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2023 Colorado State Football Team Preview

After a disappointing first season in Fort Collins, Jay Norvell and the Rams are ready to hit the ground running, powered by star power on both sides of the ball

The 2022 season for the Rams was… rough. Operating with pieces taken from Reno when Jay Norvell took the job and the holdovers from the Steve Addazio regime, they struggled to a 3-9 record. But so much was learned through the ordeal of last year. Tory Horton emerged as one of the top wideouts in the country. Jack Howell was one of just two sophomores to make the defensive side of the 1st team all Mountain West. Mohamed Kamara finished second in the conference in TFLs, and solidified himself as an all conference talent. There’s plenty of reason for optimism.

Year two of the Norvell Era is an opportunity to make the Rams a force to be reckoned with in the Mountain West. The roster isn’t perfect, but almost every position group is better off than they were in 2022. So much will be learned this season about the future of this program in the coming months, and if all goes according to plan, the trajectory of Colorado State will be on the incline.


Reasons for optimism:

In year two, the air raid will look better than ever. Tory Horton needs no introduction as one of the MW’s best players. Clay Millen was encouraging in his first year as a starter. If he can cement his place as the program’s long-term answer at QB, it would be a huge boost for the offense he directs. Justus Ross-Simmons produced as a freshman, and with transfer portal additions Dylan Goffney (6’2” WR from SMU) and tight end Dallin Holker (BYU) expected to contribute as well, the Rams should be slinging the ball all across the field this season.

The offensive line that was much maligned last year (and rightfully so) has been completely revamped. Jacob Gardner moves back to center. He’s one of the best lineman in the conference, and he can focus on his responsibilities after a season of moving all across a porous offensive line. Three transfers will start, and all showed out at lower level schools. Oliver Jervis is a veteran from FCS Monmouth who will be a lock down left guard. Saveyon Henderson (D2 Lane College) and Drew Moss (FCS Lamar) are both junior tackles with 20 straight starts. Defensive tackle Teivis Tuioti has reportedly moved back to right guard, and is expected to start there. Missouri monster Bobby Lawrence (6’9”, 330) should be a solid next-man-up at any position.

Even though running back has a big hole to fill with Avery Morrow’s return being uncertain, transfers Kobe Johnson (North Dakota State) and KJ Edwards (JC), as well as true freshman Damian Henderson II, can combine to bridge the gap.

Reasons for concern:

Simply put, last year’s offensive line was abysmal. The unit will improve, no doubt, with Jacob Gardner in the middle and four solid transfers, but will they be a cohesive unit by the season opener? Unlikely, it takes time for a transfer to get a full grasp of the offense, let alone four of them.

Clay Millen may have led the country in completion rate, but that was largely inflated by screens and dump-offs. For the Rams to make a bowl game, he has to be one of the conferences top 5 QBs. Can he really reach that level in his second year as a starter?

And what can be expected from the running back room? The top three options are all entering their first season in Fort Collins. Yes, all three (Johnson, Edwards, Henderson II) are talented, but it’s just more uncertainty on an offense that didn’t top 20 points once last year.

Key stat: 0 games with 20 points scored

Wildcard: Damian Henderson II

The 3rd highest ranked recruit in Colorado State history is the big name to keep an eye on during fall camp and the opening weeks of the season. He’s a big back (6’2”, 224) with impressive speed and acceleration, and with a RB room that is open for competition, he could certainly become the starter at some point this year. It’s not a guarantee, but he’s talented enough to get that role.


Reasons for optimism:

Despite the unflattering record, the Rams discovered that they had several stars on their defense. Jack Howell is arguably the best safety in the conference, and Mohamed Kamara is the top returning edge rusher in the Mountain West. Chigozie Anusiem, Ayden Hector, and Henry Blackburn are all talented and proven secondary pieces. Defensive tackle Grady Kelly also broke out as a freshman. Besides the big names, the transfer portal added depth on all three levels. The DLine returns Cam Bariteau and Troy Golden, who will likely start, but North Dakota State veteran edge Tony Pierce and Rhode Island nose tackle Matt Thomas will certainly contribute. Cal transfer Trey Paster is primed for a very good season as one of the starting linebackers, complimenting Chase Wilson. Two corners will compete for starting reps, the experienced Ron Hardge III from Oregon State and young gun Dominic Morris from Furman, and another North Dakota State vet will help the safeties, Dom Jones. At 6’2”, he could also see time at corner, which would create one of the tallest CB duos in the country (Anusiem is 6’1”).

