Not too many years ago, Sonny Lubick had Colorado State among the best non-Big Six programs in the nation. Lubick forged a 108-74 record from 1993-2007, leading the Rams to nine bowls and national prominence.
But the program slipped in Lubick's last four seasons, going to one bowl and producing no winning records.
Steve Fairchild, a former Lubick assistant who was hired out of the NFL, has struggled to re-establish this program. As Fairchild enters his fourth season in Fort Collins, progress -- and perhaps a bowl -- is expected. He debuted with a 7-6 record in 2008, capping the season with a win in the New Mexico Bowl.
But each of the past two seasons has produced a 3-9 record.
In 2009, Colorado State went 0-8 in conference play, making the Rams just the third team in Mountain West history with a winless league record. Last season produced just two conference victories and featured several drubbings, including a humiliating 44-0 season-ending defeat to a rival Wyoming team that entered the contest without a league victory.
Fairchild hopes a shakeup of his staff will help. Larry Lewis was moved from safeties to running backs coach. Bernard Clark was hired to coach linebackers, allowing Larry Kerr to focus exclusively on being defensive coordinator. Tim Duffie was promoted from cornerbacks to secondary coach. Anthoney Hill moved from running backs to tight ends coach, and Todd Stroud switched from tight ends to defensive line.
Here's a look at the Rams as they open spring drills.
COLORADO STATE AT-A-GLANCE
Pete Thomas was the only freshman QB in the country to start all of his team's games.
Coach: Steve Fairchild
Last season: 3-9 overall, 2-6 in the Mountain West.
Spring dates: March 24-April 23.
RETURNING STARTERS (minimum seven starts last season)
Pete Thomas was the only freshman quarterback in the country to start all of his team's games last season. He rewrote the Rams' freshman record book, throwing for 2,662 yards, 11 touchdowns (but also 13 interceptions) and a 64 percent completion rate. If Thomas (6-5/219) continues to develop and stays healthy, he'll be one of the best in the Mountain West. The offensive line has the potential to be a good one with four starters returning. The anchor is C Weston Richburg, whom Fairchild says has an NFL future. The staff also is high on G Jake Gdowski, who will be a three-year starter. Coaches want the Rams have a downhill, smash-mouth identity, but Colorado State ranked just 103rd in the nation in rushing last season. Pass blocking also was an issue, as the Rams finished 118th in sacks allowed. Fairchild likes the potential of LBs Mychal Sisson (95 tackles, 15 for loss), Michael Kawulok (52 stops) and Mike Orakpo.
Help is needed
The defense needs lots of help. The unit yielded at least 31 points seven times. The Rams ranked No. 7 in the Mountain West in total defense (423.8 ypg) and scoring defense (34.7 ppg). Stopping the pass was especially troublesome, as Colorado State finished last in the MWC in pass defense (225.9 ypg), with a paltry four interceptions and 24 touchdown passes allowed. And foes hit 69.6 percent of their passes. Generating turnovers was another big issue, as Colorado State ranked last in the league with just 14 takeaways. Coaches used a 3-4 scheme at times in 2010, and expect to see it more often this season. A secondary with talent and experience needs to play better than it has the past two seasons. Three cornerbacks with starting experience return in Momo Thomas, Shaq Bell (39 tackles as a true freshman) and Elijah-Blu Smith (42 tackles), who moves from safety. Keep an eye on a rebuilt defensive line. Both tackles are gone, including first-team all-league NT Guy Miller.
3 guys to watch
DE/LB Crockett Gilmore: The defensive ends and outside linebackers for Colorado State a year ago were a hodge-podge of converted safeties, linebackers and freshmen. This season, that group is heavier and more mature. The rangy Gilmore (6-6/241), a sophomore, is an excellent example of that.
WR Lou Greenwood: The wide receiving corps could be sneaky-good this season, and one reason is Greenwood. He's as athletic as any player on the roster but has played receiver for only one season after moving from running back. He caught 34 passes for a team-high 474 yards and two scores last season, and he needs to be more productive this season.
LB Mike Orakpo: The younger brother of former Texas star and current Washington Redskins LB Brian Orakpo, Mike Orakpo played in every game last season as a true freshman. He showed a knack for covering a lot of ground and making some big hits and should earn a starting spot this spring.
The pressure is on
RB Raymond Carter: Carter, a UCLA transfer, was one of the top running backs in the nation coming out of high school three years ago, and he started 2010 on top of the depth chart. But injuries and a logjam at running back limited his production to 65 carries for 235 yards and a touchdown. Carter, now a senior, also caught 15 passes for 163 yards and three scores. Carries could be more plentiful with the move of Tony Drake to wide receivers and the graduations of Leonard Mason and John Mosure. But there still will be competition from Chris Nwoke (357 yards rushing) and Colorado State signed five tailbacks in its recent recruiting class. Carter has to show signs this spring of living up to the high school hype.
There's no tiptoeing around the obvious: Fairchild sits on a hot seat. That makes this a critical spring for his long-term survival. The overhauled coaching staff needs to develop chemistry -- quickly. On the field, the Rams need to begin to solve issues across the board on a horrid defense. Will the promising linebackers continue to develop? Can a secondary that is dotted with potential take the next step? On offense, an improved ground game would make Thomas even that much more effective under center. Will the line step up? Watch Carter and Nwoke battle at running back. The other key position battle on offense will be for the wide receiver slot opposite Greenwood. Will it be Marquise Law, T.J. Borcky, Bobby Borcky, Matt Yemm or Thomas Coffman, the team's fastest player? It will be an interesting spring in Fort Collins.