College Athlete of the Year

All he needed was a boot. One of the bronze variety.

Entering what would become a turnaround season in 2013, many observers felt like quarterback was a position of weakness at Colorado State. The Rams were coming off a 4-8 campaign in Jim McElwain’s first year. As a sophomore, starting quarterback Garrett Grayson had suffered a broken collarbone and missed the last five weeks of the season.

So the questions were inevitable. Grayson was a Steve Fairchild recruit. Would McElwain stick with him?

Midway through the 2013 season, speculation swirled that Grayson might indeed lose his starting spot. The Rams had been sputtering along, falling to 2-4 after losing an ugly homecoming game to San Jose State. Then, something happened. Something no one saw coming.

With the Bronze Boot on the line, the Rams ventured into Laramie and blasted the favored Cowboys 52-22 in one of those “not as close as the final score” kind of games, ending a four-year run for Wyoming in the Border War. It was a coming out party for running back Kapri Bibbs (201 rushing yards) and a big moment for Grayson, who threw three touchdown passes.

After that, it was off to the races. Grayson led the Rams to wins in six of their final eight games, including an incredible last-second win in the New Mexico Bowl over Washington State. He finished the season with 23 TDs and a passer rating of 138.4. There were no more questions, but there was room for improvement.

With McElwain’s help, Grayson scored an invite to the prestigious Manning Passing Academy during the summer and was touted for numerous preseason honors in 2014. But Bibbs was gone, as was most of the team’s offensive line, two of whom landed in the NFL. Grayson was not a question mark, but there were plenty of others.

Those predicted struggles appeared early in the season opener against in-state rival Colorado. The Rams o-line seemed to come of age in the second half, however, leading to 266-yard rushing game and a comeback win over CU. Grayson threw for just 134 yards, but several clutch completions in the second half were key in the victory.

Two weeks later, the Rams made a statement, coming from behind to win at Boston College 24-21. With just more than one minute to play, trailing by four points, Grayson connected with Charles Lovett on a crucial fourth down for a 12-yard touchdown, and the Rams held on for another huge victory.

It was the first of nine consecutive wins (including a five-TD passing game for Grayson against Wyoming) led by a quarterback who was now being talked about as a future NFL draft pick rather than someone who might get replaced.

He was steady every week, whether the game was an offensive shootout against Nevada or a defensive struggle against Utah State. There are no stats to measure leadership, but it’s certain that Grayson would have ranked high on those charts, too.

He was the key player in one of the best seasons in school history. On his way to being named Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year, the senior from Vancouver, Washington threw for almost 3,800 yards, tossed 32 touchdowns and just six interceptions, while completing 65 percent of his pass attempts. It added up to a sensational 171.3 passer rating. When he graduates, Grayson will hold every major career passing record in Colorado State football history.

For his efforts, Grayson – a finalist for the Manning Award – is our 2014 Mile High Sports Magazine College Athlete of the Year.

{Mark Knudson}

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Finalists

Nelson Spruce
University of Colorado
Football

He’s not 6-foot-5 and he doesn’t run a 4.3 40-yard-dash. All Nelson Spruce does is catch footballs. Lots and lots of them. Spruce is not little – he comes from a family with a bodybuilding background – but he doesn’t fit the mold of “No. 1 receiver.” Yet he’s been that and more for the University of Colorado. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, Spruce would be called by some a “possession” receiver. Pac-12 defensive backs would call him other names. As a junior, Spruce led the conference with 106 catches and totaled just a tick under 1,200 yards. He also hauled in 12 touchdowns, becoming a candidate for postseason honors, including the Biletnikoff Award for the nation’s best wide receiver.

Darius Allen
CSU-Pueblo
Football

When the offensive is putting up big numbers, sometimes the defense gets overlooked. Not so at CSU-Pueblo, where senior defensive end Darius Allen is wrecking havoc. Allen led the ThunderWolves defense to a top-10 finish nationally in scoring defense and sacks. In 2013, Allen was the Gene Upshaw Award winner as the top lineman in NCAA Division II football. This season, he totaled nine sacks, 14 tackles for loss, forced three fumbles. After being selected the 2014 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, Allen backed that up with a bookend selection as the RMAC’s 2014 Defensive Player of the Year, as well as being the two-time Daktronics Super Region Four Defensive Player of the Year.

Brandon Jefferson
Metro State University
Basketball

Metro State has become known nationally as one of the top NCAA Division II college basketball programs in the country. Last spring, senior guard Brandon Jefferson captured awards that only one Roadrunner (Mark Worthington in 2005) had nabbed before and became the program’s first consensus National Player of the Year. Jefferson averaged a school record 21.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.5 per contest, leading the Roadrunners to the top of the national rankings with a 32-2 record. Behind Jefferson, MSU went undefeated in the RMAC, won the NCAA South Regional before ending the season with a heartbreaking two-point loss to Central Missouri in the championship game.

Kristine Haugen
University of Denver
Downhill Skiing

Most sports fans in the region think of hockey as the top sport at the University of Denver. But the Pioneers have now won 22 national championships on the ski slopes, including last spring when then-sophomore sensation and four-time All-American Kristine Haugen became the first skier in school history to repeat as the NCAA champion in the giant slalom. Haugen, a native of Norway, also earned All-American honors in the slalom, garnering 11 top-five finishes and five race wins. As a freshman, Haugen won both the giant slalom and the slalom at the NCAA Championships.

Rashard Higgins
Colorado State University
Football

Rashard Higgins isn’t shy. He arrived at Colorado State and quickly let everyone know his nickname: “Hollywood.” Boasts like that need to be backed up. Higgins didn’t disappoint. After showing glimpses of what he could do catching footballs in 2013, the sophomore from Mesquite, Texas burst on the national scene this fall, becoming one of the nation’s leading receivers and a candidate for All-American honors. He registered 89 catches, good for 1,640 yards and an eye-popping 17 TDs to lead the nation. Higgins was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver.

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