Even if the defensive line and linebackers don’t reach their full potential, they will be anchored by one of the top secondaries in the conference, which also has room to grow.

Reasons for concern:

The talent, on paper, is undeniable. Howell and Kamara are both shoo-ins for 1st team all conference. But how much can they really improve? Statistically, the Rams were ranked in the bottom third in the Mountain West in points allowed, rushing, turnovers created, and penalties. It should also be noted that the front seven is somewhat top-heavy. Besides Kamara and Grady Kelly, will the other veterans and portal additions produce with them, or become a liability for them? With Drew Kulick medically retired, what happens if Trey Paster or Chase Wilson go down? While the depth is much better than last year, it still could be an issue.

Key stat: 163.6 rushing yards allowed per game (9th in MW)

Wildcard: Kennedy McDowell

The 13th ranked recruit in Colorado State history could definitely force his way into the starting lineup. He’s a powerful edge rusher that had offers from multiple P5 schools, including Arizona State, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin. With the DLine needing other guys to step up and contribute, a breakout from McDowell would do wonders for this defense.


Reasons for optimism:

First off, Tory Horton is the punt returner. Need I say more? Justus Ross-Simmons will likely be the main kick returner, and he was great in that role last year. Paddy Turner returns as the Rams punter, and though his stats weren’t anything special last year, he’s going to improve, no doubt about it. It was only the Australian’s first season as a starting American football punter, and he was named to the Ray Guy Award preseason watch list. The kicker battle is still ongoing, but it sounds like Utah transfer Jordan Noyes is in the lead for the starting job. The 31 year old from the UK has a lot more range than last year’s starter, Henry Kattleman, but he is also a competent kicker. Cody Pettitt started the final four games of the season at long snapper, and will keep that role this year. Overall, this is one of the best special teams in the conference.

Reasons for concern:

Though there is reason for optimism for the unit, both the kicking and punting game need to improve. CSU was second worst in the league in extra points and punt yards per attempt. Even though the kick and punt returner duo of Horton and JRS are very talented, Horton surprisingly only ranked 10th in the conference in punt return yardage. The group has the potential to raise their ceiling, but as it currently sits, their floor is quite low.

Key stat: 39.4 average punt yardage (5th worst among qualified punters)

Wildcard: Paddy Turner

I can’t stress enough that he has one season of American football punting under his belt. There’s really no telling how good he can be, and his inclusion of the Ray Guy watch list may be an indication that he’s going to explode this year.


vs Washington State

@ Colorado

@ Middle Tennessee State

vs Utah Tech

@ Utah State

vs Boise State


vs Air Force

@ Wyoming

vs San Diego State

vs Nevada

@ Hawaii

Thoughts: A bowl game is a real possibility. The schedule is very doable, though it’s light on easy wins (only Utah Tech falls in that category). Both Power 5 games are possible wins, though the Rams will likely be underdogs according to Vegas. Many of the contests are toss-ups, with MTSU, Utah State, UNLV, Wyoming, Nevada, and Hawaii all being close on paper. The Boise State, Air Force, and San Diego State games are tough asks for the Rams to win, but it’s within the realm of possibility.

Best case scenario: 12-0? Just kidding, but every game on the schedule is winnable. If Clay Millen throws for over 3,000 yards, if Tory Horton wins conference OPOY, and the defense reaches its full potential as one of the most talented defenses in the Mountain West, the Rams just might sneak into the conference championship game with an 8-4 or 9-3 record.

Worst case scenario: If the offense sputters, and the running game remains a non-factor, it may not matter how good the defense plays. Injuries could also impact the team’s trajectory. The absolute worst a CSU fan should expect is another season without a bowl appearance, with a record around 4-8.

What’s probably going to happen: It’s unlikely the jump from year one to year two of the Norvell era will lead to a championship. The reality is that this team has a ton of star power and experience, but will also make mistakes. The Rams will upset a team or two, and probably drop a game or two they should win. At the end of the day, it will (hopefully) end up with a 6-6 or 7-5 record.

Final takeaway: Be excited for this season, Ram fans! Even if things go wrong at points, the future is bright. Tory Horton will be one of the most exciting players to watch in the entire country, and the other players on the offense will all make significant strides. The defense is coming together, with Jack Howell and Mohamed Kamara leading the way. We’ll know about the postseason prospects after the Air Force game. Who knows, maybe they upset Boise and control their conference championship destiny? That sentence is not nearly as crazy as it would have been a year ago. That’s what’s important.