When Colorado State began 2016 spring practice, much of the focus was on the defensive side of the ball as the defense entered a transitional period under new defensive coordinator Marty English. As English takes over the defense, the Rams will switch to a 3-4 defensive scheme while looking to replace eight starters from the season before. With spring camp and an entire summer of work in the rearview mirror, the focus now shifts to preparation for the 2016 season. All three levels of the defense have something to prove going into fall camp, and with a multitude of roster spots left up for grabs, coach Mike Bobo’s spring emphasis of competition should carry over heavily into fall practice.
Coming into fall camp, the position group with the most to prove could be the defensive line. Not a single starter from 2015 returns, though the group does have some returning experience in the form of Josh Lovingood, Colton Foster, Jakob Buys, Darnell Thompson and Johnny Schupp. All five players worked with the first team at points during spring camp, but the competition for each position will be open as practice begins.
Expect new faces to make an immediate impact along the front line. Incoming freshman defensive ends Arjay Jean, Anthony Smith and Toby McBride could all figure into the competition on the outside, while top recruit Christian Colon should make a strong push for day-one playing time in the middle.
Throughout spring practice linebackers Josh Watson and Kevin Davis made it known that they wanted the linebackers to be the focal point of the defense on the field and in the locker room.
Davis, the team’s leading returning tackler, headlines the group but he is surrounded by a strong supporting cast in Watson, Tre Thomas and Kiel Robinson. Watson, who is expected to start alongside Davis in the middle of the field, had a breakout spring camp and his continual progression will be something to watch for during fall practice.
Robinson and Thomas should both see time as starters on the outside. Robinson is the leading returning pass rusher with four sacks last season. Robinson worked on the inside during spring camp, but a return to the outside could allow his natural pass rush abilities to show.
The biggest storyline surrounding the group heading into the fall is when, and if, Deonte Clyburn will return for fall practice. Clyburn, who shined in the second half of last season at middle linebacker, missed all of spring practice with an injury and has not yet been cleared for fall practice. While the return of Clyburn will cause a personnel shift, his presence on the field and position as the vocal leader of the team will be missed if he cannot return when fall practice begins.
Senior Tyree Simmons returns to lead the cornerback group, but he is the lone certainty at the position heading into camp. Even with the loss of one of the team’s top recruits in JUCO transfer Devron Davis, cornerback is another position where fresh faces may have an impact right away. Incoming freshman Chris Gaston and JUCO transfer A’Keitheon Whitner, who showed starting potential in the spring, will battle Kevin Nutt, Shun Johnson and Jordon Vaden to fill out the cornerback spot.
Converted wide receiver Vaden will continue to be a focal point during fall camp. The senior switched positions in spring camp and though he is still raw, he flashed the athletic potential necessary to compete for a starting secondary spot in the fall.
At safety, longtime special teams standout Jake Schlager looks poised to lead the secondary in a bigger role as the starting free safety. Schlager showed that he could be a viable starter at the position throughout spring camp, and his role as a leader should help the new-look secondary coming into the season.
The offseason loss of Senior Preston Hodges further opened up the competition at the strong safety position. Sophomore Braylin Scott started alongside Schlager in the spring but expect Junior Houston Haynes and redshirt Sophomore Demontrie Taylor to be in the mix for that position as well.
Fall camp officially opens up Thursday, August 4th, as the team takes the field for the first practice of the 2016 season.
Collegian sports reporter Eric Wolf can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Eric_Wolf5