Rams have a new sense of depth, swagger within the secondary
Under head coach Mike Bobo, Colorado State football has consistently had one of the most productive offenses in college football since arriving in Fort Collins in 2015. In fact, during the College Football Playoff era, only four programs have averaged more yards per play than the Rams, who have have averaged 6.6 yards per play since the CFB Playoff system was implemented in the 2014-15 season.
So, how did a team that averaged 34 points per game in 2017 finish 7-6 for a third straight year? Much of it had to do with the defense's inability to close out games, especially in the second half of the season.
Heading into Week 9, CSU was sitting pretty with an overall record of 6-2 and a conference record of 4-0, even after playing three of the first four Mountain West matchups on the road and facing a pair of Power 5 opponents in the non conference slate. In those eight games, CSU outscored its opponents by a margin of 285-182.
The Rams went just 1-4 down the stretch though; and in those games, opponents outscored CSU, 165-163. In one of the most crucial stretches of the schedule, conference foes, Air Force (477), Boise State (641) and Wyoming (294) recorded 1,412 total yards and 120 points against the Rams in a three-week span.
It only got worse from there, as the Rams surrendered 501 total yards and gave up touchdowns of 68, 76 and 90 yards in a 31-28 loss to Marshall in the New Mexico Bowl. When the final whistle blew in 2017, CSU ranked 72nd nationally in scoring defense and 97th in total defense.
Looking back at the 2017 season, when the games mattered the most, the defense simply did not match the production of the offense, which averaged 32.6 points per game over the final five weeks, but ultimately resulted in just one win for the team.
If fall camp is an indicator of what is to come, 2018 is going to be much different for the CSU defense though. Under first-year defensive coordinator, John Jancek, the Rams have a new sense of swagger on defense, particularly in the secondary.
The defensive backs struggled slightly in the team's first scrimmage on Aug. 4, but overall this unit has really performed well. In Saturday's most recent scrimmage, the No. 1 defense did not give up a single point to the starting offense and a variety of young and veteran defensive backs made plays in the end zone to prevent the offense from scoring, including true freshman Rashad Ajayi and senior safety Jordan Fogal.
"It is definitely a revamped secondary. There are a lot of new additions, a lot more energy (and) new coaches obviously," senior cornerback V.J. Banks said.
Banks was still at Rice University last fall, but the veteran defensive back has been very open with his assessment of the defenses' shortcomings in 2017. Banks knows that if the team is ever going to get over the final hurdle and consistently become a conference title contender, the Rams need the defense to produce at that same elite level as the offense.
It has been well over a decade since CSU truly had a stout defense and really you would have to back to the late 1990's to find a squad that fits that description. In those days, players like Joey Porter and Clark Haggans were forces in the front-seven and wrecked havoc on opposing offensive lines.
In recent memory though, CSU's defenses have been more synonymous with giving up the big play than anything else. And that is what absolutely has to change in 2018, if the Rams are going to compete for a MW Championship or more.
Banks has spoken at great length about how the defensive players have a different mindset in 2018. And it is this attitude adjustment combined with the overall level of defensive talent on the roster has the Rams feeling rejuvenated heading into the season opener against Hawaii.
"We brought guys into play, period. That includes myself, the (Junior College) guys and the freshman," Banks said. "So, everyone is going to get on the field. It is just who establishes themselves as the '1', '2', '3'... As far as practices, go we still have about 10 days to the first game, so there is competition still. Everybody came to play."
With so many capable players in the secondary, the Rams have a lot of flexibility with what kind of schemes they will be able to run this season. In years past, CSU had not had enough depth at the cornerback or safety positions to consistently attack opposing offenses with the nickel or dime formations. In 2018, Ram fans will be able to expect a heavy dose of these formations.
"That is something that is kind of new around here," Banks said. "In the past we have not really had a top defense in the nation, so that is a major goal for us-to be a top defense in the nation. And with the players and the depth that we have, that is definitely achievable."