In less than a year, the Colorado State Rams have gone from having one play-maker to having a plentiful number of play-makers.

For many seasons, the Rams have been deficient in terms of speed and play-making ability, limited in the quantity — as well as quality — of young men capable of making the big play. Now, wide receiver Michael Gallup — who head coach Mike Bobo called the “only” play-maker on the team at one point last season when the coach was frustrated with a lack of production — is joined by running backs Izzy Matthews and Dalyn Dawkins, wide receiver Olabisi Johnson and, maybe the most explosive of them all, returner/receiver Detrich (pronounced DEE-trick) Clark.

Clark is the most dynamic, speediest and likely the deadliest play-maker on the Rams; who brought along great expectations as they kicked off the entire college football season — and opened their beautiful, new stadium in style last Saturday.

That newly-discovered versatility from Clark was easily seen in CSU’s stadium-opening performance, where the all-around athlete caught multiple passes and returned the opening kickoff of the second half 45 yards — and he even had a tackle on special teams. His speed and elusiveness was special on that long return, and then, three plays later, everyone was able to see the work that he’s put into the pass game this off-season result in a big gain.

Redshirt senior quarterback Nick Stevens alertly saw the receiver open downfield on a play in which Clark and Gallup were shadowing one another, and as they came across the field, Stevens completed it to an open Clark, who was in the right place at the right time. That 35-yard gain was a positive sign of his work ethic, even if the result was nullified by a holding penalty on the offensive line.

That deep pass play was erased by a penalty, but Clark make two more receptions, including an all-too-easy 20-yard catch-and-run to the house. If the Rams were 75 yards from the end zone, Clark still would have scored on that play; partly due to solid blocks outside and partly because when he has the ball in his hands in space, big things happen.

Those receptions proved Clark’s hard-working off-season is already paying off, and it’s a sign of things to come, too.

“I give all the credit to the coaches,” Clark explained after the win on Saturday. “[Special Teams assistant] Coach [Ben] Larson’s been telling me all week that the bounce left would be open, and it was there, just like he said it would be. Coach Bobo set up a nice play on the [touchdown] and it worked to perfection.”

Last year, Clark was limited to rush-only option plays, a man who could be set in motion and accept a hand-off before sweeping around the offensive line and trying to make something happen outside. While he gained 250 yards on the ground with three scores, Bobo was regularly unimpressed with the JUCO transfer’s limited knowledge of the playbook, specifically in the passing game.

“As a lot of you may know, I came in and previously had been playing quarterback at my junior college,” Clark said. “And, so, [my coaches have] been with me every step of the way and help mold me into a receiver. So, yeah, I give all the credit to them.”

When looking back at Gallup’s massive 2016 season, it’s incredible to think it took him nearly half the year to get comfortable at the DI level and make an impact after also transferring from a junior college. When Gallup finally did get it going, he was the teams’ lone play-maker; Bobo saw that Clark had the ability to break off explosive plays, but the head coach was also frustrated in his less-than-speedy adaptation to the offense.

So, the now-senior Clark went to work, learning the offense and what it takes to be a big-time receiver. He may have been helped by being the roommate of Gallup, too, who worked hard himself to better perfect his route-running and build more chemistry with Stevens.

Gallup, who earned All-Mountain West last season with his 1,272 yards and 14 scores through the air, didn’t have a 100-yard game until Week 6. It simply took time for him to adjust, jumping up from JUCO to turning into that “go up and get it” type of receiver, a future NFL draft pick, in all likelihood.

Could 2017 be the breakout season for Clark, Gallup’s roommate and seemingly the superstar’s favorite player on the team?

It seems that way. All told, Clark enjoyed three kickoff returns for 86 yards on Saturday for a stellar 28.7 yards per return average. Without a doubt, field position and a lack of play-making ability in special teams has haunted CSU for years; winning teams find ways to make plays on special teams — and Clark may be the key to doing just that.

“It was great,” Clark said of opening the on-campus stadium with a 58-27 win. “My family came to the game for the first time in my whole college career. So that made it even better.”

Speaking of family, Clark and head coach Mike Bobo have a competitive relationship, at least when it comes to playing pool.

We saw Clark losing the first three-game set ever on the new pool table in the players’ lounge to Bobo when it was shared on Twitter by the team, though his roommate Gallup came to his defense, saying he’s seen Bobo — who invites his players over for dinner and fun on the pool table — lose in his own home before.

Two years later, Bobo continues to earn the respect of his players, and they’re responding to his challenges in a positive way.

At the beginning of the 2016 season, the Rams offense was putrid, able to score only a single touchdown against Colorado in the Rocky Mountain Showdown. While everyone knew the Buffs would be good, no one believed they’d be that dominant in the game; CSU was shell-shocked and looked lost.

But as the season went on, the offense caught on and improved greatly. Now, the Rams offense is straight-up deadly, scoring 58 points last week while averaging 43.1 points per game over the second half of last season.

Now, with the emergence of Clark as a pass-receiving threat, Bobo’s offense is even more improved on the eve of the Showdown, against a CU team who lost NFL-bound defenders Chidobe Awuzie, Ahkello Witherspoon and Kenneth Olugbode — and defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt.

Clark could not only be the X-factor in the Showdown — perhaps even as soon as it kicks off on Friday night at in Denver — he could be that missing ingredient to take the Rams’ offense from good to great.

Listen to the Rocky Mountain Showdown preview podcast with Mat Smith and Rich Kurtzman here. 

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