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2010 NCAA Football Preview: Colorado State Rams

2009 Record: 3-9 (0-8 in Mountain West)
2009 Bowl: None
Final 2009 AP Ranking: Not Ranked
Head Coach: Steve Fairchild (10-15 in 2 years at Colorado State)
Non-Conference Schedule: Colorado (9/4), at Nevada (9/11), at Miami (Oh) (9/18), Idaho (9/25)

2009 Offensive Statistics
Scoring: 21.7 points per game (7th in MWC)
Rushing Yards/Game: 144 (5th in MWC)
Passing Yards/Game: 206 (7th in MWC)
Total Yards/Game: 350 (6th in MWC) 

2009 Defensive Statistics
Scoring: 29.8 points per game (6th in MWC)
Rushing Yards/Game: 152 (5th in MWC)
Passing Yards/Game: 235 (8th in MWC)
Total Yards/Game: 387 (6th in MWC)

2009 Misc Stats
Turnover Margin: +0.08 per game (5th in MWC)
Penalties: 52 yards per game (4th in MWC)

Returning Starters
Offense: 4
Defense: 9
Kicker/Punter: 2

Top Returning Statistical Leaders
Passing: No returnees with statistics from 2009
Rushing: RB Leonard Mason, Sr (156 carries for 766 yds, 2 TD, 4.9 ypc, 76 ypg)
Rushing: RB John Mosure, Sr (124 carries for 650 yds, 7 TD, 5.2 ypc, 59 ypg)
Receiving: WR Tyson Liggett, Sr (17 rec, 253 yds, 3 TD, 1.5 rec/game)
Tackles: LB Mychal Sisson, Jr (91)
Sacks: LB Mychal Sisson, Jr (5)
Interceptions: FS Elijah-Blu Smith, Jr (3)

2010 Pre-Season Rankings
Athlon Sports: #89
Sporting News: #80

2010 Pre-Season MWC Prediction:
Athlon Sports: #7
Phil Steele: #7

Colorado State went 7-6 and went to a bowl game in Steve Fairchild's debut season. Last year the Rams fell to 3-9 and went winless in the Mountain West. The Rams won their first 3 games (including wins over Colorado and Nevada) and then dropped 9 consecutive games to close the season. We turned to Joel Cantalamessa of to find out if we could expect improvement from the 2010 version of the Colorado State Rams.

What are the major strengths and biggest weaknesses of the team?

Strengths: Note this as an “I’ll believe it when I see it” statement, but the defense should be the strength of the team in 2010. The Rams have some experience (nine starters return from a year ago), and the staff is excited by the prospect of several young players. CSU coaches say the team will benefit from getting more speed on the field, which has been accomplished through recruiting, position changes, and restored eligibility. The Rams get team leader Ricky Brewer (the team’s leading tackler in 2008) back at the Sam linebacker position after he sat out the 2009 season due to suspension for breaking team rules. He’ll anchor a linebacking corps that may be among the best in the conference. Junior Mychal Sisson is the returning starter at weakside linebacker and Alex Williams or Chris Gipson will start in the middle. Freshman Brian Orakpo, originally penciled in as a safety, is being moved to linebacker and brings additional speed to the mix. The defensive line returns three starters, and an interesting player to watch will be Davis Burl who is being moved from linebacker to provide quickness and agility. This coaching staff has had success in converting linebackers to impactful defensive ends over the years, including Sean Moran, Adrian Ross, and Andre Sommersell. C.J. James is a true sophomore who might be primed for a breakout season. He’ll likely be battling Cory Macon for the bulk of the playing time on one of the end positions. Guy Miller is entrenched at nose tackle, while Ty Whittier and Nuku Latu split time during the spring at DT. Cornerbacks DeAngelo Wilkinson and Momo Thomas are now the elder statesmen in the defensive backfield, while safeties Elijah-Blu Smith and Ivory Herd provide speed and hitting ability. The Rams’ lone junior college signee from this year’s recruiting crop is cornerback Dominique Vinson, who brings 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash and may provide depth in the secondary.

Weaknesses: The Rams will be inexperienced on offense, with either a true (Pete Thomas) or redshirt freshman (Nico Rainieri) likely running the offense at quarterback. They won’t have the luxury of an experienced offensive line to protect them, as they don’t have a single full-time starter returning. Tackles Paul Madsen and Mark Starr, along with guard Jake Gdowski got significant playing time last year though, and the CSU staff thinks the line will come together again as a cohesive unit for the Rams. The quarterbacks won’t have a seasoned group of receivers to throw to either, as the Rams don’t return a single starter. But, walk-on Tyson Liggett (5-9, 186 lb) showed flashes of playmaking ability in 2009 when given the opportunity, and was the star of spring ball. Byron Steele, Vernon Scott, Matt Yemm, and Marquis Law will likely anchor the wide receiver rotation. The staff is excited about incoming freshmen Thomas Coffman (from the Pete Rebstock/David Anderson mold) and Josh James. But the key player to watch is Lou Greenwood, a speedy slasher who is moving from running back to slot receiver to stay on the field more. The Rams will look to get him the ball early and often.

Fullback Zac Pauga and tight end Eric Peitz provide experience and a rare combo of blocking and playmaking ability. UCLA transfer running back Raymond Carter (a junior) is eligible this year and should be the featured back in the backfield, along with senior Leonard Mason. Redshirt freshman Chris Nwoke, who the staff loves, and senior John Mosure provide depth.

Looking at the schedule who will be the first major test and why?

