note: Thursday marks the Rams sixth spring practice. The NCAA allows for 15 official practices. Closed scrimmage Saturday April 6 at Hughes Saturday April 12, 11:30 p.m. practice at Dicks Sporting Goods Park Saturday April 19, 11 a.m. spring game kickoff at Hughes