Gone is Garrett Grayson, considered maybe the best quarterback to ever step foot on Colorado State’s campus. Also gone is Dee Hart, the team’s leading rusher from a year ago and an All-Mountain West selection. So are the team’s leading tacklers in Max Morgan and Aaron Davis, along with two of its starting offensive lineman in Mason Myers and Ty Sambrailo. And don’t forget starting cornerback Bernard Blake and defensive tackle LaRyan King.
One of the best senior classes in school history has moved on, but CSU’s cupboard is far from empty. The Rams opened spring practice for two days before spring break, their first official on-field practices with new head coach Mike Bobo. Following a 10-3 season that ended with a 45-10 loss to Utah in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, CSU will look to reload its roster to chase after its first Mountain West football championship. Here’s a breakdown of the offensive position battles that will be taking place until CSU takes the field Sep. 5 against Savannah State:
Most signs point to redshirt freshman Nick Stevens taking over the reins as the team’s signal-caller, but he’ll receive heavy competition from redshirt freshman-to be Coleman Key, junior Craig Leonard and incoming freshman J.C. Robles. With a new head coach and offensive system to learn, there will surely be a learning curve for all four players, but based on comments from former head coach Jim McElwain about Stevens’ ability to understand his playbook, it’s safe to assume he’ll be quick to grasp Bobo’s as well. He doesn’t have the physical ability and arm strength of Key, but Stevens is by far the most cerebral of the group and has shown the ability to handle an offense in limited work last season.
Despite the loss of Hart, CSU has plenty of experience returning at the running back position with upcoming seniors Treyous Jarrells and Jasen Oden Jr. The duo combined for 739 yards on 133 carries last year while adding eight touchdowns. Freshman Deron Thompson returns, along with Bryce Peters, Jonathon Lewis, Purdue transfer Dalyn Dawkins and walk-on Eric Williams. CSU also added 3-star running back Isaiah Matthews in the offseason. Expect to see a running back by committee with Jarrells and Oden likely getting the majority of the carries.
Unlike in McElwain’s one-back system, CSU will heavily utilize the fullback position under Bobo, which will mean transitioning a number of players to the position this spring. Included in the position change is senior linebacker Nu’uvali Fa’apito and former tight end Danny Nwosu. Bobo believes the fullback and tight end positions will be nearly interchangeable, so expect to see tight ends Kivon Cartwright, Steven Walker and Nolan Peralta lining up in the backfield. Cartwright was a preseason All-Mountain West pick and Walker would up as the postseason pick for that honor, meaning CSU will be returning a wealth of experience at the position. Also competing for playing time will be Vanderbilt transfer Mitch Parsons, who was rated as the No. 7 tight end in the 2012 class.
If there’s one position CSU shouldn’t be concerned about, it’s at wide receiver. Consensus All-American and Biletnikoff Award finalist Rashard Higgins returns for his junior season, and a number of other weapons do as well. Outside threats Elroy Masters Jr. and Xavier Williams will look to continue their success from their breakout 2014 campaigns and slot speedsters Joe Hansley and Deionte Gaines will look to expand their roles in the offense. CSU also added high school wideout Olabisi Johnson, one of the top sprinters in Colorado from Bear Creek High School. Look for a heated competition for the No. 2 wideout spot between Masters, Williams and returner Jordon Vaden.
The offensive side of the trenches is yet another spot where CSU will have to replace key players, but should be more than experienced enough to do so. The losses of Sambrailo and Myers will hurt, but CSU should be able to fill those holes in nicely. Returning starters Sam Carlson, Kevin O’Brien and Fred Zerblis are all back, while Nick Callendar, who started three games, and Jake Bennett, who was the projected starting center before tearing his ACL, also return. Behind them are a number of experienced players looking for their shot to shine in what should be a very competitive group of spring practices.
Part Two of the Collegian’s spring football preview will be published later this week, detailing the position battles to watch on the defensive side of the ball.
Collegian Sports Editor Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.