First impressions are everything. Just ask Ben Stratton.
In his first game at CSU as a true freshman in the fall of 2002, Stratton intercepted a fourth quarter pass from Brigham Young quarterback Matt Berry to put the finishing touches on a 37-10 CSU victory.
Stratton’s impression was strong enough to earn him a spot in the starting lineup the following week against Air Force – a game he finished with 11 tackles, helping his team win its fourth consecutive game.
Stratton developed into the cornerstone for the Rams secondary the next two seasons, receiving honorable mention all-conference both years.
Then with one play in practice last August everything changed. Stratton tore the ACL in his left knee, which forced him to miss the entire 2005 season. He is now returning for his final season in Fort Collins after redshirting what was supposed to be his senior season.
The playing field has changed, however, and the competition for Stratton’s usual safety position appears to be friendly with more talent and experience than available playing time.
The senior from Cheyenne, Wyo., currently finds himself as a backup on the depth chart despite being named to the preseason all-MWC third team by Athlon Sports.
“Right now I’m the No. 2 guy,” Stratton said, “(It is) a place I haven’t been in.”
Defensive coordinator Steve Stanard said Stratton is one of five players who will play at the two safety spots for the Rams.
For the moment, sophomores Klint Kubiak and Mike Pagnotta are penciled in as the starters with New Mexico State transfer Jake Galusha, also a sophomore, likely to play in the nickel defense.
Former running back Nnamdi Ohaeri, a senior, is coming off a knee surgery of his own and competing for playing time at the safety position also.
“I think right now, whichever one wants to compete and get it done will be the two that start against Weber State,” Stanard said.
Coach Lubick said the group of players will be platooned throughout games and will play according to the situation.
“We’ll look for different sets and use (the safeties) in different combinations,” Lubick said.
Despite the abundance of safeties, Stratton’s coaches and teammates say they are pleased to see his return to the field.
“It’s nice having someone with that much experience back there to help me out,” Pagnotta said.
Lubick is also glad to have the experienced safety in the defensive backfield.
“He didn’t have to come back,” Lubick said. “He had to go through a lot of rehab to return.”
Although he sat out of Saturday’s scrimmage, Stratton’s injured knee is fully recovered from last September’s surgery, according to both Stratton and Head Coach Sonny Lubick.
“He’s coming along pretty good,” said Lubick about Stratton’s progress thus far. “The knee is at 100 percent.”
Stratton agreed with his coach on the status of his knee.
“I’m really pleased with how it’s felt,” he said. “It feels like I haven’t missed a beat.”
Staff writer Sean Star can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The five players who will play safety for the football team this year.
Sophomore Jake Galusha (15)- A transfer from New Mexico State, Galusha played in 9 games for NMSU as a freshman in 2004 and is expected to play nickel back for the Rams.
Sophomore Klint Kubiak (20)- Kubiak has the lineage (father is Houston Texans Head Coach and former Broncos quarterback Gary Kubiak) and the brains (won the CSU team award for academic excellence) to be a starter.
Senior Nnamdi Ohaeri (22)- A season ago Ohaeri was penciled in as the starting running back against CU, now fighting for playing time at his original position.
Sophomore Mike Pagnotta (13)- Pagnotta had career high seven tackles in last year’s regular season finale at UNLV and is currently running with the starters in practice alongside Kubiak.
Senior Ben Stratton (3)- Stratton had more tackles (88) in his last season than the other four safeties have for their combined careers (55).