CSU Head Coach Sonny Lubick and his staff have some major issues to deal with in the offseason. While another solid recruiting class is shaping up, and may offer some immediate help, the real answers to several key questions need to come from the last two highly touted recruiting classes. For example:
-Quarterback. Sure, Justin Holland has some experience and the pedigree to become a great QB at CSU. But his performance in the San Francisco Bowl was not very good, and he's certain to have some confidence questions heading into the new season. It's important that Lubick and the offensive coaches start building him up right now, as soon as the team regroups for conditioning work. The offense will be tailored to fit his skills. Let him know that it's his team now.
-Running Back. We know Holland will be able to step in and may even provide an upgrade in the passing game. We also know he will not be any sort of a running threat. The problem is, Bradlee Van Pelt was the Rams running game this season. Where does that leave things for next year?
Bottom line: Someone has to step up and become the sort of force that Cecil Sapp was for the Rams two seasons ago carrying the football. What's up with Marcus Houston? His SF Bowl line: Two carries for two yards. This guy was the most highly touted high school running back to ever come out of Colorado. After a sizzling start in his first three games for the CU Buffs, Houston has been hurt, didn't play when he got healthy, squabbled with his coach, transfered to CSU, and basically - although healthy - was a non factor for the Rams all season. There is no question about Houston the person/student. But their are plenty of on-the-field questions: Can Houston have a big time senior season, or will he be a four year bust as a football player? Is Jimmy Green the guy? He had a nice finish to the season, including a 100-yard game against UNLV and 74 yards in the Bowl loss, but does not appear to be a game breaker. What about Tristen Walker, out all year with an injury, or spotty Uldis Jaunarajs? Who will step up? This is a critical question that must be answered.
-Offensive Line. Patchwork for a lot of the season, the Rams will need to tighten up along the front if the pocket passer Holland is to have a big year. Did Cecil Sapp and Van Pelt make this unit look better than they really are at run blocking? Can they make a star out of Green, Houston, Walker or whomever is backthere?
-Defense - the entire thing. Tackling. Giving up big plays. Poor production in the takeaway department. It was a bad season on this side of the ball. How do they change that? Maybe a more aggressive approach is the answer? Start with the secondary. CSU was not deep here to begin with, and with Dexter Wynn leaving, things look even more uncertain. Ben Stratton got picked on a lot at cornerback; maybe he is better suited to take over the safety spot from Benny Mastropolo? The secondary played soft most of the year, making it all but impossible to create turnovers and give the offense a short field now and again. Big plays were lacking all year. The linebacking unit must replace guys like Drew Wood and Eric Pauly. Not an easy task, but someone needs to instill some more aggressivness in the unit. The line had moments where they put a lot of pressure on enemy passers, others where they looked overmatched.
Bottom Line: D Coordinator Steve Stanard has had his 'honeymoon' season. Next year, he needs to put his stamp on the defense. Sure, Lubick still calls the shots with his Tampa Bay-style scheme, but the loss of former coordinator Larry Kerr was noticeable, and it's up to Stanard to get everyone on the same page and get things fixed. Minus 17 in turnover margin is not all the fault of the offense. It's also indicitive of a defense that is not aggessive enough, and didn't create turnovers. In addition, it wasn't just in the Bowl game that the Rams had a ton of missed tackles.
-Two other items: First, CSU's special teams need to become special again. This was not a strength for CSU in '03 like it had been in years past. Someone must recapture the magic that former special teams coach Brian Schnieder brought to the unit. Secondly, Holland must replace the leadership and passion that Van Pelt brought to the field. Even coming off a broken hand, it was obvious against BC how important the intangible that VP brought was to the entire team. You can't fake it, and Holland needs to be himself. Even so, he has to step it up and make his teammates believe in him the way they believed Van Pelt.
Finally, Lubick and his coaches will relish the role of underdog once again. Expectations can be a heavy burden, and it was apparent before the season started that the CSU leader was not comfortable being a heavy pre-season favorite and having people not only hand him the confererence title before the first snap, but talk openly about the Rams going unbeaten.
Much like his counterpart at Air Force, Fisher DeBerry, Lubick has a knack for rallying his troops with the "nobody believes in us" mantra. Tough to do when everyone is heaping praise on you all summer. Someone else will be the pre-season favorite to win the Mountain West next summer. That will be fine with Sonny. If the Rams can fix some of these problem areas before the season opener in Boulder, it could be another great bounce back year for Colorado State, and they might be wearing that crown at season's end. We expect nothing less, of course.