The first major test will be Colorado at Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium in Denver. Both CSU and CU are trying to get their programs back on track, and CU is a desperate team that will be fighting to keep head coach Dan Hawkins’ job. Lose to CSU and the Buffs could struggle again throughout the 2010 campaign, forcing the Pac-10-bound Buffaloes to make a coaching change mid-season. After beating CU on its homefield last year, the Rams will certainly face a motivated squad.

What team on the schedule do you fear the most?

Take your pick: Utah, BYU, or TCU. The league’s “Big 3” are going to be formidable again. TCU figures to be the best of the bunch, but Pac-10-bound Utah will challenge for the title again, and the Rams will be hard-pressed to keep that game close on the road in Salt Lake City.

Who is the best player on your team that nobody talks about?

This isn’t a glamorous answer, but fullback Zac Pauga has been instrumental to the Rams’ success in running the football. He’s a fierce blocker and is such a good athlete that the Rams have gotten the ball in his hands not only in short-yardage situations, but in passing situations. Pauga is occasionally used as a receiver out of the backfield and ran a wheel route for a long touchdown in 2009.

Who is the best offensive player on the team?

It’s hard to say this, considering he hasn’t yet played a down for the Rams, but from everything he showed in practice in 2009, UCLA transfer Raymond Carter will be a stud at running back. He’s a quick runner, who also will give fans glimpses of Cecil Sapp-like tough running.

Who is the most impactful defensive player on the team?

Without question, Ricky Brewer. His return not only brings speed and a nose for the ball, but also team leadership. His absence in 2009 was glaring in nearly every game, as the defense typically folded at the first sign of adversity. He will not let that happen when he’s on the field. He’ll be a mentor for younger players, including safety-turned-linebacker Mike Orakpo, and the incoming true freshmen.

What player(s) needs to step up this year in order for the team to reach its full capability?

Junior center Tyler McDermott. The position requires a cerebral player who can call blocking schemes and be a leader for the entire offense. If the Rams find a good center, and all indications are that it will be McDermott, their offense will steadily develop. Equally important is the play of the quarterback, whether it be true freshman Pete Thomas or redshirt freshman Nico Rainieri. Both will make their share of mistakes as they adjust to the speed of the college football. But, the player who settles in, matures, makes the fewest mistakes, and leads the team the best will find himself the starter, and the Rams need that player to ultimately be a leader.

Who is the top offensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

Pete Thomas or Nico Raineri. Clearly one of these two will become the starter, as they took 90 percent of the snaps during the spring. Both have playmaking ability and are mature for young players. Sure, they are inexperienced, but the Rams have had serviceable fifth-year seniors run the show the past couple of years with mixed results. If either Thomas or Rainieri can step in and be a leader who makes a few plays and minimizes mistakes, the Rams can have a successful season (with promise of even greater years ahead). If the two youngsters are overwhelmed by the task, the Rams’ offense will falter all year. Another youngster on offense who showed this spring that he may be an impactful player is redshirt freshman tight end Joe Brown, who made several big catches during the Green and Gold spring game. Fans are also excited to see incoming true freshman running back Tony Drake, who brings 4.35 speed and may find himself on the field early, at punt or kick returner, or even at slot receiver.

Who is the top defensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

Ricky Brewer could technically be included here. But, regarding new players, the Rams shouldn’t have to rely on any such newcomers to make significant impact. Although, talking true newcomers, put my money on speedy juco transfer cornerback Dominique Vinson as the biggest contributor. He shouldn’t be counted on to crack the starting lineup, but adds immediate depth. Freshman linebacker Mike Orakpo could ultimately develop into a contributor. Redshirt freshman Te’Jay Brown should figure into the rotation in the interior defensive line. Several incoming true freshmen are intriguing (linebacker Eric Niederberger, linebacker Charles Favors, safety Najee James, and defensive tackle John Froland come to mind), but it’s likely their impact won’t be felt for another year or two.

Gut feeling on the team’s final record at the end of the regular season and what makes this a successful season in your eyes?

After losing nine straight games to close the 2009 season, the Rams will battle some confidence issues. That can all be corrected with a win over archrival Colorado in the opener. The Rams should win a minimum of six games and become bowl-eligible. That should be a goal for this team. With the strength of the conference, the Rams better figure out a way to go at least 3-1 in nonconference play. If things break right, the Rams can certainly win more than six games, but as they proved last year, the Rams are still firmly entrenched in rebuilding mode and there are no automatic wins on the schedule. A 6-6 record with a bowl win to make it 7-6 is a successful season in my eyes with this team.

Make sure you visit this fall to follow Colorado State and the Mountain West Conference. You can also take part in the message board.

Previous Mountain West Previews
UNLV Rebels
Utah Utes

Next Up: New Mexico Lobos

2010 Previews
ACC- Boston College Eagles, Florida State Seminoles, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, Maryland Terrapins
Big 12- Kansas State Wildcats, Missouri Tigers, Texas Tech Red Raiders
Big East- Cincinnati Bearcats, Pittsburgh Panthers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, USF Bulls, West Virginia Mountaineers
Big Ten- Michigan WolverinesMinnesota Golden Gophers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers
Conference USA- Houston CougarsTulane Green Wave, UTEP Miners
MAC- Ball State Cardinals, Bowling Green Falcons, Buffalo Bulls, Central Michigan Chippewas, Temple Owls, Toledo Rockets
Pac-10- Arizona State Sun Devils, Oregon Ducks, USC Trojans, Washington Huskies
SEC- Auburn Tigers, Kentucky Wildcats, Mississippi Rebels, South Carolina Gamecocks, Vanderbilt Commodores
Sun Belt- Troy Trojans
WAC- New Mexico State Aggies

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