If the Colorado State secondary is in search of a proving ground, they do not have to go far to find one.
From the outset of spring camp, coach Mike Bobo emphasized that the team would be thin in the secondary. In reality, only three cornerbacks and four safeties with any kind of playing experience sit on the CSU roster this spring.
While a few of those guys like senior cornerback Kevin Nutt Jr. and senior safety Jake Schlager saw extensive starting experience last year, the rest of the group is largely raw in age and experience.
The group includes seniors like Houston Haynes, Justin Sweet and Shun Johnson —but that group has combined for only four starts at CSU. It also includes sophomores in cornerback Robert Awunganyi, who played in eight games last year, and safety Jamal Hicks, who made five starts in 2016.
For the group, the time to mold something tangible is now.
Fewer players means more reps overall. The first and second team guys are getting more snaps together and players who might not normally find the field on a consistent basis are becoming more involved.
“You look out and you have some guys that people have never heard of before, people that have primarily been practice squad guys in the past,” Schlager said. “It gives them a chance to compete and it gives them a chance to show what they have. They may not always get that chance, but when you are low on numbers it gives them a great chance to do that.”
Less players might mean increased reps, but maybe an even bigger component is who those reps are coming against.
“We are thin in the secondary this spring, but we have to accept that challenge and go out there and compete everyday,” Bobo said. “Going against those guys — it is only going to help us. You are not going to win every battle, but to go against those guys in practice will help us in the back end.”
When Bobo says “those guys,” he is talking about the dynamic group of receivers facing off with the CSU secondary every day in practice, players like Michael Gallup and Olabisi Johnson as well as the ever-developing talent in Detrich Clark and Anthony Hawkins and not to mention Tennessee transfer Preston Williams, who is on the field with the team this spring.
The Rams potentially have the best returning wide receiver corps in the Mountain West conference. That kind of competition offers a unique challenge for the Rams in the defensive backfield.
“I see it as an opportunity because we are going to play guys who are just like them or maybe even better than them,” Nutt said about facing the CSU receivers in practice. “To have that every practice and go against them and challenge them every play, it is really helping all of us as a unit.”
“The better the guys you go against, the better you are going to get,” CSU safeties coach Jamie Bryant said. “The more opportunities you get to go up against those guys, the better you are going to get. At the end of the day you are going to find out who wants to compete and who wants to get better.”
Without a deep bench those opportunities come fast and in a high number. Nutt said that the increase in snaps is mentally and physically tiring, but that the defensive backs know now is the time to challenge themselves.
With that repeated competition, every defensive back is going to get burned sometimes, especially when covering a guy like Gallup, but the defensive backs stress that the in-house competition is nothing but good for the secondary. Better to be beat by a teammate now than by someone in an opposite colored jersey when the season starts.
“It’s always frustrating to lose, nobody ever wants to lose, but we have to forget about it and go to the next play,” Nutt said. “You also have to to remember that they are on scholarship too. They are good just like you. When you get beat, you have to figure out what you did wrong and make it right the next time you go up against them.”
Collegian sports reporter Eric Wolf can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @eric_wolf5.