It is never easy to see a senior class leave; especially when that class is filled with key players and leaders like Crockett Gillmore, Weston Richburg, and Shaquil Barrett. All three were awarded All-Mountain West honors while Barrett earned Defensive Player of the Year; but that is not the biggest reason they will be missed.
Each of them were leaders in the locker room. They had gone through the trio of 3-9 season under Steve Fairchild. They knew what it was like to be perennial losers. They each came out of high school relatively unheard of and worked their way onto the field. If you had to pinpoint a couple of players responsible for leading the Rams out of an era of ineptitude, you need not look further than these three.
And these are just three of the players McElwain looks to replace in 2014. In addition to Richburg, the Rams lose both guards Brandon Haynes and Jordan Gragert as well as tackle Jared Biard. The quartet accounted for 131 career starts. Colorado State does have starting tackle Ty Sambrailo returning along with several key younger players, but only time will tell how long it takes the new starters to gel together and become a cohesive unit.
It is one thing to lose 4/5ths of the offensive line, it is another to lose them and the star running back who shattered numerous records in only his sophomore season. All-Mountain West player Kapri Bibbs decided to take his 31 touchdowns and 1741 yards to the NFL two years before his graduation date. After taking two years to get to Fort Collins, he was gone before many thought he could reach his full potential. With him and senior backfield mate Chris Nwoke gone, the Rams need to find a starter and depth quickly.
And finally, perhaps the hardest piece to see go, outside linebacker/defensive end Shaquil Barrett. After the football program at the University of Nebraska-Ohama was cut, Barrett landed at Colorado State with three years left to play. He immediately made an impact on the program, earning 11 starts during his sophomore season while recording a career high 99 tackles. During the 2012 season, Barrett shifted to defensive end to make up for a lack of depth. He struggled at times, but would benefit immensely from the addition of NFL star Joey Porter to the Rams' coaching staff. Under Porter's tutelage, Barrett would double his career sack total with 12 in the 2013 season. He added a career high 20.5 TFL and four forced fumbles to his sacks en route to MW Defensive POY honors.
Barrett was a leader on the defense a played a pivotal role in the Rams victory over Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl. He always played with an incredibly high motor and did all the right things off the field. His production won't be easy to replace and the Rams' defense will look truly different without him.
Here are some burning questions spring ball will hopefully answer.
How will the Offensive Line look?
The biggest question going through spring ball and into next season will be how the offensive line will react to the loss of four starters. Weston Richburg and Jared Biard will be the hardest to replace as they brought a combination of talent, leadership, and experience at the center and tackle spots, but there are several players pushing to make an impact.
The Rams really could have used Ohio State transfer Joey O' Connor, but his career unfortunately came to an end when his knee did not heal fully. O' Connor was a four-star prospect out of high school and would have provided significant size at tackle. Another player bit by injury was starter Ty Sambrailo. Sambrailo had a minor surgery after the season and should be at full strength through spring ball, but there is the possibility of it lingering.The Rams will desperately need him to provide leadership and build cohesion on the line.
There are several candidates to man the tackle position opposite Sambrailo. The most likely of these are freshman Nick Callendar and junior Mason Hathaway. Both were the primary tackles on the second team in practices and have the necessary size to play now. Hathaway has the added benefit of making appearances on the field goal unit and on a couple snaps throughout the season.
Colorado State also lost all three interior linemen to graduation, but are well positioned with several experienced backups and some new faces. The two experienced players are junior Mason Meyers and sophomore Fred Zerblis. Both of them saw a fair amount of playing time in the 2013 season, playing in a total of nine games. Zerblis was Richburg's backup and will likely be the starter at center going into the season. Meyers, or as he is affectionally called; Moose, filled in for both Jordan Gragert and Brandon Haynes and is a lock for a starting position. He was a solid contributor when he played and will provide senior leadership.
The other guard spot is more up for grabs. There are several younger players who will likely fight for the spot, including Jake Bennett, Blake Nowland, and Trae Moxley. Bennet and Nowland were both two-star recruits out of high school while Moxley was recruited as a tight end, but has been switched to offensive line for spring ball. McElwain has been praising Moxley throughout camp so far, but we will have to wait and see how good he actually is until the open scrimmage on April 12th.
Who steps up at linebacker?
The Rams lose Barrett, but keep the team leaders in tackles, Max Morgan and Aaron Davis. Morgan and Davis provide stout run defense in the interior of the Rams' linebacking corps, but are not the pass rushers Barrett was; registering zero sacks combined in 2013. Cory James provided much of the QB pressure opposite of Barrett, tallying 8 sacks on the season. James' physique and athleticism make him a dangerous matchup on the edge, but he tends to disappear for extended periods of time.
James will need to step up to provide the Rams consistent pressure with the absence of Barrett, but will need help from new faces if the Rams want to maintain a threatening pass rush. The most likely of these new faces is junior Steven Michel. Michel was quiet most of the season before turning it on in the second half. He showed a versatile mix of power and quickness off the edge which allowed him to collapse the pocket, but was also a strong run stopper.
