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10 Things to Watch this Colorado State Season (Part 2)

One season removed from a third consecutive 3-9 campaign, Coach Jim McElwain looks to take the Rams another step in the right direction after earning four wins during his first year in Fort Collins. Here are some things to watch for this upcoming season.

Doug Pensinger

In case you missed 1-5, you can read them here.

6. A running game by committee

What else is there to say about the Rams backfield other than dynamic? For one you have the powerful Chris Nwoke who has rushed for 1000 yards in a season, Donnell Alexander who led the team in rushing yards last season, and Kapri Bibbs who took a long and windy road to Colorado State after breaking numerous high school records in Illinois. Each player could be the standalone starter for the Rams, but they should all share the load this season with Nwoke and Alexander contributing most. Together, the pair combined for 1397 all-purpose yards and seven touchdowns last season and should benefit from a more experienced offensive line this year.

Kapri Bibbs looks to prove he is ready for division-1 football after spending the past year at Snow College in Utah. He certainly has the skills to be a major contributor for this Ram offense if he can maintain his health during a full season of being hit. Each of these players can receive out of the backfield as well, so expect plenty of looks for them in order to alleviate some of the pressure on the wide receivers.

7. Will Crockett Gillmore bounce back from a down season?

Crockett Gillmore was one of the Rams' most talented weapons in the 2011 season. In his Sophomore season, and only first year at tight end, he led the team in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns while garnering several second team all-conference selections. Heading into the 2012 season, Gillmore was named to the John Mackey and CFPA watch lists and was practically a shoe in for first team Mountain West honors. Unfortunately, he finished the season with a measly 263 yards on 19 receptions. Now it is reasonable to assume some of his drop off in production was due to the increased usage of Kivon Cartwright, but he still should have been more of a factor in a offense without many targets at wide out.

With the 2013 season, Gillmore has another chance to prove voters right as he was nominated to the John Mackey and CFPA watch lists for the second year in a row. He should benefit from (hopefully) more consistent quarterback play and more playmakers at wide receiver to take some pressure off of him. One thing is for certain, he has the athleticism and talent to warrant his watch list nominations and can be an all-conference player in the right situation.

8. A talented linebacker corps

Perhaps the strongest unit on the team, the Rams linebacking corps is filled with talented, albeit, young players led by lone senior Shaq Barrett. Barrett is undoubtedly the leader of the group and will look to have a career season by focusing on playing outside backer after spending time at defensive end during the 2012 season. He will have plenty of help from Aaron Davis, Max Morgan, and Cory James who ranked first, second, and seventh on the team in tackles, respectively. After a hot start, James faded a bit during the season but still had respectable numbers for a freshman tallying 54 tackles (10.5 for loss) and 7.5 sacks earning him freshman All-American honors.

Behind this group are capable backups Nu'uvali Fa'apito, who was eight on the team in tackles a season ago, and Kevin Davis, who had 23 tackles in eight game before missing the rest of the season due to a knee injury. If Davis can come back healthy, both players should be effective pieces of the Rams' linebacker rotation. In addition to these two are several younger players that may see time as well. Bryan Ohene, Daniel Nwosu, and Nolan Peralta are all redshirt freshman that have the skill set to make it onto the field.

9. Who is going to start at quarterback?

(And will they stay there all season.) The 2012 quarterback situation was pretty cut-and-dry until Garret Grayson went down with a broken collarbone against Air Force. In came recently graduated MJ McPeek who played out the Air Force game and started the next two before sustaining his own injury against San Diego State. And then came redshirt freshman Conner Smith. Smith showed flashes of brilliance, and then flashes of ineptitude leading to a strongly divisive fan opinion on whether or not he should start full time over Grayson. The debate was helped by a Wyoming game that had Smith start before being pulled for Grayson, and then Smith being put back in when Grayson could not perform with his shoulder injury. Needless to say, this will be the highlight position battle going into fall camp.

If you look at the statistics between the two, no one has a clear cut advantage. Smith had a higher passer rating, completion percentage, and threw for more yards per game, but threw one less touchdown than Grayson and three more interceptions. Grayson also brings an ability to get out of the pocket and use his legs that Smith does not have. But this battle will come down to more than just statistical factors. McElwain has preached time and time again about the intangible things he wants to see, and believes the starting spot is going to go to whomever can show they deserve it.

"I'm excited to see, come August, which one of the guys has stepped up and said, 'I want this to be my team and this is why' through their actions and their performance and their studying and all that kind of stuff," McElwain said. "So I'm excited to see where we're at, and it'll make for entertaining two-a-days."

Not to be left out is redshirt freshman CJ Leonard, who McElwain praises for his leadership with the scout team last season. Leonard certainly has an opportunity to pressure Smith and Grayson for the starting spot, but needs to work on his consistency if he wants to legitimately challenge for the position. He will provide incentive for the top two on the depth chart to keep working throughout the season or they could easily find themselves dropped to the third spot by Leonard.

10. Can the Rams break .500 for the first time since 2008?

Four years is a long time; and it feels even longer when you watch the Rams football team. Three consecutive years of 3-9 followed by a baby step upwards to 4-8. Now one thing needs to be said; that extra win is a huge deal for the players on this roster. From the outside it may look as another lowly year for the Rams, but that win over the University of New Mexico may be the turning point for the Rams to get back to the contender status in the Mountain West. It showed the older players on the roster, whom had played in those three 3-9 seasons, that it is possible to do better than that at Colorado State. McElwain started to trim the team of players that did not buy into the vision the team should have, and now there is more optimism around the organization than there has been for a long time.

But now it is time for them to prove it. They certainly have the talent to do so with nineteen starters returning for the 2013 season and an influx of talented freshman and junior college transfers. The Rams will need to get off to a hot start and defend the Centennial Cup against Colorado before playing road games against two tough opponents, Tulsa and Alabama. Conference play will allow for some breathing room with fairly easily road games at New Mexico, Hawaii, and Wyoming, while getting the tougher opponents, Boise State, Nevada, and Air Force, at home.

They key will be those five non-conference games. There is a chance the Rams could go 4-1, but they could just as easily go 1-4. For a squad that has shown a tendency to break down and snowball when things start to go wrong, it will be imperative to get off to a hot start going into conference play. If McElwain can pull out two or three of those games, it is quite possible Ram fans may enjoy their first above .500 season in half a decade.