The common denominator between this year’s team and last will be the guys lined up outside.
There is not much room for improvement – on paper, at least – in the passing game, but the challenge is still greater this year.
Without Garrett Grayson at the helm, the burden is on the receivers this year to keep the offense moving like it did last season. In addition to Grayson, the Rams also lose leading rusher Dee Hart, and Ty Sambrailo, an NFL-caliber offensive lineman.
The Rams have the talent in the slot to provide a potentially deadly balance with the tall, explosive receivers they have on the outside, even if they are not sure who is going to be throwing the football.
“The only thing that it changes is timing,” Hansley said. “We were used to the timing with Garrett (Grayson). But with the new system, it doesn’t really matter because we have to get the timing down with that offense and the different ways the routes are run.”
Although the offense is being restructured under new head coach Mike Bobo, it is not exactly a drastic overhaul. Receivers coach Alvis Whitted is also one of the few coaches remaining from the former staff.
The wideouts had something going for them last year and there was no need to mess with it. A new quarterback and coaching staff was enough change for one offseason. Now, the focus is on getting the new quarterbacks acclimated, and developing a solid connection between them and the receivers.
“We’ve got a long way to go at that timing between those groups,” Bobo said. “There are new route concepts, new patterns, new footwork for the quarterbacks. The spring is kind of learning the system and learning how we want things run. It’s going to be big on the skill positions this summer of taking that on themselves to get the timing down so they are ready to go full speed in the fall.”
Of course, if Nick Stevens wins the starting job, he has already had some time to get comfortable with at least one receiver. Stevens picked up his first collegiate passing touchdown during mop up duty late in a win over Tulsa, when Rashard Higgins took a bubble screen 36 yards to the house.
Higgins lived up to his “Hollywood” nickname all year, and led the nation in most major statistical receiving categories. It took opposing defenses longer than it should have to catch on last season, but this year, he can expect to see more coverage rolled his way right out of the gate.
That could open things up for the rest of the receivers, some of whom are getting a bit of a fresh start under Bobo. Players like Jordon Vaden and Sammie Long are getting another chance to prove themselves, and newcomers like Cole Anderson get to start the season with even footing.
“They are all balling out and making the most of their opportunity,” Hansley said. “Even with the old coaches, we prided ourselves on no one having starting jobs. Every day – even during the season – during practice you have got to go out and kind of compete like you are not the starter, like you’re not going to play. I think we just have that mentality in general as a receiving corp.”
Then there is the tight end spot to really put CSU over the top. The Rams have legitimate red-zone threats in Steven Walker and the returning Kivon Cartwright, and perhaps another one developing in Danny Nwosu.
The role of the tight ends has been simplified under Bobo, but not in a bad way. Walker said he loves the new offense, and has no problem mixing it up more at the line, much like what his role was in junior college.
“Not a whole lot has changed assignment-wise, but we’re not motioning around as much,” Walker said. “It’s not dulled down, but we’re putting our hand down and we are getting after it.”
Bobo would not comment on Cartwright’s injury status, but assuming the senior tight end is healthy heading into the season, CSU’s receiving corp should be considered the best in the Mountain West. Higgins is obviously a big part of that, but so is the depth and diversity amongst the group.
It is easy to say teams should focus coverage on him more, but with playmakers like Hansley, Walker and Xavier Williams lining up on the other side, opposing defenses will just have to pick their poison.
Collegian Sports Reporter Emmett McCarthy can be reached by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @emccarthy22.