1. Wide receiver play
There is no debating the weakness of last year's Ram offense was wide receiver performance. Not that the group didn't try; they were mostly undersized and played against several tough secondaries in the Mountain West. Three of the five leading receivers will be back for the 2013 season including Charles Lovett, Joe Hansley, and Thomas Coffman who combined for 946 yards and six touchdowns.
McElwain hit the recruiting trail hard in his first two recruiting classes to help shore up the unit resulting in the addition of six new faces to the depth chart. One of those faces to watch is that of Redshirt Freshman Jordon Vaden. Vaden sat out last year, but looks to make an impact in his first season in the lineup. Although he had several drops in the Green and Gold spring game, he showed an ability to get past his man on a consistent basis and has the athletic ability to go up and get the ball. Another possible contributor is former safety Austin Gray. After struggling with concussions for most of the 2012 season, Gray was moved to wide out, a position he played in high school, during the spring and will help bring some height (6' 3") to the group.
2. An experienced offensive line
The Rams offensive line is one of the most experienced in the Mountain West with four starters returning including three seniors. Among those seniors is three year starter, and Rimington watch list player, Weston Richburg. He has spent most of his three years at the center of the line, but don't be surprised to see him move to guard at times to allow Mason Meyers or Fred Zerblis to get time at center. 315 pound senior tackle Jared Biard will look to rebound from a season-ending ankle injury he suffered late in the season against UNLV. At times during the 2012 season the performance of the unit was underwhelming, but expect the entire group to perform stronger with a full season of the new blocking schemes under their belt.
3. Junior College defensive linemen
Junior college transfers Calvin Tonga and Eli Edwards arrived in Fort Collins last season and immediately helped alleviate (some) of the glaring deficiencies of the defensive line, size being the most obvious one. McElwain hopes to add to the list of successful JC transfers with the additions of Terry Jackson and LaRyan King as well as tight end/defensive line hybrid Martavius Foster; each of whom weighs above 260 pounds. Jackson and King saw time with the first unit during spring practices while Foster was transitioned to the defensive too late to see much action. McElwain expects his defensive lineman to stick their gaps and suck up blockers to allow linebackers to clean up ball carriers, so do not expect to see a significant statistical contribution from the line, but they should help the Rams in the run game and pressuring the quarterback.
4. A youthful secondary
While the Rams' offensive line is one of the most experienced in the Mountain West, the secondary is one of the least; the entire roster only features one senior defensive back in three year starter Shaq Bell. Behind Bell is a combination of juniors and sophomores, six of whom saw significant playing time last season. One player to watch is redshirt sophomore Trent Matthews who has the potential to be one of the best defensive backs in the Mountain West. In his first year of action, he started all twelve games and had 71 tackles (fourth on the team) with two turnovers.
But Matthews is not the only talented young buck on the depth chart. Deandre Elliot, Kevin Pierre-Louis, Conner Roggy, Bernard Blake, and Jason Oden combined for nineteen starts and gave coaches a good rotation of effective players to keep the secondary fresh. Expect more of the same in 2013 as the Rams look to replicate their 26th ranked passing defense. Also worth mentioning is junior college transfer Saladin McCullough II who can contribute immediately if needed.
5. Which true freshmen will make contributions?
For the first time in several years, Colorado State is starting to see freshman who can come in and really make effective contributions their first year on campus. So what players from the 2013 recruiting class have a chance to make their mark right away? There is a good possibility we will see a freshman wide receiver in the rotation considering the lack of depth in the lineup and the number of freshman wide receivers on the roster. There are four wide out recruits from the 2013 class and it is rather a toss up to who plays since they have not been in practice or scrimmages yet, but Elroy Masters seems to be the most college-ready of the group. Masters (6' 2" and 208 lbs) comes from Sunrise Mountain in Arizona and has the polish coaches want in a backup receiver.
The defensive line can also benefit from several recruits including Austin Berk and Brett Jordan (brother of NBA Center Deandre Jordan). Both joined the Rams for spring ball and bring big bodies for defensive line coach Greg Lupfer to utilize. Berk was a three star recruit out of high school and showed why by displaying his ability to get around the edge, when he wasn't resting an injured arm. Jordan played tight end in high school, but made the common jump to the defensive line once arriving in Fort Collins. He has great size for the position and will only get better as he gets more experienced. Berk has a chance to play significant snaps with his combination of size and speed, while Jordan's size may allow him to see some time helping to stuff opponents' run games.
6-10? Come back on Wednesday for the rest of the list.