What redshirt freshman wideout will make noise?
The 2013 season saw the coming out party for Freshman Rashad Higgins. Higgins was just one of several wideouts in the 2013 recruiting class and was the only one to see significant playing time. He was one of the best freshmen in the country, hauling in 795 yards and six touchdowns. He provided much needed size on the outside and quickly became one of Grayson's favorite targets. With several of the receivers from last year's class burning their redshirts, we will see even more height at the position.
There a trio of likely candidates. Elroy Masters, Jr and Sammie Long were both three-star recruits coming out of high school while Xavier Williams was a two-star. Despite his lower rating, I believe Williams will be the biggest new name in the receiving group. He has prototypical size at 6'4" and 205 pounds with fantastic athleticism. Through two spring practices, he has been the most talked about player from his peers and coaches. It will be interesting to see his progression and how he performs in his first spring game April 19.
How will the departure of Kapri Bibbs affect the run game?
One of the biggest stories in recent Colorado sports news, Kapri Bibbs helped put the Rams on the map on his way to multiple CSU records. Unfortunately, the allure of NFL money was too much and he left Fort Collins after just one season. Fortunately, the Rams have proven starter Donnell Alexander returning. Alexander was the starter for much of the 2012 season and held the same role to start the 2013 season before being outplayed by Bibbs. In his two seasons, he has rushed for 1015 yards and six touchdowns. He does not have the explosiveness of Bibbs, but is a better all-around back.
Like the 2012 season, we will likely see another run game by committee with Alexander getting the primary workload. The question is, who will provide the rest of the touches? Bryce Peters is the only likely candidate currently on campus. Peters was a three-star recruit out of Houston, Texas where he rushed for 1653 yards and 19 touchdowns on almost ten yards a carry. He runs extremely hard and keeps his legs moving to run through tacklers. He will provide a solid one-two punch with Alexander similar to what Chris Nwoke did in 2012. He will need to make a big impression now before a couple talented freshmen in Deionte Gaines and Deron Thompson come in the fall.
What new additions in the Secondary will make an impact?
There is no doubt the secondary was the biggest weakness for Colorado State during the 2013 season. The Rams ranked 116th in the country in yards per game allowed through the air with 275. The coaches tried to several different lineups, but were mostly unsuccessful at turning the unit around. Now, with senior Shaq Bell gone, the Rams really need some of the younger players to fill key roles. True freshmen Jake Schlager and Tyree Simmons were used to varying levels of success with Simmons making the most consistent contributions. Simmons should improve throughout the spring and put a lock on one of the corner spots, but the Rams will still need depth.
Corner Jason Oden and running back Davon Riddick did a position swap, so we will see if Riddick can produce on the defensive side. Redshirt freshman Justin Sweet will try to make a name for himself after sitting out the 2013 season. Sweet was a solid cover corner at Bishop Gorman High School where he had 10 deflections and four interceptions in his junior and senior seasons. It will be primarily up to these two to provide depth behind the starters as the rest of the roster is fairly sparse on defensive backs.
Who replaces Crockett Gillmore's production?
The Rams also lose first team All-Mountain West tight end Crockett Gillmore. Gillmore had legitimate NFL talent and size and created matchup problems for every team on the schedule. His size made him an exceptional safety net for Grayson to throw to. He was third on the team in receiving yards, but more importantly, was the edge blocker responsible for many of Kapri Bibbs runs. He was by the best run blocker at the position and the Rams will miss that most about him.
Behind him on the depth chart is Kivon Cartwright who can certainly hold his own in the receiving game. He got off to a hot start in the first half of the season, but faded away towards the end finishing with 462 receiving yards and a team leading six touchdowns. With all the new talent in the receiving corps, the Rams will not rely as heavily on the tight ends in the passing game, but will need them as run blockers. His run blocking has improved over the years, but he is still not at Gillmore's level.
The Rams do have a couple of big JuCo tight ends in Christian Montes and Steven Walker who are more effective run blockers, but this will be their first season at the Division I level. Both of them are prototypical size for tight ends at about 6' 3" and 250 pounds. Montes also played offensive tackle at Golden West CC and may rotate to the offensive line to help provide depth there.
Another player to watch is Brett Jordan who switched back to tight end after spending much of the 2013 season at defensive end. He is a bit oversized for the position at 6' 5" 270, so he will have to prove he has the speed necessary to be an effective tight end. His older brother is Clippers Center DeAndre Jordan, so he certainly has athleticism in his genes.
There has not been a spring season with this much optimism surrounding the Rams in quite awhile. Early reports from camp are that players have fully bought into the new regime and are focused on repeating 2013's performance. The Rams lost a lot of talent on offense from that team, but the pieces are in place to reload rather than rebuild. If McElwain and O-Line coach Derek Frazier can get a retooled offensive line performing quickly, it bodes well for another bowl game in 2014 .