CSU faces lots of question marks heading into 2016

Keegan Pope

Colorado State’s 2015 season is over. It ended as soon as the clock hit triple-zeroes Tuesday night in Tucson, and soon coaches will begin removing the names of graduating seniors from their depth charts and returning to the road to complete CSU’s 2016 recruiting class, which currently holds four mid-year signees and 15 other players with verbal commitments. Barring any sort of major exodus, the Rams will have five to seven more spots to fill in the class before the end of this cycle. 

With the loss of eight senior starters on defense and three starters on offense — not including the possible departure wideout Rashard Higgins to the NFL — CSU faces a lot of questions heading into 2016, most of which won’t be answered until spring practice at the least. 

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Quarterback

Colorado State quarterback Nick Stevens, right, headlines what should be an intense quarterback competition this spring. (Rebecca Noble/for the Rocky Mountain Collegian)
Colorado State quarterback Nick Stevens, right, headlines what should be an intense quarterback competition this spring. (Rebecca Noble/for the Rocky Mountain Collegian)

Normally, having a second-team all-conference quarterback returning would be of relief to players, coaches and fans. But Nick Stevens’ up-and-down play, including a hot-and-cold performance in the Arizona Bowl has left a lot to be desired, at times. Returning along with Stevens will be redshirt freshman J.C. Robles, who impressed Bobo during camp despite his youth and skinny frame. Also here for spring practice will be Georgia transfer Faton Bauta and South Carolina prep standout Collin Hill, who both signed during the early period and will enroll in January. 

The job is still Stevens’ to lose because of his experience and knowledge in Bobo’s offense, but don’t be surprised if there’s heavy competition for it. 

Projected starter: Nick Stevens

Running back

If there’s an area where CSU is pretty much set in terms of starters, it’s at running back. Freshman Izzy Matthews was surprisingly impressive in limited duty this season, and sophomore Dalyn Dawkins was a spark plug in both the run and pass game. They’ll likely be penciled in as 1 and 1A going into the spring, but CSU must add some depth behind them. Speedster Deron Thompson has been underwhelming so far, and other than that, CSU doesn’t have much depth so speak of. The Rams are in the mix for a couple of junior college and prep backs, and they’ll likely need to add at least two this cycle. 

Projected starter: Izzy Matthews

Wide receiver

Colorado State wide receiver Rashard Higgins, left, could leave CSU early for the NFL Draft. (Abbie Parr/Collegian)
Colorado State wide receiver Rashard Higgins, left, could leave CSU early for the NFL Draft. (Abbie Parr/Collegian)

The last two CSU players to declare early for the NFL Draft didn’t find much success with Dee Hart flaming out in Miami and Kapri Bibbs landing on the Broncos’ practice squad. Rashard Higgins could be the third player in as many years to leave early, but Hollywood’s draft stock is substantially higher than either Bibbs or Hart. Most scouting services project Higgins as a third- or fourth-round pick, which seems like a huge drop for someone who was considered the third-best wide receiver in the country last season. 

The general consensus is that Higgins won’t stick around for his senior year in Fort Collins, leaving a Hollywood-sized hole in the CSU wide receiving corps. Assuming Higgins leaves, CSU will have to replace both he and Joe Hansley, who were the team’s two leading receivers and most dynamic playmakers. 

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Returning will be Jordon Vaden, Xavier Williams, Elroy Masters Jr., Olabisi Johnson and Deionte Gaines, who was electric when he wasn’t suspended at two different points this season. That’s a solid group, but lacks any big-play threats, which is exactly what Higgins was so good at providing. CSU has just one wide receiver committed to the 2016 class, and its unsure whether they’ll go after any more. 

If Mike Bobo can somehow convince Higgins to stay, it would be a huge boost to CSU’s offense, but don’t hold your breath. 

Projected starters: Jordon Vaden and Xavier Williams 

Tight end

Not many teams lose two All-Mountain West tight ends in the same senior class. Actually, I don’t think any do. With the departures of Steven Walker and Kivon Cartwright, CSU loses two big passing targets and improved blockers. Cartwright is a possible late-round draft pick or undrafted free agent if he can stay healthy and consistent in pre-draft workouts. 

