2012 Colorado State Football Preview: Change Is Bad

FORT COLLINS, CO - OCTOBER 15: The Colorado State Rams marching band prepares to take the field as the Rams host the Boise State Broncos at Sonny Lubick Field at Hughes Stadium on October 15, 2011 in Fort Collins, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

The face of the program has transferred to N.C. State, and a couple of high-upside defenders have been expelled. Welcome to Colorado State, Jim McElwain! Related: CSU's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends, and rankings galore.

For more on CSU football, visit MWC blog Mountain West Connection and SB Nation Denver.

At any given time, it is quite likely that a majority of the nation's FBS fanbases are seeking change. Change at head coach, or quarterback, or athletic director. Change in conference or television contract. In your fantasy, change is almost always good. In reality, however, change is zero-sum. For every change that affects somebody positively, for someone else it brings nothing but pain. Just ask Colorado State.

Twelve months ago, Colorado State fans knew one thing about their program: it had itself a quarterback. Four-star signee Pete Thomas was handed the reins as a true freshman in 2010, and while he certainly didn't thrive to any major degree, he survived. He was the sudden face of the CSU program, he was heading into the fall with a more explosive receiving corps and an experienced offensive line, he was Steve Fairchild's best hope for managing a fifth year of employment after 2011.

In November, Thomas injured his knee. In January, he transferred to N.C. State.

Two months ago, Colorado State fans knew that new head coach Jim McElwain was inheriting a defense with a ferocious pass rush, one that had been one of the best in the country for two straight years. (The defense was good at almost literally nothing else, but that's still something on which he and defensive co-coordinators Marty English and Al Simmons could build.) Last week, the primary reason for the strong pass rush (Nordly Capi), along with two other members of the front-seven rotation (Mike Orakpo and Colton Paulhus), were expelled for their roles in what was apparently a pretty ferocious fight.

As McElwain attempts to become, really, just the second successful coach at CSU in 50-plus years, he will do so without the services of what were until recently some of the biggest feathers in the Rams' collective cap. There is upside to be found, sure, but in this case, change hasn't made change very easy.


Related: Check out CSU's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Colorado State last July:

After a 7-6 campaign and bowl win in his first season, fourth-year head coach Steve Fairchild has seen his tenure start to move in the wrong direction; he has won just six games in two seasons, but there's at least a little ray of hope in the fact that the Rams went 3-9 with an extremely young, occasionally explosive team. If you're going to bottom out with a bad team, then unlike others, you might as well do so with an inexperienced squad and a true freshman quarterback. … Fairchild's recent recruiting has included some higher-upside players, and as their freshman quarterback becomes a sophomore, junior, etc., we will probably see CSU developing into something much more competitive. But whether their ceiling is more Wyoming or more BYU, it is difficult to say. […]

Though the definitions may change depending on your level of competition, in the end winning football comes down to upside and depth. You need players who can make the big plays necessary to win, and you need enough decent players to avoid having giant holes your opponent can exploit. Well, Colorado State has the upside. Pete Thomas had what had to be considered a magnificent freshman season; he's the face of the program, and he's got three more years. Lou Greenwood is an interesting overall talent, and the offensive line is solid and experienced. Mychal Sisson, meanwhile, is as exciting a defensive player as you're going to find at the mid-major level.

The problem is, of course, depth. There are giant holes at running back, in the secondary, and all over the defensive line. Looking at CSU's YPP Margin, one has to figure they'll get a bit more lucky in 2011, and that will result in more opportunities for wins. But here's the problem: again, the Rams only had even a slight chance in four games last year. Improvement means, what, a chance in six games?

In 2010, Colorado State played in just two games decided by one possession. They went 1-1 in those, 2-8 in the others. In 2011, they improved in one way: they played six games decided by one possession. But they went just 2-4 in those and 1-5 in the others, and that meant the end of the Steve Fairchild era in Fort Collins.

In the end, offense doomed the Fairchild Era. After ranking 49th and 47th in Off. F/+ during his first two seasons, they fell to just 105th and 108th in 2010-11. Last year, a supposedly more explosive receiving corps had nothing going for it, and before getting injured for the final three games of the season, Thomas was sacked on nearly 10 percent of his pass attempts. CSU's all-or-nothing defense was, for four seasons, frequently more "nothing" than "all," and though it improved to 90th in Def. F/+ it was never particularly impressive overall. Combine that with the fact that they lost nine of their last 12 one-possession games under Fairchild, and … well, that's not a very good combination, is it?

Offense

Though the loss of Thomas is probably still a blow for CSU, the Rams do have one thing going for them: they improved when he got hurt.

CSU Offense, First Nine Games: 23.3 Adj. PPG
CSU Offense, Last Three Games: 28.6 Adj. PPG

When Thomas injured his knee and then-freshman Garrett Grayson took over, the CSU offense improved by over five adjusted points. The defense let them down, and they lost all three games, but that was almost beside the point. Thomas may have once been the future, but he's in the past, and if you ignore Grayson's tough spring -- he didn't seize the starting job so much as win it by default -- you can envision a reasonably bright future for this offense. Grayson proved himself a better runner than Thomas (though he was no more capable of avoiding sacks), and while he was mistake prone (six picks in 77 attempts), a) he was a freshman, and b) he actually took chances downfield. Whereas Thomas averaged just 10.0 yards per completion, Grayson averaged 12.6.

Of course, it would help for him to have actual wide receivers to whom he can throw. The top five targets for last year's Rams included a tight end (Crockett Gilmore), an H-Back (Joe Brown), and two running backs (Chris Nwoke and Raymond Carter). If you watched Alabama's offene (led by McElwain) in recent years, you know that he has no problem dumping the ball to running backs, but still, that's pushing it. Junior Lou Greenwood is the most proven piece in the receiving corps, but he will be joined by little-used veterans like senior Marquise Law and junior Bobby Borcky and hit-or-miss sophomores Thomas Coffman and Lee Clubb.

