One week from tomorrow, Colorado State Rams football will kickoff their season against their intrastate rival, the Colorado Buffaloes, in the annual Rocky Mountain Showdown.
For each team, winning the Showdown is a big deal, because it means bragging rights, but this season, even more important is being victorious in that first contest of the year. Getting the ball rolling the right way — with a win — is incredibly important for college football players, young men whose confidence can be catapulted or crushed depending the outcome against a rival.
And while CSU’s team is more offensively focused — with head coach Mike Bobo being a former quarterback, QB coach and offensive coordinator at Georgia — the defense is what should be on the minds of some Rams fans.
First and foremost, the Rams lost their defensive coordinator from last year in Tyson Summers. Summers was given the head coaching job at Georgia Southern in the offseason, but his loss was lessened by the fact that CSU had their former defensive coordinator Marty English on the sidelines.
English has reassumed his role of defensive coordinator, one he held as a co-coordinator from 2012-14. English is well-studied, like a professor of football, with 30 years of coaching experience under his belt.
And Professor English has been teaching his youthful unit all offseason long, as he switched the scheme from a 4-3 back to his 3-4 alignment.
The adjustment from the 4-3 to the 3-4 hasn’t been an issue for most defenders who were here in 2014, which is the last time CSU played in a 3-4. But, for those without experience in the system – freshmen, sophomores and even some JUCOs, which English has many of on his defense – the transition has been a slow one.
“I’m excited because they are hungry and they are eager,” English said during the team’s Media Day press conference two weeks ago. “With that being said, they want to take it all in, and they want so badly for each other (to get it). I almost look way back to when we were here with (Jim) McElwain, and we first came in. All those kids on that defense were all freshmen and sophomores and sprinkled a few seniors in there.
“And you could just see from year, to year, to year how much better they got … It’s almost like starting there again and knowing that in a year from now we’re probably going to be quite a bit better than this year, and in two years, we’re going to be really good. But we don’t want to wait that long. So, the best part is how hungry these guys are. That kind of adds to your excitement, getting to coach them.”
English doesn’t mince words here, as he’s realistic about the youth and inexperience of his defense. Losing safeties Trent Matthews and Kevin Pierre-Louis, as well as cornerback DeAndre Elliott, who were all seniors, meant losing 121 career starts. Still, one positive of playing many freshman and sophomores is their apparent development over a short period of time.
One such player has been sophomore Braylin Scott, who’s been practicing as the free safety in English’s defense. Scott has speed and some cover skills, and he’s teaming up with redshirt junior Jake Schlager, who plays strong or “down” safety. On the outside, likely starters are seniors Tyree Simmons and the recent converted wide receiver to cornerback Jordon Vaden.
Another relative unknown has been Deshon Mayes, a redshirt junior inside linebacker, who impressed in spring but has really come on during the team’s fall camp.
“I’ve noticed Kevin Davis has picked it up more and I’ve noticed Deshon Mayes as a guy in the group who’s picked it up,” English said of which linebackers have stepped up in the leadership department due to Deonte Clyburn’s injury.
Clyburn, the quarterback of the defense, was set up to be the star on that side of the ball for Colorado State. But a found blood clot meant Clyburn has been sidelined for at least the first two months of the season, when they’ll check on him again.
Davis, one of the few likely senior starters on the Rams defense, is expected to enjoy a big year, able to rush the quarterback from the outside in the 3-4. Mayes, though, sat last season following two years at Glendale Community College; he’s apparently hungry to prove his worth.
“Inside, it’s going to have to be Josh Watson and Deshon Mayes,” English explained of who will have to fill the void of Clyburn’s absence as inside linebackers. “Those are the two guys … they’re going to be the one’s who are going to have to step up inside.”
Watson was quite impressive during spring practices and even last season where he played in every game, recording 37 tackles with 6 TFLs and one sack. His speed is apparent, though; he’s still working to fully understand the new defense. As are many of his teammates.
Of course, what makes things more difficult than players leaving as well as switching to a new scheme is injuries. The most impactful injury so far has been Clyburn’s. But right behind him is the stress fracture to freshman defensive tackle Christian Colon’s foot.
Colon was signed in the offseason due to his massive 6-foot-3, 335-pound size which is needed in the 3-4 alignment. But Colon hasn’t been able to practice fully as a “limited participant” and it’s unknown when he’ll be able to return to full duty or when he’ll be able to go in a game.
That leaves likely Josh Lovingood to fill his void, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound junior, as well as possibly redshirt freshman Justin Nunez. English will have to rotate in multiple players on the defensive line, unfortunately he only has 12 to choose from, including Colon.
Depth on defense will likely be an issue for CSU this season, though developing capable backups has been a focus this fall.
And just as Professor English explained, the group will improve from season to season, but don’t be surprised if they’re better down the stretch of 2016 than when they kickoff the year, in seven days.