Over the next couple of weeks, GopherDigest will take an early look at the Minnesota Gophers football team’s opponents throughout the 2016 regular season. Today, we preview the Colorado State Rams.
Colorado State Rams vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers
TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn.
Sept. 24, 2016, time TBA
Colorado State head coach: Mike Bobo (2nd season)
Coordinators: Will Friend (Offensive coordinator; 2nd season) and Marty English (defensive coordinator; 5th season)
Colorado State 2015 record – 7-6 (5-3 MWC): The Rams and the Gophers played last season in Fort Collins, which ended in a Minnesota come from behind victory in overtime 23-20. Colorado State ended their season on a four game winning streak, which gave the Rams, seven wins on the season.
2015 offensive stats: 47th nationally in total offense (425.8 YPG), 62nd in scoring offense (29.6 PPG), 61nd in passing offense (228.1 YPG), 33rd in rushing offense (197.8 YPG)
2015 defensive stats: 55th nationally in total defense (390.1 YPG), 64th in scoring defense (27.2 PPG), 9th in passing defense (177.6 YPG), 106th in rushing defense (213.3 YPG)
Returning leading passer – QB Nick Stevens (2679 yards, 21 TD, 12 INT on 211-of- 347 passing): Stevens returns for his junior season in 2016 coming off of a second team All-Mountain West performance. The Rams are going to count heavily on their junior signal caller versus the Gophers in September.
Returning leading rusher – RB Dayln Dawkins (867 yards, 2 TD on 170 carries): The Rams also return their leading rusher from 2015 in Dawkins, who accounted for 110 total yards of offense against Minnesota (9/12), rushing 19 times for 92 yards and pulling in four catches for 18 yards.
Returning leading receiver – WR Xavier Williams (231 yards, 2 TD on 19 catches): Colorado State loses their star receiver from last season in Rashard Higgins, and have to replace over 50% of their receiving production from last season, and Williams is the top non-RB coming back.
Returning leading tackler – LB Kevin Davis (101 tackles): The Rams return their leading tackler from last season in senior linebacker Kevin Davis, but lose their second and third leading tacklers.
Returning leader in interceptions – Four players tied with one (one pick): Colorado State only had 8 interceptions last fall and their leaders with two graduated. The Rams still remain a very good passing defense heading into 2016.
FIVE QUESTIONS ANSWERED BY KEEGAN POPE OF THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN COLLEGIAN
What was the biggest thing about this Colorado State team that you drew from watching spring practices and its spring game?
KP: The biggest thing about this team is they are continually growing into what Coach Mike Bobo's style, which is a physical, run-first offense and aggressive defense that will look to force turnovers on the back end. Gone is the star power of Rashard Higgins on offense, so CSU will be relying on its stable of running backs which includes sophomore Izzy Matthews and junior Dalyn Dawkins. With an entire year under Bobo and his staff, players seem to finally have a good grasp of the basics of the playbook and are now starting to introduce some new concepts while trying to play faster in the base sets on offense and defense.
What are the three biggest story lines to follow this season?
KP: 1. Who replaces Higgins?
As I mentioned, Rashard "Hollywood" Higgins is gone to the NFL, drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the fifth round. Higgins may be the best offensive threat Colorado State has ever had, and his record production will be hard to replicate. Also gone is CSU's most reliable target, Joe Hansley, who signed a free-agent deal with the Oakland Raiders. Junior wideout Xavier Williams and sophomore Bisi Johnson should be in line to start next season, and Williams may even be a better athlete than Higgins. He stands 6'4 and weighs about 215 pounds, while running what I'd guess is a 4.5-4.6 40. His production hasn't been consistent, but if he can find that extra gear, he could very well end up as an all-league player.
2. Who's the QB?
Redshirt junior Nick Stevens was the Rams' on-and-off starter during the 2015 campaign, and despite an up and down year, he was voted second-team All-Mountain West after throwing 21 TDs and 12 interceptions. It seemed to be his job going forward, at least until former Georgia quarterback Faton Bauta graduated and transferred to CSU. Bauta struggled to find his footing at Georgia, starting just one game in which he threw four interceptions against Florida last season. The two were co-No. 1's throughout the spring, and though Stevens was listed at the top of the depth chart, Bobo insisted it was simply because someone had to be put there. Their competition should continue throughout the summer and fall, and just because one of them is the starter Week 1 doesn't mean they will be when CSU visits Minnesota.
3. Secondary issues
Maybe CSU's biggest loss came in its secondary, where starters Trent Matthews, Kevin Pierre-Louis and DeAndre Elliott all graduated, taking more than 100 career starts with them. Replacing them is an untested, inexperienced group. Nickel back Preston Hodges returns, and so do safety Jake Schlager and corner Tyree Simmons. Wideout Jordon Vaden moved over to defense this spring, and will likely be the Rams' No. 1 corner opposite Simmons. But behind that group are inexperienced junior college players and a handful of underclassmen. CSU's top DB recruit, Devron Davis, recently was released from his letter of intent to attend a school closer to his ailing mother, so a thin secondary just got thinner.
What are Colorado State’s greatest strengths for the 2016 season?
KP: On offense, CSU's biggest strength will be its run game, with four of five offensive line starters back, along with the addition of Nebraska grad transfer Paul Thurston. Combine that with their depth at running back, and the run game should be CSU's calling card this fall. Defensively, it will again be the linebacking corps that anchors CSU's defense, with starters Kevin Davis, Deonte Clyburn and Kiel Robinson all back. Key reserves Josh Watson, Tre Thomas and Evan Colorito provide some very talented depth, and with the switch from a 4-3 scheme back to a 3-4, CSU will need a number of linebackers to play on Saturdays.
What are the Rams' greatest weaknesses?
KP: Maybe the biggest weakness and/or question mark for this CSU team is in the kicking game. As Minnesota fans saw last year, the Rams had a lot of inconsistency on their field goal units, and they also struggled in the kickoff game as well. Two of CSU's first three games (Minnesota and Colorado) were decided by field goals, and the Rams simply couldn't capitalize. Sophomore Wyatt Bryan will be back this year, and CSU signed junior college standout Tavis Guerra this spring, but its yet to be seen if either can provide the kind of consistency CSU needs.
Outside of that, CSU's defensive line could be a major weakness if they can't get a handful of younger players to step up. All four of the Rams' starting defensive linemen graduated last year, and CSU has struggled mightily in recent years to recruit the big bodies up front. They have a handful of talented, athletic young guys, but it remains to be seen as to whether that will actually translate onto the field.
What is your outlook for the 2016 season for Colorado State?
KP: The 2016 version of CSU's team is very different from the 2015 squad in many ways, but it could also be seen as similar in many aspects, too. This team will again rely on a strong running game to carry it, but it likely won't have the same big-play passing ability that that CSU did last year. On defense, I expect CSU to be good against the run because of the depth at linebacker, but it will face some major challenges in the passing game if some of the new starters can't step up. The Rams have a so-so non-conference slate, with the two games against Minnesota and Colorado being balanced out by games against FCS Northern Colorado and UTSA. I'd expect the Rams to compete again in the Mountain West, but they play in the toughest side of the division with games against Air Force, Boise State and Utah State looming.
You can follow Keegan Pope on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.
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COMPLETED EARLY OPPONENT PREVIEWS:
Oct. 1 at Penn State
Oct. 8 vs. Iowa
Oct. 15 at Maryland
Oct. 22 vs. Rutgers (Homecoming)
Oct. 29 at Illinois
Nov. 5 vs. Purdue
Nov. 12 at Nebraska
Nov. 19 vs. Northwestern
Nov. 26 at Wisconsin