The 2022 season is officially in the books and although Colorado State finished 3-9 for the second straight year, and missed the postseason for the fifth consecutive year, the feeling in Ram Nation is that the program is trending in the right direction.
With that in mind, let’s dive right on into it. Here are 10 thoughts on CSU football, the 2022 season, and the future of the program under Jay Norvell.
Rams are on an upward trajectory
The opening month was brutal for the Green & Gold. There’s no doubt about that.
Over the first four games the Rams were outscored 129 to 43, averaged losses of 30 points, and failed to cover the spread one time. From a statistical standpoint, it was about as ugly as it gets.
Also factoring in the transfer situation and a mass exodus from many of the veterans in the program, things definitely looked fairly bleak for CSU at the end of September.
Surprisingly though, in what appeared to be an addition by subtraction scenario, the Rams actually got more competitive with less numbers on the roster.
After allowing opponents to score 30+ points in each of the non-conference matchups, the Rams surrendered 30 points just one time in the league slate. They obviously did not fare very well in the 49-10 loss at Boise State but their other four defeats were by an average of 7.25 points. Really, outside of the Boise and Air Force games, CSU was in position to win six Mountain West games. Had a few plays gone differently, they very well could have snuck their way into a bowl.
Hopefully by next fall we’re no longer playing ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’. There are a lot of factors that go into that and we’ll address some of them in this piece. Having been enthralled with the sport of college football since I was a child though — back when BVP and Cecil the Diesel were running wild — the thing I’ve seen time and time again is the best programs are not established with quick fixes. You might be able to pull out a flukey season or two that way, but sustained success stems from having the right culture. And creating a winning culture does not happen overnight, nor does it happen with shortcuts.
There is talent inside that CSU locker room, quite a bit of it actually. With the ability to sign upwards of 40 guys this winter, the Rams are going to have way better depth next season too. Going through the highs and lows of a year like this, and ultimately coming out stronger on the other side, is how you begin to lay the foundation though. It takes time to learn how to win, particularly when your program has had losing tendencies for an extended period like CSU. It’s crazy how often winning teams seem to manifest their mission, while losing teams tend to manifest their misery with self-inflicted mistakes.
If they have not already, hopefully the Rams are close to exorcizing the demons that seem to have held them back for about a half decade. After seeing the way CSU fought over the final eight weeks though, I feel confident in saying the ascension has begun. For the first time in a long time the Rams are on an upward trajectory as a program.
Freshmen will benefit from early experience
CSU as a whole will benefit from what the team went through this fall. All of the freshmen that got thrown into the fire due to the roster situation are who will benefit the most though.
For more than half of the season, CSU had to rely on multiple first-year players in the starting lineup. While there were some frustrating moments as a result, you really can’t state enough just how valuable those live reps were for Justus Ross-Simmons, Louis Brown, Keegan Hamilton, etc.
Not only are these young bucks going to enter the offseason with a better understanding of what the team is trying to accomplish, but they are going to enter year two with a different level of confidence. They have already been out there and experienced the intensity of the moment. When Washington State rolls into town for Week 1 in 2023, those guys are going to be ready to go.
Clay Millen is the real deal
Arguably the most highly anticipated quarterback at CSU in the last decade, there was a lot of hype surrounding Clay Millen when the former four-star recruit elected to follow Norvell and Co. over from Nevada.
While there were some typical freshman mistakes from the gunslinger, ie. holding onto the ball too long or forcing an unnecessary throw into coverage, his arm talent is undeniable. Millen’s ability to stretch the field with the deep ball is something that very few quarterbacks can do consistently with precision. He has demonstrated that when he develops chemistry with receivers, like he has with Tory Horton, Millen’s timing is money as well.
Again, there is room for improvement. There always is going to be some for young QBs. But considering he broke the school record for single-season completion percentage (72.2%) and dang near set the NCAA mark as well, I think it’s safe to say that Millen is the real deal. He’s got an NFL arm and sneaky athleticism as a scrambler. He is exactly what Ram fans hoped for when they found out that he was coming. The mission next fall will be to really unleash him and find a way to put more points on the board each week.
Stabilizing O-line is priority No. 1
Clearly if CSU is going to be more consistent on the offensive side of things, shoring up the offensive line is a must.
The Rams ranked dead last in the FBS in sacks allowed per game this fall at 4.92. Along with Akron, they were one of two teams in the country to give up more than four per game.
Now, to an extent it’s fair to say that the injury situation pretty much screwed CSU from the start, and that the lack of continuity in the trenches is the biggest reason why their struggles were so persistent.
Ultimately though, the reality is that the Rams need to drastically improve the overall level of depth they have for the offensive line, or this team is never going to be the high-powered offensive machine we all envisioned. If you can’t protect the quarterback, can’t execute in short-yardage situations, it’s almost impossible to be successful.
If CSU can drastically reduce the number of sacks allowed in 2023 and run the ball with more consistency, particularly on third down and in the Red Zone, the talent at the skill positions is there. The Rams can be one of the most dangerous offenses in the Mountain West. It all has to start in the trenches.
Wide Receiver U 2.0
The Air Raid did not produce consistent results in year one, but as we saw in the 17-0 win over New Mexico on Senior Day and many other times this fall, Tory Horton and Justus Ross-Simmons are a dynamic duo in the making.
Long, athletic receivers with stellar hands and above-average speed, these two are mismatch nightmares for most cornerbacks in the Mountain West. Their respective touchdown catches against the Lobos were just small examples of that. Just imagine what these guys could be capable of with an improved offensive line though — it would truly be a nightmare scenario for opposing secondaries — especially as Millen gains more experience.
