COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2011 PRESEASON TOP 25
HEAD COACH: Jim McElwain, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dave Baldwin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Marty English, Al Simmons
Not only are the Rams breaking in a new coach in former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, but they are also starting over at quarterback after two-year starter Pete Thomas opted to transfer to NC State. That leaves true sophomore Garrett Grayson, who started the final three games in 2011 after Thomas got hurt, in charge of McElwain’s pro-style attack.
That’s not necessarily bad news. Grayson is an elusive runner with a strong arm, and he showed flashes of potential last year in limited action. Running back Chris Nwoke returns after producing 1,130 yards — including two games with 200-plus rushing yards — and there is backfield depth. Nwoke should find room to run behind a line that returns three starters, including standout center Weston Richburg.
Grayson will have at least one very capable target in tight end Crockett Gillmore, the team’s leading receiver last year. The search is on for reliable wideouts. Senior Marquise Law was the biggest surprise of the spring.
The Rams were already facing plenty of questions after getting torched for 31.3 points per game last year, but they took a major hit in the spring when juniors Nordly Capi and Mike Orakpo were dismissed for off-the-field issues. Capi led the Mountain West in sacks, and Orakpo was ninth in tackles in 2011.
McElwain will utilize multiple fronts in an effort to shore up what’s left of the defense. Linebackers Shaq Barrett and James Skelton, third and fourth in the MWC in tackles last year, anchor the middle, but there are significant questions up front and in the secondary.
Senior Momo Thomas is solid at one corner, while redshirt freshman DeAndre Elliott emerged as a starter on the other side. Sophomore Austin Gray returns as one starting safety, with redshirt freshman Trent Matthews on the other side.
Up front, talented senior tackle C.J. James was poised to break out of Capi’s shadow, but he left the team after spring practice. Sophomore John Froland could be a force and needs to have a big season with the departures around him up front. The rest of the defense is pieced together, with the incoming recruiting class expected to provide some size and depth.
Punter Pete Kontodiakos helped CSU lead the MWC in net punting last year, and he is a master at pinning foes deep in their own territory. Thomas is a dangerous punt returner who averaged 10 yards per return, and speedy wideout Thomas Coffman provides a home run threat on kickoffs. The kicking job likely will fall to incoming freshman Keenan Adams.
Talk about a leap of faith: McElwain is leaving a program that has won two of the past three national championships for one that produced three consecutive 3–9 seasons under Steve Fairchild. McElwain’s No. 1 goal during the spring was to change the culture and instill an attitude of commitment and accountability. Some players, including some projected starters, departed, but those who stayed bought in and swear by McElwain’s leadership. “Coach Mac brings a lot of passion and excitement,” Nwoke says. “We want to do great things next year, but it’s on us do the work over the summer to get there. Nobody wants to be 3–9 ever again.”
The good news is the Rams have a schedule that should be friendly to improvement — perhaps even the first .500 finish since 2008. But with a largely untested quarterback and a defense facing numerous questions, it’s clear that McElwain’s first season will be filled with lots of uncertainty.