Injuries, inconsistent play and a tendency to give up big plays all contributed to a 2003 season that did not live up to expectations for the CSU football team.
However, one key reason for the disappointment that has been overlooked is coaching continuity. Many Ram fans assume that if head coach Sonny Lubick is in charge, coaching will be a strength for the Rams. Lubick’s success, however, has made many of his assistants viable candidates for higher-profile jobs elsewhere.
The Rams brought in three new coaches last season: defensive coordinator Steve Stanard, defensive backs coach James Ward, and tight ends and special teams coach Darrell Funk.
Former defensive coordinator Larry Kerr left for UCLA after 10 seasons and former defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders left to Nebraska after two seasons. Their absences affected the Rams right away, as University of Colorado quarterback Joel Klatt torched the Rams for 402 yards and four touchdowns in the season opener.
The Rams looked confused and missed many assignments against the Buffaloes. They also gave up big yards in the passing game in losses to Miami (Ohio) and Wyoming, but they never completely blew as many assignments as they did in the CU game.
Special teams always has been one of the strongest areas for the Rams under Lubick. CSU was not terrible under Funk last year, but the team did not have any punt or kick returns for touchdowns, despite a talented return man in Dexter Wynn.
The only coach to depart after last season was offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator John Benton, who took the vacant offensive line coaching position with the St. Louis Rams. Funk has moved to offensive line coach, Dan Hammerschmidt is now the sole offensive coordinator and Lubick hired Dave Arnold from Albion College in Michigan to take over the special teams and tight ends. Arnold also used to coach special teams for the Seattle Seahawks and was an assistant with Lubick at the University of Miami.
The offensive line may suffer a little with the Benton’s departure, but Funk has a year on the job working in the system and should also be able to give a hand to Arnold in his new duties. The Rams also bring back plenty of experience on the offensive line and at tight end, something they did not have in the secondary last season, with the exception of Wynn.
I also believe having one offensive coordinator will work much better for CSU’s offense. Hammerschmidt and Benton shared the play-calling duties for the past three seasons after Steve Fairchild left to join the Buffalo Bills.
Since Fairchild’s departure, CSU’s play calling has been suspect at times (e.g. the long, drawn-out counter to Duane Ruff on 4th-and-a foot against Fresno State in 2001 and the option call on the two-point conversion to tie the game against UCLA in 2002). Hopefully with one man having the play-calling duties, the offense under quarterback Justin Holland will have a better idea of what it wants to accomplish. The Rams will also be able to get back to their old style of play-action passes and off-tackle runs with Holland at the helm, instead of the scrambling Bradlee Van Pelt.
The defense returns only four starters from last season, but junior college transfers and young talent could come together and make a solid unit.
CSU’s defense should be better prepared for a brutal non-conference schedule this year (including games against Top 25 teams Southern California and Minnesota), with a year under the belts of Stanard and Ward, always under the watchful eye of the defensive-minded Lubick.