Catching balls from four different quarterbacks in 2022, Horton was able to record a 71-catch season, the 10th-most in program history. His 1,131 receiving yards was top 10 all-time as well (No. 8). His eight touchdown catches were the most since Warren Jackson in 2019.
Ross-Simmons, on the other hand, finished with 26 catches for 424 yards (23.0 avg) and three touchdowns. The vast majority of his production occurred over the final six weeks though, which is super encouraging going into his first spring on campus.
It may be a little early to proclaim that Wide Receiver U is back. I mean, CSU did not even score 20 points once this entire season. But after seeing their playmaking abilities pop throughout the 2022 campaign, the receivers could really be in for a big season in 2023.
Avery Morrow can be an all-conference back
Another player that could be in position for an all-conference-type season next fall is Avery Morrow. The junior running back rushed for 100 or more yards in five of CSU’s final eight games and really provided a spark for the offense when it was desperately needed.
Starting with the win over Nevada, Morrow provided another reliable option for the offense, which essentially had relied on long balls to Horton in the non-conference slate. And for an offensive line that really struggled in pass protection early on, the ability to lean on the run game was absolutely crucial, particularly when Millen was out with injury. It allowed the Rams to be more balanced. And it gave the offense a better chance to keep the chains moving, which in turn helped out CSU’s defense.
With the ability to drop the shoulder and run through a defender or hit the gas and get to the edge, Morrow proved that he can be a three-down back for CSU. He showed real durability with five games with 22 or more carries too.
Run it back? (Need to convince veterans to stay)
Mo Kamara (Edge) and Chigozie Anusiem (cornerback) each have another year of eligibility remaining if they would like to run it back with the Green & Gold in 2023. And Jay Norvell said it himself, his biggest recruiting priority this offseason is to convince them to stay.
“It’s going to be important that they come back,” Norvell said. “My biggest recruiting job is going to be those guys, you know, getting Mo Kamara and Chiggy to come back next year.”
Kamara is an absolute game changer on the edge. The 6-foot-1, 250-pound defensive end had been productive for a couple of years now but he was a monster out there this fall. Kamara set career-highs in total tackles (44), tackles for loss (16), hits on the quarterback (11) and sacks (8.5).
Unfortunately C.J. Onyechi, who paired extremely well with Kamara, is out of eligibility. So we won’t get to see those two causing mayhem in the backfield together anymore. The bright side though is that there are a ton of up-and-coming defensive linemen on the roster. It would just be huge to be able to allow them to learn from Kamara for one more year before he takes his talents to the next level.
Anusiem came to CSU after four years at Cal and immediately established his presence as the number one corner. He did not record any interceptions, however, he had nine pass breakups and 36 total tackles. Along with the safeties, Anusiem played a major role in what proved to be one of the best CSU secondaries in years.
Getting all of those guys back together would be big for the sake of continuity. And much like we said with Kamara, Anusiem can serve as a mentor for his position room. There will likely be a lot of new faces in that group in 2023.
Hopefully Norvell can convince these guys to make one more run at a Mountain West Championship. If so, the defense should be lights out next year.
Safety trio shined
We don’t know yet if Chiggy will be back next season. We do know that the back end is in good hands with Jack Howell, Henry Blackburn and Ayden Hector all set to return.
All three are extremely athletic, bring a level of physicality that wears down opponents, and most importantly they create turnovers. Those guys alone accounted for 202 total tackles, seven interceptions and four forced fumbles in 2022.
Beyond their production which is clearly important, the attitude they play with is contagious. They set the tone for the defense and always left it all out there on the field.
Freddie Banks is elite
I’d be remiss to not mention Freddie Banks. The first-year CSU defensive coordinator guided the unit to one of their best seasons in years.
CSU allowed 26.9 points per game this season which was the best figure since 2014. And in conference play the Rams were even more impressive (19.9 points per game).
The Rams made strides in pass coverage and tackled better as a whole. The biggest credit I can give Banks though, aside from his ability to make in-game adjustments, is that we saw legitimate improvement from every player that contributed on the defensive side. Even the proven veterans like Dequan Jackson arguably produced their best season under him.
I have no doubt that Banks is a rising star in the industry and someday will be coaching for a bigger school. Having said that, I really hope that we get to see him lead this defense for a couple of seasons at least. It feels like we’ve only scratched the surface of what is possible under him.
Don’t stop believing
No, I’m not talking about Journey, though that song is an all-time banger. I’m talking about keeping perspective in check and recognizing the significant growth we saw from the squad this season despite some really untraditional circumstances.
This season was not what anyone was hoping for. Going 3-9 is never an acceptable result. The fact that the Rams were able to play competitive football with around 60 scholarship players for the final two months is a testament to Norvell and his staff though. It’s a testament to the guys that chose to stick around and compete until the bitter end as well.
Norvell said from day one that the goal was to finish the year better than they started. There were some bumps in the road but that’s ultimately what they accomplished.
Now that doesn’t mean it’s time to throw a pizza party. We need to see the positives start translating to more wins down the road, and they will. But if Ram Nation might have started feeling skeptical about the future after the way the first month played out, the final two should have been reassuring that CSU finally has the right man for the job.
That locker room is filled with guys that have bought in. You could see it with the way the players competed over those final two months. Those dudes were playing extremely hard until the final whistle, even if often it was in a losing effort.
There are never any guarantees in college football, so trying to predict it is pretty much a guessing game. But after being around Norvell and Co. for a year now, it really does feel like the tide is turning in Fort Collins. I can’t wait to see what happens next year.