The big names are gone but the Rams are going to be just fine.
CSU is losing studs on both sides of the ball, such as the school’s single-season rushing leader Kapri Bibbs and MW Defensive Player of the Year Shaquil Barrett.
They left the team in good hands. Look for the Rams to earn another bowl bid this year.
After a rough start 2-4 start last season, there were doubts about quarterback Garrett Grayson, but head coach Jim McElwain stuck with him and it proved to be the right decision. CSU finished 8-6, going 4-1 in their last five games including a thrilling bowl victory.
CSU won’t lose the showdown with the Buffs this year, Alabama’s not on the schedule and tougher games against Utah State and Tulsa will be played in Fort Collins. CSU should be able to finish strong against Hawaii, New Mexico and Air Force.
On paper, the Rams should finish with a winning record. I could be eating my words by November. But, they saw it all in 2013, and the schedule in 2014 is easier.
What the Rams lose in star power, they can make up for with experience. There are veteran players at virtually every position but running back.
Grayson is back to lead the offense. His 3,696 passing yards and 297 completions in 2013 set CSU single-season records. He should be able to build on that success.
The senior quarterback takes care of the ball, can scramble when needed and rarely forced passes. Grayson knows how to run the offense and will have familiar faces to throw to in 2014.
CSU returns a dynamic group of receivers. They lose tight end Crockett Gillmore but will still have his counterpart Kivon Cartwright.
Cartwright led all Mountain West tight ends with six touchdowns last season (third amongst all FBS tight ends). Big-play threats, Joe Hansley and Charles Lovett Jr. are back too, and so is another good receiver in Jordon Vaden.
Rashard Higgins is the name to watch for. He set CSU freshman records for receptions (68) and single game receiving yards (156 vs. UTEP). His 837 receiving yards were the most by any Ram.
Grayson was extremely efficient, but had a lot of help from an outstanding offensive line and a strong group of running backs, most of whom are gone now.
Without those luxuries, Grayson will have to take more risks, and Higgins will allow him to do so. His ability to elevate for tough catches should make him a safety net of sorts.
Higgins was also a great downfield blocker, which could help ease the transition in the run game.
Speaking of the run game, you probably won’t recognize the faces of the rush attack this year. Kapri Bibbs declared for the NFL Draft. His back ups are gone as well; Chris Nwoke graduated and Donnell Alexander transferred.
CSU will also lose most of the men who blocked for the trio of Bibbs, Alexander, and Nwoke, which rushed for a combined 2,567 yards in 2013.
Ty Sambrailo is the lone returning starter on the line. He should be one of the best offensive linemen in the conference, if not the country. But that won’t change the fact that CSU will lose 132 total career starts from last year’s line.
Redshirt freshman Bryce Peters will probably carry most of the load at running back along with Jason Oden Jr. who’s been converted to the position.
While the running game was big for the Rams last year, their run defense was even better.
They use an explosive group of linebackers to pound the line and force teams to gamble on deep throws.
CSU’s defense will be hurt by the loss of Barrett, the 2013 MW Defensive Player of the Year, but CSU returns a proven group of linebackers including last season’s leading tacklers Max Morgan (134) and Aaron Davis (120).
Cory James was second on the team in tackles for loss (12) and sacks (8), and needs only 1.5 sacks in 2014 to become one of CSU’s top 10 all-time sack leaders (top-ten?).
It will be crucial for CSU to tighten up their pass coverage. The Rams were 114th in the FBS allowing 275.7 passing yards per game. They gave up 11 passing touchdowns of 40-plus yards. In the New Mexico Bowl, they allowed WSU quarterback Connor Halliday to throw for six touchdowns.
CSU’s defense dared teams to make big plays in the air. They ran the risk of giving up deep passes and sometimes it burned them.
The defensive backs were solid, but there is room for improvement. The Rams were plagued by breakdowns in coverage and remained susceptible to the deep ball all year. It directly cost them games against CU and San Jose State.
Troubles in the secondary were not due to a lack of talent. The Rams lose a leader at cornerback in Shaq Bell but return Bernard Blake and DeAndre Elliott who combined for 22 pass break ups in 2013.
They have a strong duo of safeties as well. Kevin Pierre-Louis led the secondary in tackles (77) and forced fumbles (2). Trent Matthews recorded 69 tackles and led the team with four interceptions.
Despite the losses on the line, CSU’s run defense should be above average. It will be up to the secondary to hold its own.
But no matter how well McElwain recruited, it will be tough for CSU to fill the voids left. I downplayed the loss of Barrett, Richburg and Bibbs, but they were special talents and their absence will be felt.
Don’t expect CSU to contend with teams like Boise State for the Mountain West title. But don’t expect the Rams to just lose all the momentum they built in 2013 either. The roster is too talented and McElwain will not allow it.
It’s a new era of Rams football. Winning seasons are something fans should come to expect.
Collegian Staff Reporter Emmett McCarthy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.