COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2012 PRESEASON TOP 25
MWC Mountain PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Jim McElwain, 4-8 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dave Baldwin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Marty English, Al Simmons
The Rams went into 2012 with no experienced quarterbacks. They now have two. Garrett Grayson started the first five games before breaking his collarbone. Strong-armed Conner Smith started four of the last five games, earning three of the team’s four wins. Grayson, the better runner and leader, likely will start, but Smith and redshirt freshman Craig Leonard will challenge to lead what should be a productive offense.
Running back will be a team strength, with Donnell Alexander, Chris Nwoke and Tommey Morris returning after combining to average 5.0 yards per carry in 2012. Davon Riddick and junior college transfer Kapri Bibbs complete a talented group with intriguing potential.
The line returns all five starters, including savvy senior center Weston Richburg, and should be solid.
The receiving corps is the big question — as it was in 2012. Wideout Charles Lovett is small but fast, and the Rams boast a terrific 1-2 punch at tight end with Crockett Gillmore and Kivon Cartwright. Second-year coach Jim McElwain is hoping redshirt freshman Jordon Vaden or holdovers Joe Hansley or Thomas Coffman can become the go-to guy the offense sorely lacks.
Colorado State couldn’t stop the run in 2012 and could not get off the field on third down — areas that must improve.
The good news is that the linebackers are legitimate. Senior Shaq Barrett, who has played pretty much every spot in the front seven, is a proven playmaker and one of the Mountain West’s best, while Cory James is coming off a stellar freshman season. Aaron Davis and Max Morgan round out a solid unit.
The secondary relies on cornerback Shaq Bell to make plays, while Bernard Blake and DeAndre Elliott also have starting experience at corner. Trent Matthews returns at strong safety, and Kevin Pierre-Louis shows promise at free safety.
Unless the Rams can shore up the line, however, it won’t matter how good the linebackers and secondary play. Opponents converted 48.4 percent of their third downs last year, mostly because the line offered little resistance, allowing other teams to average 4.7 yards per rush. McElwain hit the junior college ranks hard and signed LaRyan King and Terry Jackson to provide immediate help while hoping returnees Calvin Tonga and Curtis Wilson can improve.
The Rams lose one of the best punters in school history in Pete Kontodiakos but return kicker Jared Roberts, who went from unknown walk-on to second-team All-Mountain West last year. Lovett, Coffman and Hansley are terrific return specialists.
McElwain, the former Alabama offensive coordinator, cobbled together four wins in his first season, including three in league play. That marked progress for a program that had won a combined three MWC games in the previous three seasons. On closer inspection, however, you realize that the Rams’ victories came over teams that went a combined 10–40, while they lost eight games by an average of 19.4 points.
Unlike last year, McElwain has two experienced quarterbacks, which should help immensely. The running backs and line should be good, and if the receivers come through, the Rams should be able to score enough to be in most games. Defense remains the primary concern. Unless they can find a way to stop the run and get off the field on third down, every game will be a struggle.
Realistically, the Rams are a year or two away from having a legitimate chance of cracking the MWC’s upper echelon. In the meantime, they should be better in 2013 — even if it doesn’t show in their record.