That leaves another big hole for CSU, who will have to rely on a number of unproven players to fill their shoes. Vanderbilt transfer Mitch Parsons was eligible this season but didn’t play, and the expectation is that he’ll play a bigger role next season. CSU also expects to add junior college transfers Darneail Jenkins and Dalton Fackrell, the latter of which was named a first-team junior college All-American this past season. Blocker Nolan Peralta also figures to competing for playing time after playing a good deal this season.

Projected starter: Nolan Peralta

Offensive line

Outside of the loss of senior right tackle Sam Carlson, this group should remain relatively intact next season. Jake Bennett and Fred Zerblis are anchored on the inside, and with some more time, Zack Golditch will likely stick around at the other guard spot. Trae Moxley and Nick Callendar split time this season at left tackle, and both will be back next season, likely looking to bookend each side of the line. Two names to look out for are Blake Nowland, who sat out this season due to injury, and junior college transfer Nicho Garcia, who re-committed to CSU a few weeks ago. 

Projected starters: Nick Callendar (tackle), Zack Golditch (guard), Jake Bennett (center), Fred Zerblis (guard), Trae Moxley (tackle)

Defensive line

Outside of the defensive secondary, there may not be a position hit harder by graduation than the defensive line. SteveO Michel, Joe Kawulok, Martavious Foster, Terry Jackson and Justin Hansen are all gone, and there isn’t much game experience behind them. CSU has struggled to recruit quality defensive linemen in the past, and this cycle is no different. The Rams have three D-line commits, but all are prep players who are expected to need time to develop. 

So where does that leave the Rams? Josh Lovingood, who has player sparingly in his time at CSU, will return, along with defensive tackle Colton Foster. Junior college transfer Darnell Thompson got some playing time this season, and should see more next year. The depth at the position is a huge question mark, because none of these guys have seen a lot of significant action in their time at CSU.

Projected starters: Richard King (end), Jakob Buys (tackle), Josh Lovingood (tackle), Darnell Thompson (end) 

Linebackers

 Kiel Robinson, right, will be a part of a loaded linebacker group for CSU next year. (Collegian File Photo)
Kiel Robinson, right, will be a part of a loaded linebacker group for CSU next year. (Collegian File Photo)

If there’s any area where CSU is basically set, it’s at linebacker. The loss of pass-rusher Cory James will surely hurt, but the emergence of Kevin Davis, Kiel Robinson, Tre Thomas, Josh Watson and Deonte Clyburn should leave the Rams with their deepest group at this position in a long time. Clyburn became the leader of CSU’s front seven when he was inserted into the starting lineup midway through the season, and Robinson showed off his pass-rushing skills with four sacks. As long as Davis is healthy, he’s likely an All-Mountain West player next year.

CSU has received commitments from prep standouts Hunter Donnelly and Trey Sutton, so don’t be shocked if CSU doesn’t look to fill its remaining spots with backers. 

Projected starters: Kevin Davis, Kiel Robinson, Deonte Clyburn 

Secondary 

Where to start. I’m not sure exactly how you replace what Kevin Pierre-Louis and Trent Matthews meant to the CSU defense over the last four years. Matthews started 50 games in his career, and Pierre-Louis was basically a fourth linebacker this season, ranking second on the team in tackles. Also gone are reserve safety Nick Januska and starting cornerback DeAndre Elliott, both of whom are graduating. 

Returning are corners Preston Hodges and Tyree Simmons, along with reserve safety Jake Schlager. Justin Sweet and Kevin Nutt Jr. both played minimal snaps this year, but could be thrust into bigger roles next year with the aforementioned departures. 

CSU also signed three defensive backs in the early period — two junior college transfers and prep player Dom Williams. They’ll be in Fort Collins for spring ball and could compete for time depending on how quickly they can adjust to CSU’s scheme. 

Projected starters: Tyree Simmons (corner), Jake Schlager (safety), Houston Haynes (safety), Preston Hodges (corner)

Special teams

Hayden Hunt, a Ray Guy Award runner-up, is obviously penciled in as the starting punter. I think that one is a pretty safe bet.

The kicker position, however, is another story. Wyatt Bryan was up-and-down all year, and has yet to show any sort of accuracy from outside 40 yards. Fellow freshman Braxton Davis handled kickoff duties this year, but could challenge Bryan for the place-kicking duties if he can develop some accuracy. 

Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at kpope@collegian.com and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.