Steady defense will be key for the Rams in 2017

Justin Michael

Colorado State football held its second official practice of fall camp Saturday, working out in shorts and helmets at the team’s new facilities located on the west side of campus.

After getting an opportunity to talk to the offensive players Friday, members of the media were able to talk to a select group of individuals from the defense Saturday, as well as third-year head coach Mike Bobo.

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“I thought overall we were pretty good on assignments,” Bobo said. “The effort was good again today. I thought we had good energy. At the end, we have to keep fighting through. We had a couple guys go down, but like I said yesterday, we need to push through.”

Coming off back-to-back 7-6 finishes in his first two seasons as head coach, Bobo knows expectations for the Rams are high in 2017. With a pair of capable quarterbacks in Nick Stevens and Collin Hill and a variety of weapons at the skill positions, including a three-headed monster at running back and Biletnikoff-caliber wide receiver (Michael Gallup) on the outside, the Rams offense is projected to be one of the elite groups in the Mountain West.

While there is much confidence in the offense heading into the fall, defensively there are quite a few questions to be answered.

The defense returns eight starters from 2016, but after struggling to stop opponents from scoring throughout the majority of last season, the Rams will be looking for more consistency from their personnel in 2017.

So while experienced players may be more comfortable in the system, if they do not come ready to work, they may be replaced by a newcomer.

“It’s a new year, so everyone is starting over and competing for their positions,” safety Jake Schlager said. “That is what you want in a team and what you want throughout your fall camp. You want the younger guys competing for a starting spot and if not a starting spot, then the No. 2 spot. That’s what creates competition and depth for the team.”

Safety Jake Schlager (8) organizing the defense before the snap (Javon Harris | Collegian)

There were moments when an extremely young defense showed promise in 2016, shutting out Fresno State at home on Nov. 5 and keeping the Rams in crucial games against New Mexico (Nov. 19) and at San Diego State (Nov. 26). There were also days where they looked completely lost, giving up 44 points week one to Colorado and concluding the season with a 61-50 loss to Idaho in the Potato Bowl.

After losing three games by less than seven points in 2016 (Minnesota (Sept. 24), Boise State (Oct. 15) and Air Force (Nov. 12)), the defensive players are looking for more consistency from every position group in 2017. That starts with the effort they give in practice.

“The defense’s attitude is that of a fighter’s mentality,” Bobo said. “Every time you step on the field, you need to be ready for a fight. If you’re not, you’re going to get knocked out.”

Bobo explained that both his and defensive coordinator Marty English’s message to the team is simple. If players know their assignments and give consistent effort every play, this team is going to be much more more successful in 2017.

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Only time will tell if the Rams will be a better defensive unit in 2017 or not, but one thing is for sure. The players are buying into this mindset. “We never want to settle for anything less than excellence,” Schlager said.

Along with Schlager, the Rams return one of the biggest vocal leaders on the team in Deonte Clyburn. Clyburn missed the entire 2016 season with a medical condition, but in 2015, the linebacker was one of the most productive players on the field for CSU.

“He’s a great vocal leader, he’s a great guy, he’s a great teammate and he’s one hell of a football player,” Schlager said of Clyburn.

Ram fans will have their first opportunity to see the veteran defenders on Aug. 26 when they open the season against Oregon State. CSU will hit the field again Sunday afternoon for the third practice of fall camp.

Collegian sports director Justin Michael can be reached by email at jmichael@collegian.com or Twitter @JustinTMichael.