Justin Holland stood on the CSU football practice fields in a pair of athletic shorts and a sweatshirt, mesh-back hat pulled down tight against the October wind, watching. A long mid-week, mid-season practice was over, and most of the players had already headed into the locker room.
Junior third-string quarterback Grant Stucker, donning a black quarterback jersey and standing a few paces to Holland’s left, dropped back in an imaginary pocket, turned and fired a spiral some 25 yards toward the endzone.
His target, a hole in the mesh net tied securely to the extreme flanks of the goalpost, was no larger than two feet high by two feet wide. The spiral never got more than 10 feet off the ground as it rifled toward the goal, passing through the hole and into the dangling mesh bag with two other footballs. Three in a row.
“That’s 30 bucks you owe me,” Stucker said, half-jokingly.
Holland smiled, picking up a football and getting into position to make a throw to win some money back. The 2005 CSU graduate and former Rams quarterback, now a volunteer quarterbacks coach with the team, would need every bit of the arm that made him such a highly touted high school prospect in Colorado. With the wind gusting and without even an arm circle to loosen his muscles, Holland missed low. But the zip was there. Talent is hard to hide.
For the Rams football team, however, it’s not a matter of recognizing talent at the quarterback position. The Rams have seen talent come and go.
It’s everything that comes after — the hard work, nurturing, long hours in the film room studying and heavy dash of luck — that’s needed to turn a talented prospect into the kind of leader that Ram fans have come to expect from a school that was once the quarterback capital of the conference.
Finding the diamond recruit or building him from the current stable of quarterbacks in the program is a process that head coach Steve Fairchild believes will continue to evolve.
“Newton didn’t have any offers. Moses Moreno didn’t have any offers, other than to come here,” Fairchild said of the CSU greats of the ’90s. “It’s just a lengthy process to get it done. We just haven’t been here coaching the way that we coach for very long. I’m confident we’ll have good quarterback play here — it’s just going to take time.”
Success begets success
When then-offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild came to CSU in 1993, he was greeted by a junior quarterback named Anthoney Hill. Hill struggled with his accuracy at times but was mobile and intelligent. Hill also had a relatively successful season under his belt from the year before. In one year’s time, Fairchild helped mold Hill into one of the best quarterbacks in the school’s history.
In 1994, Hill threw for 2,552 yards (10th on the school’s all-time list) and had a quarterback rating of 137.0 while leading the team to a 10-2 record and a Holiday Bowl berth.
“It’s just something that you’ve got a great quarterback coach in Steve Fairchild, and he prepared us all to do the thing the right way. You felt like when you stepped on the field after working with him all week that there was nothing that was going to surprise you. The game was easy, compared to practice,” Hill said. “It’s all about preparation. He made you get every throw in every situation and you just felt comfortable.
“That’s kind of how we built the thing and how we are able to get good quarterbacks in here.”
Hill’s success brought more talent to the team and began the single best run of quarterbacks in the school’s history. 1997 Western Athletic Conference offensive player of the year Moses Moreno, 1999 Mountain West Conference offensive player of the year Kevin McDougal, 2000 MWC offensive player of the year Matt Newton and the 2002 and 2003 MWC offensive player of the year Bradlee Van Pelt made the late ’90s and the early part of the new century in Fort Collins a circus of offensive output.
The success made recruiting easier, as Fairchild gained a reputation as a top-notch quarterbacks coach.
“I just really had a trust in his coaching abilities to kind of groom a quarterback along,” said Holland, who still holds the Colorado high school all-time record for career passing yards. “But he wasn’t the only reason I came up here. I watched CSU football all through high school, with Matt Newton coming up here and winning a couple of conference titles and player of the year awards, I knew that I was going to have an opportunity to win.”
When Fairchild left the Rams in 2000, Holland said that he was disappointed to have missed a shot to work with him. Since Fairchild’s departure and after Van Pelt’s success as a running quarterback in 2003, the Rams have had moderate success at the position, with five years of quarterback ratings over 120, but just one bowl game in 2005 — a lackluster 6-6 year.
“That’s something that’s been sad to see around here, is that we haven’t competed for a conference title since 2002. We need to be that upper-echelon-type team that competes with TCU and BYU and Utah every year and not fighting to get into a bowl game,” Holland said. “That was the tradition that was laid down early in the Sonny Lubick years, and I think this coaching staff is the staff that’s going to bring us back. But it definitely starts with recruiting.”
Bringing in the best
Recruiting – the bedrock of every successful college football program in the country – is a tricky business. There are hundreds of different factors that contribute to a high school player’s decision to attend one school over another. Campus life, proximity to a recruit’s family, scholarships and a program’s reputation can all make or break a school’s chances of landing a top-tier recruit.
For quarterbacks coming to CSU, the list seems a bit longer. The rich history of the program at the position and coach Fairchild’s reputation give this staff confidence that when they go out to recruit a quarterback, they will be able to sign a top talent. Fairchild’s pro-style offense, with a heavy amount of decision-making done at the line by the quarterback, multiple sets and a pretty even balance between running and passing, can also be a selling point.
