After a resurgent season last year under first-year head coach Steve Fairchild, the CSU football team is re-establishing its strength in the Mountain West Conference.
In his first season at CSU, Fairchild led the Rams to a 7-6 record and a New Mexico Bowl win over Fresno State – the best record the Rams have had in half a decade.
The 2009 Rams are aiming for the same success, but Fairchild said he does not feel any extra pressure to repeat last year’s season.
“I know where we’re at. I know where we’re headed. I think I know the culture of this place. I’m not worried,” Fairchild said.
Junior Leonard Mason and junior John Mosure, who are the top contenders for the job, have big shoes to fill.
Former running back Gartrell Johnson, who was drafted in the fourth round of this year’s NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers, led the MWC in rushing at 113.5 yards per game, capping his season off with a career-high 285 yards in the New Mexico Bowl along with 90 yards receiving to earn him an NCAA Bowl record of 375 total yards from scrimmage.
Depending on how training camp pans out, the Rams may also employ a running back by committee approach.
“These are just questions we’re going to have to sort through and answer as we practice in August and get ready for our opener,” Fairchild said.
At quarterback, four players are vying for the job of replacing Billy Farris, who passed for 2,934 yards and 19 touchdowns last season.
The four-man competition does not have a clear-cut favorite at the moment.
“As a group, the thing that frustrates me the most is the lack of consistency. . They don’t have to set the world on fire with their play. But when one of them can go out there and consistently practice without making mistakes, then they’ll be the starting quarterback,” Fairchild said.
Senior Grant Stucker is the most familiar with the CSU offense. Stucker is a mobile quarterback who scored on an 18-yard touchdown run during the New Mexico Bowl.
Junior college transfer Jon Eastman joined the team in the spring and immediately began competing for the Rams’ starting quarterback position. Eastman led Snow College to the No. 2 JUCO ranking in the nation last season. He is more of a traditional pocket passer, like Farris.
Sophomore Klay Kubiak, whose father, Gary Kubiak, is the head coach for the Houston Texans, has the most D-1 playing experience, taking snaps at quarterback in three games last season. He played the entire fourth quarter of CSU’s loss at Cal, completing six of his first seven passes.
“Klay Kubiak, I just have a good feel for. He’s one of those guys, with his dad, a good football background, he knows how to play the position,” Fairchild said.
Maybe the most intriguing prospect is freshman Nico Ranieri from Orlando, Fla. The Central Florida Player of the Year brings the most athleticism to the quarterback battle.
“He’s a play-maker. He ran around, showed athleticism, showed some throws on the move,” Fairchild said.
Whoever the quarterback, they can expect to keep their jersey clean as the Rams return all five starters, including senior guard Shelley Smith who was recently named to the MWC preseason all-conference team, along the offensive line.
The offense also returns wide receivers Dion Morton and Rashaun Greer. Greer was the only other Ram selected as a member of the MWC preseason all-conference team as he led CSU in receiving yards with 1,114.
Senior strong safety Klint Kubiak is the leader of the defense. Sophomore free safety Elijah-Blu Smith and senior cornerback Nick Oppenneer join Kubiak in the defensive backfield, which may be the strength for the defense.
Sophomore linebacker Mychal Sisson is a rising star to watch, as he was named a freshman All-American by the Sporting News a year ago.
The defense will see many sophomore starters — indicative of Fairchild’s first two recruiting classes.
“I like what we did the last two years, but if you’re a Colorado State fan, you’re frustrated that it’s not going to happen right away. You win in football with fourth- and fifth-year guys . we’re not there yet,” Fairchild said.
And the team is not yet in the realm of the three powerhouses of the MWC, Utah, BYU and TCU.
“It’s going to take a concerted effort. It’s not just me. Nobody hired me and said we’re going to go catch Utah. It’s going to take help from our administration, our administration across campus, the Chancellor, the Board of Governors. So far, when you look at what’s happened here in the last 18 months, they’ve stepped to the plate,” Fairchild said.
Football beat reporter Stephen Meyers can be reached at email@example.com