McElwain will likely have to lean on the run to move the ball in 2012, but that might be alright. Nwoke, a junior, rushed for 1,130 yards with only decent blocking, and he should have some decent help: both Nwoke and high three-star redshirt freshman Dorian Brown looked strong this spring. Ball security might be an issue, but this is still the most dangerous aspect of the CSU offense. And we know that new offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin, previously of Utah State, has no trouble leaning on the run as much as possible. In 2011, USU's top three running backs combined to average 34.2 carries per game. Nwoke, Grayson, Brown, and others should expect to get their fair share of totes.

Defense

Through some combination of constant leads, open holes, and fear of a solid pass rush, opponents ran on Colorado State as much as almost any team in the country. And the Rams just couldn't stop it. CSU had a penchant for big plays, but while they ranked a healthy 38th in Passing Downs S&P+ (fifth in Adj. Sack Rate), they had a significant issue when it came to forcing passing downs. They ranked a horrific 115th in Standard Downs S&P+ and 111th in Rushing S&P+. And that was with ends Nordly Capi and Colton Paulhus and weakside linebacker Mike Orakpo. With these three expelled, CSU still returns a vast majority of its 2011 defense, only without some of its best playmakers.

Defensive co-coordinators English and Simmons attempted a move to a 3-4 system -- a scheme that makes sense considering the aggression with which CSU played (for better and worse) under Fairchild. Only, it didn't completely take. They worked from both three- and four-man fronts this spring, and they will evidently continue to figure out how the pieces fit together this spring. A 3-4 is the goal, however, and they will probably need to find a bit more size to succeed. End C.J. James, who had a ridiculously good spring (he had six sacks in the second spring scrimmage alone), weighs in at just 242 pounds. Likely starting tackle Curtis Wilson: 262 pounds. If players like end Zach Tiedgen (270) and tackle Alex Tucci (300) can get up to speed, the Rams may be able to begin competing from a size perspective. (And as we know, size matters.)

Until then, however, we are likely to see the same from the remaining personnel what we saw from CSU over the past couple of seasons: solid pass rush, nice aggression, and breakdown after breakdown. It is difficult to ignore the amount of experience the Rams have in the front seven -- even without the three expelled players, CSU still returns seven of the nine linemen who recorded at least 5.0 tackles last year and five of the seven linebackers who did the same, including intriguing junior Shaquil Barrett and three-star sophomore Max Morgan. Still, the uncertain transition and the lack of a playmaking past could doom them.

Meanwhile, the secondary has seen its depth thin out quite a bit. Three of four starters return, including a reasonably interesting pair of cornerbacks (Shaq Bell and Momo Thomas), but three of four second-stringers are gone. There were all sorts of personnel issues (injuries, etc.) last year among the CSU defense -- 10 defensive backs recorded at least 11.0 tackles, and only four played all 12 games -- so stability alone might make this a better unit, but without Capi, the pass rush might regress; and a lesser pass rush will, naturally, put more pressure on the secondary.

It bears mentioning that Fairchild tended to recruit reasonably well. Three-star newcomers litter the defense, from end Joe Kawulok (redshirt freshman), to linebackers Cory James (redshirt) and Kevin Davis (true), to defensive backs Trent Matthews (redshirt) and Kevin Pierre-Louis (redshirt). Competence from a couple of these players (especially Kawulok) could give CSU quite a boost.

Defining Success

CSU has won just three games in each of the past three seasons. Their 2012 schedule is one of the easiest in the country -- the Rams play FCS champion North Dakota State, six opponents projected 101st or worse, and only one projected better than 79th (there's a legitimate chance that North Dakota State is the second- or third-best opponent on the schedule) -- but let's just set the bar at four wins. It's been a while since they met even that.

Prognosis

In last year's preview, I mentioned how difficult it is to gauge the Colorado State job.

As a program, Colorado State is in an interesting position. They have won recently, and occasionally at a high level -- three Top 20 finishes (1994, 1997, 2000), four ten-win seasons -- but only under Sonny Lubick, who coached in Fort Collins from 1993 to 2007. No other CSU coach has managed a career record over .500 in the last 50 years (only three have ever done it), and in a Mountain West in transition, it is difficult to figure out what Colorado State's ceiling is right now.

An optimist could say that it hasn't been that long since CSU was a strong, viable program; they were ranked at some point in seven straight seasons under Sonny Lubick from 1997-2003, and even now, they've still been to 10 bowls in 18 seasons. A pessimist would point out that they've been to only one bowl in six seasons, and that they've never been ranked when coached by someone other than miracle-worker Lubick.

At first glance, however, McElwain does have himself a lovely resume. Generally speaking, he is from the area (born in Montana, graduated from Eastern Washington), and he was at the helm of the last Top 25 Fresno State offense (they ranked 22nd in Off. F/+ in 2007). He brings with him 25 years of experience and two national title rings from his four seasons in Tuscaloosa. He has as good a chance to succeed as anybody. But we could have said almost exactly the same thing about Fairchild. If CSU can get its running game going and dial back some of the more sieve-like defensive tendencies, then The Mountain West Effect could apply (as I discussed yesterday, there are always games to be won in the MWC if you can just improve to about 90th to 100th in F/+ and close out your close games). McElwain could bring more positive change to Fort Collins, but his Rams are probably at least a year away from even moving toward the middle of the MWC.

For more on CSU football, visit MWC blog Mountain West Connection and SB Nation Denver.

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