About four months ago, the foundation seemed to be in place.
Nick Stevens waited his turn as Garrett Grayson, Colorado State’s all-time leading passer, was wrapping up a dazzling senior campaign.
Stevens, a redshirt freshman from Murietta, California, appeared to be the heir-apparent. He played in five games in 2015, completing 15 of 25 throws for 136 yards and a touchdown.
Those snaps often came late in games that CSU already had in the bag. The idea was to get him some experience and familiarize him with the offense, as then-head coach Jim McElwain had made it clear Stevens was next in line.
But then McElwain left for Florida, and everything changed. Now, the CSU quarterback competition is an open, three-man race.
“Mindset is the same (as last year),” Stevens said. “All we can really do, no matter where we’re at on the depth chart, is get the best out of every day. It’s the same in that sense, but it’s nice to get a lot of reps with the 1’s this year and get comfortable with those guys.”
“It’s beneficial for all of us,” Stevens said. “… All of us are seeing a lot of improvement right now, because we’re in an even battle and they aren’t going to declare a quarterback for a while. We’re all in the same boat and just try to push each other to get better every day.”
Key is an appealing candidate for the position with his size and stature. The redshirt freshman from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma stands at 6’4” and weighs in at 220 pounds.
He’s approaching the competition with the same attitude. It is a chance for them all to improve, and more importantly, get the team as a whole prepared for the coming season.
“Competition is always good,” Key said. “Right now – us three quarterbacks – we’re kind of working together to get the system down, get the playbook down… just make the team better so we can win the Mountain West championship.”
Head coach Mike Bobo has said that he is in no real hurry to name a definitive starter. If one does not emerge by the spring game on April 18, the competition will probably carry over into fall camp.
Stevens is still getting most of the first team reps in practice, though Key has gotten to switch with him at times. Leonard, a junior who shares a similar size to Key and prides himself on his mobility, worked with the third team during CSU’s open practice on Tuesday.
“It’s not necessarily about who you’re going with,” Leonard said. “It’s just about making the most out of your reps, and when you’re not in, getting good mental reps. If I’m with the 3’s one day, I can’t take it as a ‘poor me’ type of thing. It’s good for me because I’ll get a little more work with the 3’s and 4’s. Getting everyone lined up. So it’s a good mental process for me.”
Bobo said that Stevens is further along in his understanding of the offense, but that there is still room for improvement in all the candidates, which is why he needs them to push each other now.
“There’s still a lot that they are thinking about too much,” Bobo said. “There’s a lot of thinking going on instead of trying to play fast and react, but that’s natural. It’s going to be a struggle for the rest of spring and most of summer, but it’ll click … That’s part of spring ball.”
So while Stevens should currently be considered the frontrunner, there is plenty of spring football left to play during which they could influence Bobo’s decision.
But the competition is still a friendly one. The three are not just teammates who happen to play the same position. They are friends, and it would be impossible for them not to work together, even if they are technically competing with one another for now.
“We’re all close buddies,” Key said. “We crack jokes, we help each other out. We’re not enemies or anything. We’re all working toward the same goal.”
Collegian Sports Reporter Emmett McCarthy can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @emccarthy22.