CSU Spring Practice
Key dates: March 25: first practice; March 28: first day of full pads; April 6: first scrimmage; April 12: Denver practice at Dick's Sporting Goods Park; April 19: Spring game, Lubick Field at Hughes Stadium.
Returning starters: 13 (five offense, six defense, two specialists)
Returning leaders: Passing: Garrett Grayson, 297-478, 3,696 yards, 23 TDs, 11 Ints; Rushing: Donnell Alexander 71-428, 2 TDs; Receiving: Rashard Higgins, 68-837 6 TDs; Tackles: Max Morgan 134, 2 TFL, 1 Int.
Injuries: Seven Rams are expected to be limited to various degrees in spring coming off surgeries: DL Austin Berk and Josh Lovingood; DB Bernard Blake; OL Zack Golditch and Ty Sambrailo; LB Steve Michel and Morgan.
Viewing: All practices are closed with the exception of the Denver practice and the spring game.
New faces: The Rams brought in three junior college transfers for the spring, with all expected to push for prominent roles — Jordan Findley at offensive tackle, Christian Montes and Steve Walker at tight end..
FORT COLLINS — In the course of 15 spring practices, Colorado State's football team won't exactly find its identity.
It will, however, get a hint.
The competition that developed last spring and the depth it created led the Rams down the right path in 2013 — to an 8-6 season and a bowl victory. Head coach Jim McElwain wants to see the same trends continue when spring practice begins Tuesday, though he acknowledges the competition will have a different feel than last year.
Instead of looking to be backups, many Rams will be vying to fill leading roles with the loss of 12 starters. Four of them were on the offensive line, so that unit has to be reconstructed, and Mountain West defensive player of the year Shaquil Barrett is no longer on roster.
"We felt it was important a year ago at some spots to create competition to push some of those guys who had been starters," McElwain said when he met with the media Monday. "Now you're looking at some guys that are going to get an opportunity to be a starter and battle for a guy for those reps. It's a little bit different at some of those spots.
"Where I'm excited to see is the competition we're going to have at the receiver spot. Moving forward, we're getting the type of players in here who are going to be weapons in this conference and against people we play. That one probably interests me as much as anything to see."
The Rams brought in four wideouts with the 2013 class, but only Rashard Higgins saw the field, starting 14 games and leading the team with 68 catches for 863 yards and six touchdowns. This spring, Sammie Long, Elroy Masters and Xavier Williams will get a chance to break into the lineup with holdovers Jordon Vaden, Charles Lovett and Joe Hansley, the latter two mainly in the slot.
That same type of push will be made along the offensive line. While Ty Sambrailo is back as a second-team all-conference selection at tackle, he won't take part in contract drills. Fred Zerblis, Jake Bennett, Mason Myers, Sam Carlson, Mason Hathaway and Tomas Rivera were the next in line behind the four missing starters, and now they'll get a chance to move to the front line, as well as junior college transfer Jordan Finley.
However, there isn't a sense of panic coming from anybody about how the group will perform.
"That's always big when you lose experience like that," said Sambrailo, who is looking forward to more of a "coach" role in the spring. "When you look down to who is coming up, there's a lot of talent there. They've been in the shadows of those four, so it's worked both ways. You lose four starters, but they haven't had the chance to prove themselves. They're athletic and smart guys."
And there are a host of others who are looking to get a chance to make their mark, young players who earned a more sustained and channelled look based off their efforts on the scout team.
"Bryce (Peters) did an outstanding job," McElwain said. "I'm excited to see Bryce at running back. I think he has a bright future. Justin Sweet, one of our corners, I'm really looking forward to cutting him loose back there and being able to play. As you go down, (linebackers) Kiel Robinson and Evan Colorito are guys that will really help us, on special teams as well as defensively and where they fit in the scheme.
"Trae Moxley, I think this guy is a gem, but I don't know what he is yet. He was a punter and running back in high school."
Moxley was at tight end last fall, but the 6-foot-5, 270-pounder from Carbondale has been moved to offensive line for the spring, one of a host of players to either switch spots or sides of the ball.
Spring won't be about reinventing the team, but finding a direction to take once the fall starts. Players will get a chance to prove whether or not they become relevant for the next phase.
"For us, it's guys getting an opportunity to compete and get on film," McElwain said. "After that, we go ahead and review that and we'll put our install in for the fall."
Last spring provided the base the Rams needed to reach the postseason once again. It was viewed as a major stepping stone in the development of the program, and while McElwain won't downplay it's worth, he also won't accept it as the endgame.
The players in the program, now heading into the third year under McElwain, have a full grasp of the expectations at hand. Now that McElwain and his staff have moved past that part of the development, what's next is what he considers the fun part.
"I think the biggest thing is our guys understand the structure," McElwain said. "They understand the what. They understand the expectation, and they're ready to go attack it. One of the biggest problems in developing a program and an organization is understanding exactly what they're supposed to do, when they're supposed to do it and how they're supposed to do it when they're not used to it. They'll go out and practice hard. They won't even blink.
"That part is good. Now making use of the parts we have is where it becomes kind of fun. Kind of the mad-scientist part."
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