One hundred forty-one.
That is how many starts departed Colorado State’s secondary members Kevin Pierre-Louis, Trent Matthews, DeAndre Elliott and Preston Hodges combined for in the last four years at the school.
Last season, the established secondary members helped the Rams become one of the better passing defenses in the country. The Rams ranked 17th in the nation against the pass, allowing just over 186 yards a game.
With the longtime secondary cornerstones all moved on from the program, the majority of the secondary spots are still up for grabs as fall camp continues.
“Everyone has the opportunity right now,” junior safety Jake Schlager said. “There’s a bunch of open spaces right now. Nobody is set in stone. It’s whoever is going to be hungry enough to take that opportunity and turn it into something.”
Playing experience returns with cornerback Tyree Simmons, who has 18 starts in his three seasons as a Ram, and with special teams ace Schlager, who made his lone start against Air Force last season.
Simmons is a lock for one of the cornerback positions, while Schlager spent the spring and fall as the number one strong safety. Who will join them to fill out the defensive backfield remains a mystery.
Right now, it’s a youth movement outside of Simmons. Players like Kevin Nutt Jr, Shun Johnson, and Demontrie Taylor have all seen the field while at CSU, but in limited amounts, while juco transfer A’Kethioen Whitner is in his first year with the program. Incoming freshman Chris Gaston was expected to compete for a position, but he has yet to join the program.
They are all fighting for the position opposite Simmons, as well as for playing time at the nickel.
One of those corners could be Jordon Vaden, the converted wide receiver who took fast to his new cornerback position and excelled in spring camp. By all accounts, Vaden has not shown any signs of slowing down through fall camp.
“I’m seeing a lot of improvement from the spring to now, where he’s more comfortable doing the techniques and trusting his instincts and playing football,” coach Mike Bobo said.
Vaden made an early impression on his defensive back mates when he made the change. Vaden spent the last few seasons competing against guys like Tyree Simmons in practice, they already knew what he could bring to them as an athlete.
“They moved him over for a reason cuz they have seen it in them…and he’s been proving them right,” Simmons said. “Vaden is balling, he’s been letting everyone that just because he’s not on offense anymore he can’t hang with the defense guys.”
Plenty of players have a chance to fill in at corner, but depth is a concern at safety. Braylin Scott, who played in every game last season, has been working alongside Schlager, but behind them remains a question mark. Juco transfer Houston Haynes is another first-year player who could see significant playing time at that safety position.
For players like Schlager, the opportunities presented this year are something new. The last few years competition for the secondary positions has been “open”, but everyone knew who was going to be playing the major roles. Now, for the first time in a few years, everything is up in the air.
The wide-open competition is working to make the unit better as a whole. Everyone knows they have a chance to play this year. They are all playing their best ball to stand out from one another.
“I mean when there is competition everyone gets better,” Schlager said. “It’s not just two people set in stone working and trying to get better on their own. When you have someone underneath you pushing it makes it fun and makes it that much more exciting and that much more competitive.”
Though everybody is competing, one thing is still for sure. They are a work in progress. Schlager made the comment after day five of practice that they are nowhere near where they want to be, and frankly nowhere near where they should be.
For the last few years, the secondary unit was something to count on. Now, inexperience and youth are the norm at camp in the defensive backfield.
They all have a chance to make a name for themselves. It is just going to take time to find out what kind of name it will be.
Collegian Sports Reporter Eric Wolf can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Eric_Wolf5