Colorado State has shown a lot of heart over the last month.
The Rams have played three different quarterbacks in CSU’s three conference games — a situation that very easily could have been a disaster — especially after starting the season 0-4 in the non-conference slate.
Despite the constant shuffling of the starting lineup and losing more than a dozen veteran players since the season has started, after overcoming a 10 point halftime deficit and beating Hawaii 17-13 on Saturday the Rams currently sit at 2-1 in the Mountain West (2-5 overall). Had a few plays gone differently on Homecoming against Utah State, CSU very easily could be undefeated in league play.
“We have a really supportive team,” Jay Norvell said postgame. “Guys are really fighting for each other. I’m really proud of their growth the last three weeks, and you gotta give these kids credit, we’re 2-1 in conference, right? Last time I checked.”
Norvell continued, explaining that his team still has a lot to prove this year. Looking at CSU’s 2-5 record, it would be easy to label the 2022 season as a throwaway year but that’s not how the first-year Rams coach views the situation.
“It’s not a throwaway year at all, we have a lot that we’re trying to accomplish,” Norvell said, emphasizing that the Rams have a chance to really show what kind of character they have as a team over the final half of the season.
It has not exactly been pretty, the offense is still a work-in-progress for sure. But what’s encouraging is that we are seeing legitimate growth in the receiving corps. After really only being able to get the ball to Tory Horton in the first month, CSU is starting to work more of the young receivers into the mix.
With Clay Millen back from his shoulder injury we should see the passing offense continue to grow together, particularly if the Rams can continue to count on junior running back Avery Morrow to produce at a high level. With his 147 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday afternoon, Morrow is up to 500 rushing yards and three scores on the year. He’s averaged 5.0 yards per carry too, which has helped the Rams stay out of 3rd and long and prevented defenses from constantly teeing off on the QB like they did in the first month.
What has been really promising about CSU is while the offense may still be figuring it out, the defense has really come to life under coordinator Freddie Banks over the last month. The Rams currently have the second-best scoring defense in the league at 14.7 points allowed per game. And while it is fair to point out that they have not played the most elite offenses in the world, the foundation of what is making them successful is sustainable. The Rams have a strong pass rush, they tackle well, and they have playmakers in the secondary that are really showing out. I’m not saying they are going to continue to hold opponents under 20 every week but there is legitimate talent in that unit and they are really playing well under a coach that understands how to get the best out of them.
“He’s just a really talented coach,” Norvell said of Banks. “There’s an old saying, if you ask for the best, oftentimes you get it from your players. He’s very demanding, and very detail oriented.”
Ayden Hector, a redshirt sophomore and CSU’s starting nickel, had high praise for his defensive coordinator as well. When asked about Banks’ intensity, Hector expressed that all great coaches are, that they want to bring the best out of their players.
“He demands perfection and anything less than that, you know, he’ll get on it,” Hector said. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Because I’m trying to be the best player I can be. So I’m just grateful to be here. I’m grateful to play under coach Banks and coach Norvell.”
Hector is one of the aforementioned standouts in the secondary that have really stepped their game up. He had a pick-six early on against Nevada to set the tone in that win. Then he came away with the game-clinching interception against Hawaii on Saturday.
While there are a ton of guys on the defensive side that deserve praise for their efforts lately, including but not limited to the defensive line and the safeties, fifth-year linebacker Dequan Jackson is definitely an individual worth recognizing. He had a team-high 10 tackles in the win over the Warriors and has been a beast against the run all year long. Perhaps what he deserves the most love from Ram Nation for is his commitment to the program though and for helping lead this young squad through some challenging times.
Without guys like Jackson, Jack Howell, Henry Blackburn, etc, a rough opening month could have very easily spiraled into a complete disaster. While others have elected to jump ship, the veterans who have stuck around are really shining for the Green & Gold.
When asked why he has decided to stay, Jackson did not hesitate, telling us that it’s because he loves this team. He explained that he is not mad at the guys that decided to quit but that he intends to finish what he started.
“I made a commitment to the team, they voted me captain. I don’t take that lightly,” Jackson said. “Through all the years and all the changes, I still love this program.”
Jackson continued, saying that he thinks about it every day — about being a veteran that can help impact others and turn this program in the right direction. “If we turn this thing around and go win, that would mean a lot to me. That would mean a lot to the guys. And that would speak a lot to the leadership that me and a lot of the other guys bring to the table.”
The journey under Norvell has really only just begun. The hope amongst the CSU faithful is that within the next couple of years the Rams will be doing the type of things we last saw under Jim McElwain.
What we are witnessing right now is an up-and-coming team that is learning how to win and coming together as one. They may have less depth than you ideally would at this stage of the year due to so many in-season departures, but the guys that are here are playing with a sense of pride that has been missing for far too long.
“Seems like it’s getting a little smaller, but it’s getting more competitive. We’re coming together,” Jackson said of the locker room.
“That’s what it’s all about. Not everybody that started with us will finish with us. But as long as we keep growing together, all we need is in that locker room.”