Rams using open competition to rebuild offensive line during spring ball

Starting from scratch isn’t usually something people look forward to. But for the Colorado State football team, that’s exactly what they’re doing this spring with the offensive line.

After graduating four of five starters from last year’s team that went 8-6 and won the 2013 Gildan New Mexico Bowl, the Rams opened spring practice without familiar faces Weston Richburg, Jared Baird, Brandon Haynes and Jordan Gragert.

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Instead, CSU opens with a host of faces both old and new including last season’s reserves and new recruits who joined the team at the beginning of the spring semester. And despite all those new faces, head coach Jim McElwain is excited about what he’s seen from the 14 players competing for reps on the offensive line this spring.

“We got a bunch of guys who are out there battling,” McElwain said. “We have guys like Tomas Rivera who are really pushing some of our older guys for one of the guard spots. That kind of competition is what I really like to see.”

However, competing for starting spots is a bit foreign to the offensive linemen who were penciled in as backups or third-string players because of the aforementioned senior foursome of Richburg, Baird, Haynes and Gragert. According to players and coaches, that level of competition gives both new and veteran players a chance to move up or down the depth chart every single day in practice.

“This just keeps everyone competing and pushing each other to get better,” sophomore guard Fred Zerblis said. “It comes down to being better every single day and not allowing ourselves to be content. Competition like this gives us the chance to get better both as a unit, and individually as well.”

One of the biggest questions facing the Rams when they reconvene this fall will be the continuity of the offensive line, a group whose communication and level of familiarity with each other can be the difference between winning and losing games. Last season, that familiarity came almost second nature to the group that propelled CSU to its record-setting season and paved the way for breakout campaigns from running back Kapri Bibbs and quarterback Garrett Grayson. While it would seem to many that a rotation of 14 different players would counteract building that continuity, McElwain sees it differently.

“We could even have guys like (projected starting tackle) Mason Hathaway playing inside at guard,” McElwain said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys out competing hard, but the key for us is to get our best five linemen together, no matter their position and we’re going to continue to work on finding those different parts.”

As the Rams complete their second week of spring practice ahead of Sunday’s private intra-squad scrimmage, McElwain has challenged his players to assume a leadership role in helping new players get up to speed. Zerblis, as well as Hathway and a host of other experienced players are also doing their part to teach incoming players what Colorado State football is about.

“We just always remind these young guys to compete,” Zerblis said. “If they mess up that’s fine, we just want them mess up going full speed. The key is to just not think about the mistakes and go play football.”

Breakout: Projected Depth Chart (as of April 2014)

First team: Jake Bennett, RS Fr., Fred Zerblis, So., Ty Sambrailo, Sr., Mason Myers, Sr., Jordan Finley, Jr.

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Second team: Trae Moxley, RS Fr., Mason Hathaway, Sr., Tomas Rivera, So., Sam Carlson, Jr., Kevin O’Brien, Jr.

Collegian Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at sports@collegian.com and on Twitter @kpopecollegian.