Colorado State University has 158 days to prepare itself for the unveiling of the on-campus stadium. After a 7-6 season in 2016, that preparation begins Tuesday with spring football kicking off.
Heading into the 2017 season, CSU will no longer be the inexperienced group that took the field in 2016. CSU returns nine starters on defense, which accounted for 67 percent of the team’s tackles in 2016. On the offensive side, the Rams return just under 75 percent of team’s yards gained in 2016.
Perhaps the biggest thing CSU returns to the field in 2017 is senior linebacker Deonte Clyburn. Clyburn missed the entire 2016 campaign due to blood clots, but has been cleared for play entering spring football.
Clyburn is tasked with filling the void left by graduated middle linebacker Kevin Davis — Davis led the team in tackles with 110 in 2016. Clyburn last played in 2015, where he saw the field in all 13 games, starting seventh at middle linebacker, and finished the season ranked fourth on the team with 69 tackles (35 solo).
“We got a hell of a guy back, Deonte Clyburn,” said defensive coordinator Marty English on Monday. “It would have been great to have both of those guys last year because of the maturity and the communication, that kind of stuff, but Kevin was a good player and Deonte is a very good player, and I think that’s the role where Deonte’s going to be able to step in there and kind of take back over some of the things and help move us forward.”
The contributions that Clyburn brings to the defense on the field are easily matched by the contributions he brings off it, according to English.
“We keep preaching to everybody how important football has to be to you, to extend beyond normal hours that we ask you to do things and go do things on your own, and he’s that guy,” English said. “He does that stuff and he demands it out of his teammates … It says everything that he is the leader of the defense already.”
Clyburn rejoins a linebacker group that gained substantial experience last season. Josh Watson (11 starts in 2016), Tre Thomas (10 starts) and Arjay Jean (12 games played) return to the corps after an up and down 2016 season. Watson finished with 90 tackles in 2016 — second only to Davis’ 110 — and added seven tackles for loss. When Clybrun was healthy in 2015, he averaged 9.8 tackles per-game as a starter.
“I’m extremely excited for Deonte Clyburn,” head coach Mike Bobo said. “Really can’t imagine, or comprehend myself personally of what he’s personally been through the last year.”
On the offensive side of the ball, the CSU offensive line will see some new faces as only center Jake Bennett and right tackle Zack Golditch return as starters. All-Mountain West performers Fred Zerblis (first team), Nick Callender (honorable mention) and Paul Thurston (honorable mention) all graduated, however Bennett (second team) and Golditch (25 career starts) bring valuable experience to the line.
Joining Bennett and Golditch, CSU returns Colby Meeks (four starts in 2016), Trae Moxley (three starts) and Jeff Taylor (10 games played). In addition to the returning members, CSU signed seven linemen in the 2017 recruiting class. Last season, the Rams’ offensive line finished eighth in the FBS with 13 sacks given up on the year — one in the final six games.
“We lost a guy that can finish, with Fred (Zerblis). I thought we lost some toughness for our team with him and somebody has got to get better at that role,” offensive coordinator Will Friend said. “Some guys that really haven’t played a lot are going to have to try to become those type of guys for us. And we will see over the next 15 days. They’ll get their chance right here to prove that they can play, and if not, then the new people will get a chance.”
In terms of skill positions on offense, Michael Gallup will be back at wide receiver after posting 14 touchdowns in 2016, the second most in CSU history. In addition to Gallup, CSU will feature the three-back system with Dalyn Dawkins, Izzy Matthews and Marvin Kinsey all returning. Kinsey suffered a torn ACL in 2016 and will not practice in spring football, but is on schedule in his injury rehab, according to Bobo.
Quarterback Collin Hill, also recovering from a torn ACL, has been cleared for individual drills and 7-on-7 play, according to Bobo.
Spring football marks the beginning of a new era for CSU football. The Rams return key starters on both sides of the ball, and with that experience comes greater expectations. For Bobo, the expectation is a Mountain West championship.
“We all know that’s a goal of ours, to compete for a championship. It’s been the same way every year. That’s going to be our goal this year,” Bobo said. “We talk about what’s going on at this University with all of these other sports that are winning championships or in the race to win a championship. We talk about our basketball team, how (they had) a chance to win a championship in season and in the tournament and how exciting that is and how the feeling is to be in that race. That’s where we want to be, so what are we going to do?”
Collegian sports editor Chad Deutschman can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @ChadDeutschman