“I think that offensively what we do here, recruiting quarterbacks, is very important to the success of our team. What we do offensively, if you’re a young man that plays quarterback, you would love to be in this pro-style offense,” said offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator Greg Peterson.
So far this season, according to Rivals.com recruiting information, the Rams have been looking at a long list of 17 high school quarterbacks from around the country. Most of the recruits are from the Colorado area or recruiting pipeline states like California, Florida and Texas.
According to Rivals.com prospect databases, the Rams have made offers to two quarterbacks so far this year, Will Secord of Frisco, Texas, and Colton Morrison of Oceanside, Calif. Neither accepted CSU’s offers, as Secord gave a verbal commitment to Arkansas and Morrison gave a verbal to San Diego State. The Rams’ two highest-rated quarterback recruits, Jordan Wynn of Oceanside and Clark Evans of Los Alamitos, Calif., both gave verbal commits to the University of Colorado earlier this year.
Currently, the Rams’ top-rated recruit who has yet to commit is Nico Flores of North Miami Beach, Florida. The 6-foot-2 Flores runs a 4.7 second 40-yard dash and is listed as a three-star recruit (out of five) and the 32nd best quarterback prospect in the nation by Rivals. In addition to CSU, Boston College, Florida and Miami have all shown interest in him.
While coaches are not allowed to comment on recruits during the season (as per NCAA restrictions), coach Peterson said that the ideal quarterback for the Fairchild system needs to be able to do a number of different things.
“We want a guy that’s got a live arm. Height, I don’t know if it’s critical if a guy is six-foot and above, and a guy doesn’t have to be a runner in what we do,” Peterson said. “But you want to find as good of an athlete as you can to play the position. I think as we continue to grow in the program, the type of young men (being recruited) at all positions, in particular the quarterback position, will continue to get better . There’s a lot of great things ahead. We have high expectations and so do the young people that we’re recruiting.”
The quarterback position in college football has seemed to change in the last few years, evolving to focus more on the signal caller. Seven of the last eight Heisman Trophy winners have been quarterbacks. Before that (from 1972-2000), just seven of the 28 players selected for the Heisman were quarterbacks.
Quarterbacks coach Daren Wilkinson agreed that quarterbacks are becoming more important to a football team’s success, given the shift in offensive theory in the last 10 years. Around the country, teams are opening up their playbooks and running more spread style offenses, with four and five receivers on the field at one time.
“The way the things are, with spreading things out, you’ve got to have a guy back there who is capable and can make plays,” Wilkinson said. “. You could be the best coach in the world and know X’s and O’s better than anybody, but if you don’t have the guys to execute them it’s all for naught.”
Wilkinson also explained that much of the quarterback’s success is a direct result of the players around him. When CSU was winning consistently in the ’90s, running backs like Cecil Sapp were there to break up the pressure on the passing game and keep defenses honest.
Wilkinson said that CSU has that luxury this year, with Gartrell Johnson carrying a heavy load in the offense, and averaging 93.2 yards per game on the ground. He said that the quarterbacks are starting to respond to the positive situation in the way that some of the greats did 10 years ago.
“Now that Billy (Farris) is starting to figure things out, I think it shows,” Wilkinson said. “. Who cares who the opponent was — we couldn’t be stopped last week. And that was fun to watch.”
Changing a culture for the now
For all that the Fairchild system does to develop a player, everyone connected to the program seems to agree that the pro-style offense that he has implemented here is significantly more complicated than anything CSU has seen this decade. As such, the current crop of quarterbacks, who were brought in to run Sonny Lubick’s simpler and more straightforward offense, have had to overcome a steep learning curve on the way to mastering this system.
With a quarterback rating of 135.1, senior and former walk-on Billy Farris has performed relatively well in making the adjustment to the more complicated offense. Coach Fairchild explained that how the offense fares down the road, this year and into the future, is the true test.
“The development takes much more time at that position. We’ll have very good quarterback play here down the road, but it takes time to develop a guy,” Fairchild said.
The Rams have a handful of viable options at the position, with junior Grant Stucker, redshirt freshman Klay Kubiak, redshirt freshman TJ Borcky and true freshman Alex Kelly making up the crop of quarterbacks with a good opportunity to start in the coming years.
“Come spring ball, these guys are going to be in a competition and it’s going to be the best player, and it’s frankly going to come down to the guy who is tough enough to handle Fairchild’s coaching,” Holland said. “You’ve got to be mentally tough to make it through spring ball. If you know that he’s going to pull you out every time you make a mistake, you’ve got to be mentally tough enough to put that behind you and just go out and play your game.”
Coach Hill agreed, explaining that it’s all about having confidence and trust in the system.
“They struggle at times, but there’s guys with some tools over there now that can get things done. It’s about the confidence factor,” Hill said. “If they believe in what they’re being taught and they go out and execute it like we know the can, they can be as successful as any of the quarterbacks that have come through here. I firmly believe that.”
Sports Editor Nick Hubel can be reached at email@example.com.