The greatest reason for optimism surrounding the 2011 CSU football team isnâ€™t second-year quarterback Pete Thomas. It isnâ€™t the strong core of running backs or linebackers that the Rams possess.
No, the single greatest reason for hope comes from the most inglorious unit on the team: The offensive line.
The line returns as virtually the same unit as a year ago. And ever since the beginning of last season, head coach Steve Fairchild has said that he thinks this unit can be as good or better than the line of 2008 and 2009 that sent three players (Cole Pemberton, Adrian Martinez, Shelley Smith) to the NFL.
And with the experience the unit gained last year, Fairchild thinks this coming season is when they take the step from potentially great, to a unit that puts a stamp on the program.
â€œThis group has progressed to where they can have the same type of year as that group in 08,â€ Fairchild said. â€œThatâ€™s where the bar is.â€
Last year the offense struggled with a combination of inexperience on the line, and inexperience at quarterback and running back.
This yearâ€™s unit is confident that the chemistry gained in 2010 will lead to a steady improvement on the just over three yards per rush average that the Rams tallied last year.
â€œIâ€™m definitely very comfortable with the guys Iâ€™m going up with. I think weâ€™re going to be a pretty good o-line this year,â€ said center Weston Richburg, who started at center as a freshman a year ago. â€œWeâ€™re expecting to run the line of scrimmage and get our running game going this year.â€
During Tuesday morningâ€™s practice, the starting unit saw junior Joe Caprioglio and senior Paul Madsen as the guards. Sophomore Jordan Gragert and senior Connor Smith at tackle, while Richburg remains entrenched at center.
Senior Jake Gdowski started last year and may still be in line to start at guard depending on his performance this summer.
Madsen, an all-conference performer a year ago, was part of the line that sent players to the NFL, and he likes how this yearâ€™s group stacks up.
â€œI feel that we are comparable at this point to that line,â€ Madsen said. â€œThe real testing ground to an offensive unit is in an actual game scenario. Weâ€™ll see this Saturday (in the spring game) and against New Mexico (in the Ramsâ€™ first game) this fall.â€
The line expects to come out and prove their worth, and more importantly, help turn the program around.
â€œWeâ€™re not going to go 3-9,â€ Richburg said. â€œWe canâ€™t do that anymore. We have high expectations for (making) a bowl game.â€
Football Beat Reporter Kevin Lytle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.