The belief in John Jancek has never wavered for CSU football

Luke Zahlmann

This year was pegged to be different, better even. Despite a rough start, the Colorado State defense still believes that it will improve under the lead of coordinator John Jancek.

After two games, the Rams rank 118 out of 123 FBS teams in total defense, dead last in their conference, after allowing an average of 606.5 yards per game. That tally includes a whopping 8.79 yards per play, on average nearly a first down for every play ran against them.

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The switch in leadership, as well as the system, was set to lead the Rams to new heights on defense and compliment their explosive offense. A switch from 3-4 to 4-3 was set to allow free reign to the linebackers, the lifeblood of the CSU defense. Unfortunately, though the tackles and counting stats have been there, the success has not.

The linebackers have maintained enthusiasm though and are seeking to compete at a high level, the way they had planned in the preseason. 

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Linebacker Josh Watson (55) brings down an Air Force running back during the first half of Saturday’s contest with Air Force. (Tony Villalobos May | Collegian)

“Coming into practice and meetings, if anything (the energy) is higher,” linebacker Max McDonald said. “The product we put on the field the last two weeks is, in our minds, not representative of our skill level and our ability.”

Redshirt seniors Tre Thomas and Josh Watson are in the top-three tacklers for the Rams with Watson leading the way by a double-digit margin with 28. One of the biggest problems is present in who is tied with Thomas for second: Jamal Hicks.

An increased reliance on the safety to make tackles closer to the line has shown in the Rams lack of ability to contain wide receivers over the top, exemplified in the 378 yards a game through the air they currently allow.

Normally, the leading tacklers of a given team will be the linebackers as they tend to clean up once a ball carrier is past the line, with other tackles coming in the gaps. For the Rams though, those same ball carriers and receivers are reaching the second level before they can even be met by Watson or Thomas.

The role of the linebackers has been made clear by Jancek, a role that they have failed to meet. Juxtaposing that failure is the goal for the linebackers against Arkansas and each subsequent opponent on the Rams’ 2018 schedule.

“We have to start faster,” McDonald said. “If we can get some early-game stops and make them adjust their game plan, that would be big.”

The outside world will tend to point the finger towards the Jancek, but the personnel on defense has taken the opposite approach. They have looked in the mirror and pointed the fingers at themselves.

“It’s not about the coaching, it’s not about what we say we’re gonna do, it’s not about the game plan, it’s not about the calls,” junior Anthony Hawkins said. “It’s about executing and about the actions. It takes everybody.”

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Even nationally, the Rams are being scorned as ESPN.com published an article claiming the Rams have one of the worst programs in the nation, with their season now boiling down to a “Pillow Fight of the Century” game against San Jose State. 

Thought to be something players dedicate time to, the noise from the media outside the program has failed to penetrate the confidence of the players under Jancek.

“Everybody else is gonna say what they want, but all that matters is what we have and what’s in-between our individual group,” Thomas said. “We block everything out and just worry about our next opponent and our next day at practice.”

The next opportunity for the Rams to turn their season around comes Saturday as they host Arkansas, only the second SEC team to visit Fort Collins in the teams’ history. The game kicks off just after 5:30 p.m.

Collegian Sports Director Luke Zahlmann can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @lukezahlmann.