On a frigid Friday morning in Fort Collins, where the temperature remained on the negative side of zero, Colorado State Rams head coach Mike Bobo was fired up when recapping the previous season and looking forward to the future.
When asked about the most important position in football, the quarterback, Bobo had much to say.
“Nick Stevens is our starter right now,” Bobo said emphatically. “Nick Stevens, obviously is our starter going into spring ball. Nick Stevens will be our starter going into fall camp.”
This is a different stance from what he’s had the last two years heading into the season. Stevens and Coleman Key competed throughout spring ball and fall camp in 2015 before Stevens won the job for good during the season. Key transferred last offseason, and then true freshman Collin Hill competed with Stevens throughout spring and fall of 2016. Again, Stevens won the job in 2016, only to lose it again after one game – the 44-7 blowout loss to Colorado in the Rocky Mountain Showdown – and see graduate transfer Faton Bauta do the same before it was Hill’s turn.
Hill played well, especially considering his freshman status, throwing for 1,096 yards and eight touchdowns with two interceptions in four starts. But, in that fourth start, he tore an ACL after running the ball in an attempt to gain a much-needed 3rd down conversion on 3rd and 19.
So, in stepped Stevens, who balled out throughout the rest of the season. He threw for 1,896 yards with 19 touchdowns and three interceptions from Week 6 on, including the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl loss. It wasn’t just his play which has won him this job; Bobo talked multiple times during the season how Steven’s leadership improved as soon as he was benched. The redshirt junior quarterback started holding himself and his teammates accountable much more consistently, earning the trust of his fellow Rams. Of course, health has something to do with the decision, as well, as Bobo explained.
“We’ve got a guy who’s not 100 percent yet,” Bobo said of Hill. “And we’ve got a guy who’s 100 percent and played extremely well in the year. (Nick) didn’t play his best game in the bowl game early on. But, that happens at times. Really proud of Nick and the way he played. Our success largely offensively had a lot to do with his play. It’s a big difference from the previous year to this year and how he played the quarterback position.”
Bobo’s right, the Rams offense really ramped up this season – his second as head coach – compared to his first. And during the last seven weeks, when Stevens was the full-time starter, Colorado State averaged an eye-popping 47.3 points per game and went 4-3.
“I told Nick after the (Idaho Bowl) I was extremely proud of him,” Bobo continued on his QB. “I didn’t think he’d have had the season he had if he didn’t have to deal with some adversity and had to fight. Because I believe in competition. My players know I believe in competition.
“I expect Nick to be the starter next year, but there will always be competition here at Colorado State,” the head coach said. “Whether it’s from guys on the program or guys we recruit.”
For Bobo, competition isn’t just a buzz word, it’s a reality. We saw it when three different Qbs started in the team’s first three games last year. We saw competition at receiver, where JUCO transfer Michael Gallup was able to win a starting job over entrenched players like Xavier Williams, who Bobo said is no longer with the team. In fact, we’ve seen competition at every position within CSU Football the last two years.
Obviously, Hill presents the biggest challenge in Stevens winning the starting job once again, but, after tearing his ACL in October, there’s some doubt he’ll be healthy enough to start in September. Will Hill be redshirted in 2017?
“It’s too early to answer that question,” Bobo explained. “I want to put the best players on the field, that put us in the best position to compete for a championship. That’s my job as head coach. Whether I like this guy or that guy more, it’s who gives us the best chance to win a championship.
“Not to win seven (games), not to win eight, not to win 10, but to win a championship. And that’s at every position,” Bobo continued.
Bobo talked much about competing for a championship Friday in Fort Collins, just as he has since he took over the job in 2015. In order to compete for a Mountain West championship, the Rams need a true leader at the quarterback position. So, how can Stevens take a step forward in 2017?
“The next step Nick needs to take is the leadership he had when he came back and became the starter,” Bobo explained. “Being the leader on the football field and in practice. Being the leader in the huddle. Being the leader in games. That has to transition into the offseason and the extra work that he and the receivers and the tight ends and running backs do in the film room, on the practice field and then becoming the best that we can be offensively.
“He’s got to take that next step. I saw that next step when he came back. They believe in him because of how he handled the situation, how he played, how he changed who he was as a leader…Being a leader is not just you playing well, it’s getting the guys around you to play the best that they can play.”
On Saturday, Sept. 2 2017, Stevens will likely be leading his Rams onto the field at Mile High Stadium against CU. But, this time, he’s got to be the leader they need to make sure they don’t start the season off with another blowout loss. Because two weeks later Colorado State heads to Tuscaloosa to play Alabama and then the Rams host Oregon State in their new, on-campus stadium.
2017 is a huge season for CSU Football and an opportunity to, as a team, take that step towards a championship caliber group Bobo’s been pushing for over the last two years.